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Month: December 2016
Of course Santa plays the trombone. There’s even a song about it:
In 2012, I wrote this poem with apologies to Clement Moore, and sent it to my students; it became an annual thing. So here it is again. Just another reminder that Santa Plays the Trombone.
A Visit From Santa Claus To A College Trombone Player
T’was the night before Christmas and all through my home,
All the horns were in cases, including trombones.
For after the finals and juries and tests,
It was time for some shut-eye; I needed some rest.
I was dreaming of straight mutes and pBones and more,
When I woke to a sound that I’d not heard before.
And what should I see on my roof up on high?
A Moravian choir, with trombones playing fine.
Alessi and Lindberg, Kleinhammer and Yeo,
Were all playing their horns, their heads covered with snow.
And who should be leading this heavenly band?
But old Santa himself, a trombone in his hand!
“On JJ! On Jörgen! On Tommy and George!”
This band was so sweet, I sure did thank the Lord!
“On Norman and Pryor, Ron, Urbie and Frank!”
Some others played, too, but my mind drew a blank.
I grabbed my trombone and I lubed up the slide,
With no time for a warm-up, I hurried outside.
The gang was all playing some mighty nice tunes,
And we jammed some cool charts by light of the moon.
I invited them in just to warm up their chops,
But they just kept on playing, man, this sure was tops!
Saint Nick put his horn down to fill up my stocking,
With valve oil, and slide cream, CDs – so inspiring!
In time, things wound down and they packed up their horns,
And the sleigh got revved up and was heavenly borne.
But Santa looked back, and he said with a smile,
“Merry Christmas to all, and don’t forget to keep practicing even though you’re on vacation!”
— Douglas Yeo (with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)
Earlier this month, my wife and I went to hear a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, at Camelback Bible Church in Phoenix; the orchestra and chorus of the Phoenix Symphony was directed by Music Director Tito Muñoz. Like so many people, we have loved this music for a very long time. We listen to recordings, we have sung it in choirs, I have played it in an orchestra (in the orchestration by Mozart that includes trombones), and we have studied its music and text.
The most famous part of Messiah is the “Hallelujah Chorus;” Handel’s manuscript is shown above. Coming at the end of Part II of the oratorio, it is a joyous celebration of Jesus Christ, “Hallelujah – and He shall reign forever and ever.”
Of course, when one hears Messiah at this time of year, a particular point of focus is Part I that tells the story of the birth of Jesus.
The sequence of soprano recitatives and choruses surrounding the announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds (shown above, in part) is electrifying:
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the Glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.
This year, these words from Luke’s Gospel , 2:8-14, had new, special meaning to us. This summer, we traveled to Israel with a tour group sponsored by the Wheaton College Alumni Association. The trip changed us in many ways, and provided us with a new context for the understanding of the Bible, its time, its people and its message.
We traveled to Bethlehem, the city of the birth of Jesus, to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional place where Christ was born. A word on this: There are many places in Israel where it is believed that this or that event happened. Some are known with certainty, others are known only by long tradition. For me, it does not matter if I stood on the exact spot of an historical event; it is enough for me to have been in the neighborhood and been in a place where millions of people for centuries have believed an event occurred. Such it is with the Church of the Nativity. In the photo above, the floor of the church’s grotto has been covered with marble that was placed there to keep people from chipping away a part of the rock on which it is built. Below the altar is a silver star, in the middle of which is a hole where one can reach down and touch the original bedrock.
From the Church we went to the Bethlehem shepherd fields where our group sang Christmas carols in a cave known to have been used by shepherds over the centuries. The idea of sheep and shepherds in and around Bethlehem took on new meaning as we came to appreciate Bethlehem’s proximity to Jerusalem and the need, in Biblical times, for many sheep for sacrificial purposes.
Near the shepherd caves is the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Fields, a small but beautiful chapel that features paintings of scenes from that night when the angel came to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ (above).
