A Mobile holiday tradition returns to one of the city’s most revered spots just in time for the height of the season. Grab your security blanket, Linus; A Charlie Brown Jazz Christmas is back at the Saenger on December 21 at 7 p.m.
When the city of Mobile approved a new management contract with SMG and New Orleans-based Huka Entertainment earlier this autumn, they quickly added this musical treat to their calendar. The popular show has made the rounds through several local venues, having last been at the “Jewel on Joachim” for its 2010 presentation.
Like most Azalea City doings, the tale of this ritual is rife with our customary hallmarks: coincidence, significance, history and family. It’s just the way we roll.
Inspired by Vince Guaraldi’s jazz score to the Charles Schulz holiday cartoon, percussionist John Milham envisioned the live presentation a half-decade back, then put the wheels in motion. That inaugural event filled Midtown’s historic Murphy High School auditorium with attendees enthralled by the live musical interpretations.
Fortunately, Milham moved the event to the Saenger the following year since favorable buzz in the year after its premiere swelled attendance. The next incarnation materialized at the Mobile Civic Center Theater, then 2012 found them back at Murphy.
Last holiday season’s show unfolded just two weeks before the Murphy campus was ravaged by Mobile’s Christmas Day tornado. For those of us who were at that show, the subsequent aerial photos of the destruction were haunting with the roof that had been above our heads torn away and scattered across the grounds.
Just as Murphy arose from the destruction, downtown denizens are pointing to Milham’s return to the Saenger as evidence a more robust performance schedule is on tap for the beloved venue. Scheduled the same date as the LoDa Holiday Parade – the parade begins at 1:30 p.m.; the Saenger event is at 7 p.m. – hopes are the day-long itinerary will keep downtown sidewalks busy in the weekend build-up to Christmas.
Milham, however realizes the difference between continuity and staleness. Every year’s version has blended different musical elements, to keep attendees on their toes.
The initial outing featured Milham joined with keyboardist Chris Spies, bassist Tommy Sciple and saxophonist Rebecca Barry. They were joined by a children’s choir from Mississippi, led by a director who birthed a former bandmate of Milham’s that would later become his sister-in-law.
In the following years, performers such as New Orleans’ Sasha Masakowski and Mobile’s Lisa Mills would add their melodious flavors. Last season’s show brought in The Invincible Czars, an outfit from Austin, Texas who thrilled the house with an eclectic and electric version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”
In keeping with the family theme, the Czars’ membership boasts the inclusion of Spies’ sister Leila. That same family album is in further play when the aforementioned keyboardist’s son, Christopher pulls saxophone duties.
Other tweaks are in hand to keep the playbill fresh. Chris Severin mans the double bass, bringing a daunting resume that includes time performing with Diane Reeves, Dr. John, Terrence Blanchard, Allen Toussaint and Nicholas Payton.
There’s no children’s choir this time around and the namesake Peanuts tunes will open things. The change is a logistical necessity.
“We always closed the Guaraldi set by letting the kids come on stage and dance but it always got late,” Milham explained. “I always felt the pressure to cut the show shorter.”
Following the opening piano trio, the junior Spies takes the stage alongside a featured performer, Crescent City trumpeter James Andrews. Tabbed “the Satchmo of the Ghetto” in New Orleans, he climbed the ranks in that fabled musical metropolis via the old school route, learning in outfits like Tremé Brass Band and New Birth Brass Band before forming his own group. The protégé of Allen Toussaint went on to play with Danny Barker, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. John and Michelle Shocked, opening doors for appearances with Jazz at Lincoln Center, at the Sundance Film Festival and, of course, with the hit HBO series “Tremé.”
His familial connection to Mobile? Well, it would seem his younger brother Troy, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty has made his own appearances in the Azalea City of recent.
Following what promises to be a scintillating set from the guest New Orleanian, The Invincible Czars storm the stage to blaze through a rousing homage to Russian ballet and sugar plum fairies, coated in a rich layer of Austin “Weirdness.” They will enjoy fewer limitations this year.
“People think about this like it’s a kid’s show and that’s there but it’s more than that,” Milham said. “We’ll be free to stretch out after the Guaraldi set and put on a full show for the adults.”
Tickets are on sale for $15 in advance, $5 for children 12 and under.