Much of the northern United States has been in the grip of snow and freezing temperatures. While this sets the mood for various winter holidays, it makes many of us long for sunnier and warmer climes!
For those who don’t have the luxury to travel to sandy beaches and blue seas, music remains a nice way to travel. When the weather gets cold I often cue up some 1950 exotica. The tunes of Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Arthur Lyman evoked the world of the South Pacific and the new state Hawai’i in ways made comfortable for suburban family rooms and providing additional ambiance for the growing number of tiki bars. With novel percussion and rhythms, otherworldly instruments (like the theremin!) and the occasional use of jungle noises, the music embodies a peculiar kind of cosmopolitanism of the 1950s. The jet age, American prosperity, and the experiences of WWII opened the world to new kinds of experiences and experimentation.
Les Baxter’s Ritual of the Savage (1957) is often regarded as the first offering in this new genre of casual jazz (and the scratchy needle-drop recording below makes it feel all the more authentic):
Martin Denny’s Exotica gave the genre its name and features a remake of Baxter’s hit “Quiet Village”:
Finally, Arthur Lyman’s oeuvre shows the long influence of exotic sounds in this form of casual jazz. Check out his 1965 Polynesia in glorious stereo!
For a great primer on this music and its cultural context, check out the well curated Exotica Project which offers you a wide range of singles to keep you warm this winter!