The Lost Art of Halloween Jazz

October is upon us – paper skeletons haunt doorways, dying leaves whisper across the air, and horror fans everywhere get into the spirit of the best month of the year. I have spent much of my conscious life collecting things that achieve the spirit of Halloween, hiding them away until the 1st creeps up once more. And one of the most obscure aspects of this task is that of gathering seasonal music.

We all know about Christmas songs, and there are even some suitable themes for Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July. But what about Halloween music? Sure, there’s horror movie scores and the Monster Mash, but those only go so far. For years, this was my dilemma – finding October music that hasn’t been played to death. And then I hit on the gold mine, buried under years of obscurity: the volumes of jazz songs dedicated to Hallow’s Eve.

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Apparently this was a thing in the early decades of the 20th century. Countless artists, from lesser-known brass bands to music legends like Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney and Cab Calloway, have performed eerie songs in honor of this spectacular month. Upon discovering these for the first time, my whole world was changed. But why isn’t this better-known? Maybe jazz has fallen out of favor, or the songs themselves aren’t quite up to snuff to be considered classics. I argue, however, that they are a dream come true for anyone who loves Halloween as much as I do.

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These songs do a wonderful job of capturing what I believe is the spirit of Halloween – dark, smoky, groovy and Bacchanal. I’m an admitted fan of jazzy moods and Speakeasy atmosphere, so they appeal to a few things in my nature, but it’s that allegiance to the holiday that really gets me.

Some of my personal favorites: “The Ghost of Smokey Joe” by Cab Calloway, “Nightmare” by Artie Shaw (featured in “American Horror Story”), “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There” by Glenn Miller, and “The Headless Horseman” by Kay Starr. Like I said, not particularly ingenious songs in their own right – but they do something for me, and capture what I like best about this month.

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And how can you find these yourself? Spotify, say what you will about that service, has a great collection of albums that feature the best offerings of this lost genre (just search 30s and 40s Halloween). As an accompaniment to more worn-out holiday music, they are worth looking into – and perhaps you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

As the forces gather in the eaves and the shadows creep forth at the edge of the bonfires, I will continue to curate Halloween-themed secrets. We must pay tribute to our favorite holiday and relish in the darkness that, during this month, is at its strongest.

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