There was one more small thing that we encountered in that trip to Bethlehem. In our many travels around the world, we have seen small plaques with verses from the Bible in various places. Sometimes they are found in a single language, sometimes in two or three languages. I don’t know who makes them and who installs them, but we have seen them in the USA, England, Greece and, now, in Israel. We saw the plaque below, in English and German, in a courtyard of the Church of the Nativity. This verse from John 1:14 is, to me, the most impactful, stunning, remarkable sentence I have ever read. That God would send his Son, Jesus, to redeem His people on earth is incomprehensible. But this is what we celebrate at Christmas.
When I was in college back in the early 1970s, my friends and I used to entertain ourselves by making up Desert Island Lists. Here’s how it worked: If you were stranded on a desert island, what ONE book would you want to have with you? [Easy for me: the Bible.] What five photographs? What 10 records (OK, now it would be CDs, or downloads to an iPod? So a “DID” is a list of Desert Island Discs. You get the idea.
I’ve been listening to and playing Christmas music for decades and have put together a collection of music I turn to year after year as Christmas rolls around. So here is my DID of Christmas albums. Most are easily available. Some are difficult to find. All are, in my mind, well worth tracking down. I now that when it comes to this kind of thing, it’s different strokes for different folks. But I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in any of these albums. Links to the album on amazon.com or other vendors are provided with each title.
Christmas. The Singers Unlimited
This album was made in 1972 but was one of the first CDs I bought when that technology was new in the 1980s. This is a superb collection of sacred Christmas carols, sung by the absolute premiere acapella singing group – Gene Purling, Don Shelton, Len Dresslar and Bonnie Herman – the original Singers Unlimited. I enjoy this album over and over because of the group’s spectacular blend, intonation, vocal quality and balance.
Handel: Messiah. The Robert Shaw Chorale & Orchestra (Robert Shaw)
At last count I own eight recordings of Handel’s Messiah. It remains, to me one of the most important works of classical music ever composed. It tells the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, death and His resurrection in a work of stunning craft. It’s difficult for me to recommend one recording of Messiah; there are so many, ranging from performances that use modest forces to ones that utilize huge choirs. But the one I turn to for sheer listening pleasure is the one I purchased back in 1973 and which has stood the test of time. Recorded in 1966 – it won a Grammy at that time – Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra play with umparalleled blend and the soloists are uniformly superb. As is James Smith’s fine trumpet solo on “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”
Hipsters Holiday. Various Artists
Sometimes I just want an album that makes me smile. Through every track. This is it. This album contains some classic jazz and R&B Christmas performances by Louis Armstrong (if you don’t break out into a big grin when you hear him should, “‘Zat You, Santa Claus!” then you don’t have a pulse), Ertha Kitt (her “Santa Baby” is THEEperformance of this song; nothing else comes close), The Marquees, Leo Watson (whose “Jingle Bells” is a tour de force of skat singing that starts off with a trombone solo by Vic Dickinson), Pearl Bailey and many more. Pure fun, fun fun.
This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols. The Jimmy Joyce Singers
When I joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1985, John Williams was Conductor of the Boston Pops. It was with John that I got to know the extraordinary carols of Alfred S. Burt. The tradition of composing a new carol for each Christmas – and sent around to the Burt family’s friends – started with Alfred Burt’s father in 1922 and continued with his son until Alfred Burt’s death in 1954. These carols are beautiful, meaningful, and exquisitely sung by the Jimmy Joyce Singers. While this recording was made in 1963, the singing is first-rate and it is fresh today. I love these carols.
Joy to the World. John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra
During my 27 years as a member of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras, I recorded dozens of albums, including 2.5 Christmas albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra. The first of these Christmas albums was recorded in 1992 with John Williams conducting; the other two were conducted by Keith Lockhart. The .5 comes from the album “A Boston Pops Christmas: Live From Symphony Hall” that had half of its tracks recorded in my last season with the Boston Symphony, 2011, and half recorded with Jim Markey on bass trombone in 2012. But “Joy to the World” is my favorite of these three Christmas albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra. It contains many classic Boston Pops arrangements that, sadly, are not played as often today. It also includes a beautiful medley of Alfred Burt Carols, as well as those great, familiar arrangements of “White Christmas,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” and “Sleigh Ride.” This is a Christmas album classic.
