Winter. It’s that time of year again, and for those of us in regions where it gets cold, our thoughts turn to snow, mittens, and hot toddies. Some of my favorite things as winter rolls around? The comfort of sitting in front of a fireplace toasting marshmallows, the smells of cinnamon and nutmeg coming from whatever I’m baking in the kitchen, the glitter of icicles hanging from trees, and the sounds of the music so deeply linked to the season.
I seriously doubt that there is anyone unfamiliar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune “My Favorite Things,” from the 1959 musical The Sound of Music. I love that song, so for this Black Music Sunday, I’m going to keep it simple: We’ll be exploring my favorites among the many—many!— covers out there.
While trying to decide whether to decorate for the upcoming Christmas holiday (it’s a yes), and talking with friends who are preparing to celebrate winter solstice, I found myself humming “My Favorite Things” as I went to dig out our tree and trimmings from the garage. When my husband heard me, he asked me what my favorite version was, and offered his, which I’ll share along with my choices.
Before we dive in, let’s visit the lyrics.
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
Cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things
When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad
My favorite version of “My Favorite Things” is from the incomparable Betty Carter, profiled here last summer.
Born Lillie Mae Jones in Flint, Michigan, in 1929, let’s learn how she became “Betty Carter,” courtesy of her 1998 obituary in The Independent.
Carter grew up in Detroit and as a teenager sang with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and other visitors to the city. In 1948 she left Detroit to tour with Lionel Hampton as his band singer, where she used the name Lorraine Carter. Hampton, the foremost showman in jazz, to her annoyance featured only Carter's acrobatic scat vocals and ruled out her ballad singing entirely.
She thought Hampton's music vacuous and often told him so to his face with the result that he fired her on several occasions. Each time Hampton's wife Gladys, who had both a tight grip and a deep insight into the Hampton purse,would rehire her. Hampton called her "Betty Bebop" on stage and this soon evolved into "Betty Bebop Carter" and finally to "Betty Carter".
"Hamp made that nickname predominant because of my ability to scat," she said. "I no longer want to be identified with this. Ella's not called Ella `Bebop' Fitzgerald, is she?"
I had the great good fortune to see Carter perform numerous times before she joined the scat singers in the sky. She was a guest at the Pacifica jazz radio station where I worked in Washington, D.C. In 1977, she was in town for an outdoor concert at Fort Dupont, which is where I first met her; she later invited me to visit her at her home in Brooklyn. My admiration for her went beyond her amazing musicality: It was her independent stance against the manipulation and control of record companies that plucked at the feminist strings of my heart. After spending time off the road raising her two sons, Carter was faced with a changed music world. So in 1971, she founded her own record company, Bet-Car, and would continue to record on her own label until signing with Verve in 1988.
The Bet-Car years produced some of Betty's finest albums - The Betty Carter Album, Betty Carter (later rereleased as At the Village Vanguard), Now It's My Turn, and I Didn't Know What Time it Was - culminating in the December 1979 recordings that became The Audience with Betty Carter, called by some the finest vocal jazz recording ever made. Performances at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1977 and 1978 helped solidify Betty's place in the jazz world, not only as a major vocal talent but also as a discoverer of new talent (including through the years such names as John Hicks, Mulgrew Miller, Cyrus Chestnut, Mark Shim, Dave Holland, Stephen Scott and Kenny Washington).
Her Bet-Car recordings continued into the 1980s with Whatever Happened to Love? and a landmark session with fellow jazz legend Carmen McRae recorded live at a series of 1987 San Francisco dates.
While browsing YouTube for this story, I came across this clip of Carter doing “My Favorite Things” live; I had never seen it before. I can’t pin down what program it’s from—apologies to my editor—but had to share this version here anyway. (Ed. Note: I’ll allow it. This is awesome!)
Carter is performing with Bennie Green on piano, Tarik Shah on bass, and Winard Harper on drums. This is definitely not Julie Andrews!
All I can say is, “Wow.”
On the male vocalist side of the street, my husband Nadhiyr’s pick is Al Jarreau’s smooth and versatile version, first recorded in 1965. Sadly, Jarreau is another member of the choir of the ancestors who we’ve lost.
As John Fordham wrote in Jarreau’s obituary in The Guardian:
Jarreau’s remarkable vocal range spanned the soulfully jazzy romantic lightness of an African-American male tradition running from Nat King Cole to George Benson and on to José James, and a bebop-derived improv agility as a wordless scat singer that always reflected the methods of his first jazz model, Jon Hendricks. Jarreau could also mimic the sounds of all manner of instruments with such uncanny accuracy that a ghostly Brazilian berimbau-player or a battalion of samba-shuffling Latin percussionists could often seem to be hiding in the wings.
Nadhiyr gives it his #1 honors; what do you think?
My top pick differs from Nad’s, which is no surprise since we are of slightly different music generations (I’m older). Given my instrumental choice is the epic, instantly recognizable version by John Coltrane (more on that in a moment), it’s unsurprising that my top vocal choice comes from Johnny Hartman—from an album named for and dedicated to Coltrane.
Hartman may not be a name you recognize, but his contributions are significant.
Johnny Hartman was the quintessential romantic balladeer. The only singer to record with John Coltrane, Hartman was mostly known only to true jazz lovers during his lifetime. It took a movie soundtrack -- released 12 years after his death -- that took Hartman to the top of the jazz charts.
I guess you can dub me one of those “true jazz lovers,” because I’ve worn out multiple copies of his albums in this lifetime.
All these vocals, of course, are leading us to what became the most popular song (and album with the same name) ever recorded by John Coltrane.
Shawl Lobree started a blog in 2010 solely dedicated to Coltrane, and he wrote a three-part review of the My Favorite Things album for its 50th anniversary, noting that the song was far from a standard when Coltrane put his legendary spin on it.
The universe of modern music shifted in October 1960 when saxophonist John Coltrane and his newly formed quartet entered the Atlantic Records studio in New York and recorded “My Favorite Things” and eighteen other songs. These landmark sessions took place on Friday October 21st, Monday October 24th, and Wednesday October 26th and the resulting music was released between 1961 and1964 across four albums. The music that Coltrane and his group created heralded the future of jazz and popular music and would influence scores of jazz musicians to this day, as well as pop and rock acts such as James Brown, the Byrds, the Doors and many others.
“My Favorite Things” would become Coltrane’s most famous song and he performed it live throughout his solo career. When he recorded it, “My Favorite Things” was a new Rodgers and Hammerstein song written for the musical Sound of Music that opened on Broadway in November 1959 and was sung by Mary Martin (the famous movie version sung by Julie Andrews would not be released until 1965). When Coltrane decided to record “My Favorite Things” it was still comparatively unknown.
Coltrane magnificently transforms “My Favorite Things” in many ways. The piano introduction by McCoy Tyner and cymbal crashes by Elvin Jones immediately establish a majestic feeling. Coltrane’s modal arrangement featuring soprano saxophone instills the song with an eastern quality and the lovely piano soloing by McCoy Tyner adds to the joyous, hypnotic feeling.
Rather than share the studio performance we all know so well, let’s try this live version, recorded in Belgium in 1965. Sit back and be mesmerized.
For me, these 20-plus minutes are some of the greatest in jazz.
So what are your favorite tunes for this time of year? Join me in the comments below to listen to even more Black Music Sunday selections for the season, and know that I’m looking forward to hearing yours.