Photo | Chad Edwards/MCE Photography
The 10th annual “A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas” will feature music, lights, media and dancing suitable for all ages.
Band: The 10th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas”
Date: Saturday, Dec. 8 with doors at 6 p.m.
Venue: Saenger Theatre, 6 S. Joachim St., www.mobilesaenger.com
Tickets: $20 GA/$40 VIP ($10 for children under 10) available through Ticketmaster
The holidays are filled with many traditions, especially in Mobile. Many invoke the spirit of the season with the lighting of the Mobile Christmas tree, taking place for the first time last Friday in Mardi Gras Park. Others choose to experience an antebellum holiday with the “Christmas at Oakleigh” event. Bellingrath Gardens & Home attract crowds with millions of holiday lights strung across the property. This year, one Mobile’s most festive Christmas traditions will be celebrating its 10th anniversary.
For the past decade, “A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas” has become almost a rite of passage with local music enthusiasts. With each passing Christmas, keyboardist Chris Spies, drummer John Milham and bassist Chris Severin undergo a holiday transformation into the Joe Cool Trio. They take the Saenger stage and perform their version of Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for the 1965 animated television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The Joe Cool Trio’s combined talents shine brighter than any decorative treetop star, and this year’s performance will be no different. It’s Christmas gift to the city with a set of holiday-inspired tunes featuring several special guests.
When he thinks back on the time that has passed since their inaugural performance, John Milham says he gets a “surreal” sensation. Back then, the Joe Cool Trio used Murphy High School’s 400-seat theatre as the venue. In those days, Milham said that he, Spies and the other organizers involved were responsible for not only producing the show but also creating tickets and posters for three separate performances in Mobile, Fairhope and Laurel, Mississippi. This year’s events are only in Mobile (Dec. 8) and Laurel (Dec. 7).
“We had no sponsors,” Milham said. “It was us just trying to push everything we could to make it happen and make it work. There was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of excitement. There was definitely a big learning curve getting all the pieces put together.”
Since, Milham says the organizers are always thinking about the future. After each performance, they get together to discuss the previous show and every aspect of what needs to be done differently for the following year’s performance. The usual topics of conversation pertain to the show’s length, format, and methods of marketing. Milham said there has been no shortage of revisionary input.
“Every year, we say, ‘Well, we need to do these things differently,’” he explained. “Every year, we learn what things work and what things don’t. We always find different things that we need to change.”
Over the years, the amount of people involved in the planning of each performance has increased, for which Milham is thankful. These days, the team driving “A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas” includes Noell Broughton, Johnny Gwin, Stacy Wellborn and Cheryl Shifflet.
The production aspect of the show has also grown. Professional live sound engineers Albert Robinson and Josh Murray man the soundboard. Meanwhile, light engineers Will Isherwood and Dustin Rudzynski accent each performance with a visual extravaganza.
Since that first show at Murphy, the show has established a philanthropic aspect as well, with proceeds benefiting Delta Dogs. A plethora of sponsors now back the show including the Jake Peavy Foundation, Gulf Distributing, Cooper Restaurants, Moore Law Firm, The Fairhope Store, Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, Mobile Bay Coin, Bay Gourmet Catering, Heroes Sports Bar, Hayley’s, The Garage, The OK Bike Shop, Rogers & Willard, Ashland Gallery, Cortlandt’s Pizza and Lagniappe.
“We could not pull off something at the Saenger on the level that we’re doing it without the sponsors,” Milham said.
“A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas” has also established a reputation for bringing a number of special guests who either sit in with the Joe Cool Trio or provide a set of their own. Milham said their selection of guest bands and artists is based on friendships, connections and collaborations he and Spies have created over the years.
In the past, they’ve recruited notables including Molly Thomas, Ryan Balthrop, Rebecca Roubion, Rick Hirsch, Corky Hughes, Andy MacDonald, John Keuler and Eric Erdman. The duo has also brought out-of-town guest artists including The Invisible Czars, vocalist Eileina Dennis, trumpeter Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown and saxophonist Clarence Johnson.
For the concert’s 10th anniversary, the Joe Cool Trio plans on giving Mobile a funky Christmas that should have the house moving and grooving. For the second set, they’ll welcome vocalist Kim Dawson to the stage. Spies first experienced Dawson’s powerful soul vocal stylings during his time with the funk and soul band Matador! Soul Sounds.
The second set will also feature the smooth saxophone of Christopher Spies, the organist’s progeny. The younger Spies will be fresh from touring with blues guitarist Samantha Fish. Milham said the second set will be a funky mix of traditional Christmas and soul in the key of Aretha Franklin and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings.
Milham has no shortage of beautiful Christmas memories associated with the tradition, as he has also made the show a family affair. His son and his nephew have both played the role of Peanuts character Woodstock. His son also read Linus’ famous Nativity monologue from the television special. His niece has taken on the role of Snoopy and his daughter Ana has sung a Christmas tune since she was three years old.
Those attending “A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas” should also prepare to make some joyous holiday memories. Milham said the happiness and memories this show brings is a reward in itself and he finds great joy in knowing others feel the same.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “Every year, somebody tells me how much they look forward to it, or how their four-year-old asks when’s the Charlie Brown Christmas concert. There’s so many people who look forward to it and come to it every year. It’s great. On one side, it’s an adult jazz concert. On the other side, there’s enough elements to this music that it caters to all ages. The biggest compliment I get is that it’s the show that puts them in the Christmas spirit. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”