A Charlie Brown Christmas. Vince Guaraldi Trio
Television has given us many memorable shows about Christmas and the Christmas season, but many people believe the most iconic is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I think so, too. This album contains the original sound track recording to the television show, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. As soon as you hear the first note you are transported back to the first time you saw this memorable Christmas program. The soundtrack also includes Linus’s classic reading of the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, where he tells the story of the birth of Jesus and closes with these simple but profound words: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Joyful, ebullient, and this will make you smile. And get a little wet around your eyes.
Christmas Cookin’. Jimmy Smith
Oh, boy, this is hot. My good friend, Douglas Wright (principal trombonist of the Minnesota Orchestra) gave this to me as a gift many years ago. It features the great jazz/R&B organ player Jimmy Smith with an all star big band conducted by Billy Byers that includes Jimmy Cleveland and Chauncey Welsh on trombone, Paul Faulise and Tommy Mitchell on bass trombone and Harvey Phillips on tuba. This is a WILD disc, joyful to the extreme, and you will have no choice but to get up and dance. Seriously.
December. George Winston
Solo piano. These are creative, uncomplicated arrangements that are tastefully performed. When I just want to sit quietly and think around the Christmas season, this is the album I go to. Winston combines some original compositions with classic Christmas melodies and plays them with grace and style. Mood music with a message.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. he Hollywood Trombones
This album is a little hard to find, having originally been released on HMA Records and then Summit Records. But it’s around (see the link, above) and worth tracking down. It features some of the great Los Angeles players including Dick Nash, Phil Teele, Tommy Pederson, Jeff Reynolds in a great collection of arrangements for trombones and rhythm section, mostly by Tommy Pederson. Pure trombone delight and performed at the highest level.
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. Arizona State University Desert Bones Trombone Choir and Tuba Euphonium Ensemble
During my four years as Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University, I worked to expose my students to a lot of diverse experiences. Recording was one of them. We made two CDs including a Christmas album that we shared with the ASU Tuba Euphonium Ensemble conducted by Deanna Swoboda. The album was a great success, a nice part of our recruiting efforts, and the students played superbly. Since I’m no longer at ASU, the CD isn’t used to promote the program as much as it was when I was there, but if you contact Deanna Swoboda through the link above, chances are she still has copies and you could arrange to get one by making a small donation to the program.
Carols for Christmas, Volumes I and II. Royal College of Music Chamber Choir and Brass Ensemble
When I just want to sit down with my Oxford Book of Carols and enjoy listening to superbly performed arrangements of traditional Christmas carols, I reach for this set of CDs. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print, but copies can still be found, as at the link above (don’t be thrown off by the outrageous price of some copies; used copies at affordable prices are there for for you). There is never a moment where you are aware that these are students playing and singing; this is a first rate compilation.
Christmas Cheer. The Canterbury Clerkes and London Serpent Trio.
I confess that this recording is one of the most unusual I have ever hear. But I love it. Every second of it. Here is a group of great singers along with the original London Serpent Trio: Christopher Monk, Alan Lumsden and Andrew van der Beek. Yes. A serpent trio. The combination is memorable, one of the most charming Christmas albums you would ever hear. Unfortunately, it was only released on cassette (this just goes to show that not everything made it to CD and digital format). I have one of these original cassettes but have not found others for sale. But who knows, you might do better and track one down. It’s worth searching high and low to get you hands on this most unique Christmas recordings.
This is Christmas: The New England Brass Band
During my ten year tenure as Music Director of the New England Brass Band (1998-2008), the band recorded five CDs in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Our second Christmas album, “This is Christmas,” was recorded in 2005 and shows the band to be in superb form. While we sold over 1000 copies after it was released, I believe the disc is now out of print and no longer available; you could contact the NEBB through the link above and ask, although I know they have a newer Christmas CD available under the direction of current music director Stephen Bulla. Here’s a bonus for readers of The Last Trombone: click HERE to listen to a track from the CD, an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” arranged by Terry Everson (Professor of Trumpet at Boston University who was also principal cornet and assistant conductor of the NEBB when I was there); I am the bass trombone soloist. This track always brings back such wonderful memories of a special time of my life, working with the NEBB. Enjoy!
I’m a trombone player. But I also play other instruments as well, and some unusual ones, like the serpent. One of the nice things about playing historical instruments like the serpent is that I get to play music and do things with people that I couldn’t do with a trombone in my hand.
Like play at TubaChristmas. Yup.
The brainchild of the late Harvey Phillips – Professor of Tuba at Indiana University for many years – TubaChristmas has been going for 43 consecutive years. What started at Rockefeller Center in New York City on January 1, 1974 as a tribute to Phillips’ teacher, tuba great William “Bill” Bell (who played tuba with the Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years among many outstanding contributions to the music world) blossomed into a world-wide event. This year, my wife, Pat, and I took part in our first TubaChristmas.
The Phoenix TubaChristmas was led by my ASU Tuba Professor colleague, Dr. Deanna Swoboda . Deanna is a tremendous teacher, player and person, one of my best friends, and she brought her musical expertise and great, fun personality to lead a group of 122 players – a record number for the Phoenix TubaChristmas event – of every type, size and shape of tuba related instrument. Contrabass tubas, bass tubas, Sousaphones, euphoniums, baritones. And a contrabass serpent. The photo above shows me with my “anaconda” serpent, “George,” along with Deanna and Pat (with her British style baritone horn – she played baritone horn in the New England Brass band from 1998-2008 when I was the Band’s music director) at Tempe Marketplace near Phoenix, Arizona.
OK, a word about “George.” Made in 1990 by the late Christopher Monk, “George” was the second contrabass serpent ever made, the first being constructed in the 19th century in Huddersfield, England. “George” was commissioned by the late Philip Palmer and after Phil’s death, I purchased this extraordinary instrument from his widow, Connie Palmer.
“George” got its name because it was on April 23 – St. George’s Day – in 1990 that this instrument first received breath from Christopher Monk. 16 feet long, it is in CC; it is made of choice sycamore covered with leather. It was built to be a double size French church serpent with brass keys since the holes are too large to be covered by one’s fingers. The boxwood mouthpiece was made for me by the late Keith Rogers who succeeded Christopher Monk as serpent and cornet maker of Christopher Monk Instruments in England. The serpent is considered the ancestor of the tuba family, a bass wind instrument with a cup shaped mouthpiece that had its origins in – well, it all depends on where you come down on serpent scholarship. Certainly it was being used in France by 1590 but it very likely had origins in Italy somewhat before that time. You can get a lot more information about the serpent by visiting The Serpent Website where you can also download past issues of The Serpent Newsletter. Seriously!
Bringing “George” along to TubaChristmas – and I should say that this is a real, serious instrument, capable of playing with a beautiful sound; I used this instrument on my CD of music for serpent, Le Monde du Serpent – was great fun. Deanna asked me to say a few words about the serpent both at the rehearsal and the performance, and I played a verse of “Good King Wenceslas” to demonstrate its capabilities. I posed for a photo with many audience members who wanted to be seen with “George,” and I enjoyed many conversations with people who wanted to know more about the serpent.
Our playlist featured 18 well-known Christmas tunes, both popular songs and traditional carols. The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative. Well, you don’t exactly see 122 tuba-type instruments gathered in one place, with players from age 13 to in their 70s, celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year” in a festive way. Part of the fun was knowing that this same kind of event was going on all around the world. Not every place could have their TubaChristmas outside like we did here in Phoenix; Chicago, for instance, had their TubaChristmas in a ballroom at the Palmer House Hotel. But no matter whether it was inside our out, with few or many players, TubaChristmas has developed into a very special event that bring people together with music. A big thank you to Deanna Swoboda for her great leadership, and to all participants and audience members. Merry TubaChristmas!