It's the holiday season in the United States and choirs across the country are staging special Christmas concerts. Typically, the singers are accompanied by pianos, organs and, sometimes, even a full orchestra. But a community choir in Vermont is trying something different.
As part of its annual Christmas concert, the Brandon Festival Singers is adding a touch of New Orleans’ jazz, which is not something most people associate with church choirs, or Christmas, for that matter.
Eugene Childers, a retired music teacher and Dixieland jazz enthusiast, combined the two. He's directed the choir for 31 years and has always wanted to blend his twin passions.
“Choir and Dixieland band, now there’s an interesting combination," says Childers. "I thought, 'Well, I don’t know of any music written for that combination - certainly not a Christmas piece other than traditional carols something like that.'"
So he composed seven original songs to be performed by the choir and a six-piece Dixieland band, with Childers on the trumpet.
The result is a blend of jazz, swing, ragtime, blues and more than two-dozen harmonizing voices.
The songs tell the story of the birth of Jesus. "Gabrielle" speaks of the angel who comes to Mary and announces she will give birth to a son. "Go and Find the Christ Child" evokes the shepherds’ quest to follow the star to the manger where Jesus was born. And then there’s the "Manger Blues."
“I thought about that. Is that disrespectful? Or what is that?" he says. "I thought, 'Gosh no, the blues, there’s nothing disrespectful in that.' It’s in the style of the blues and that’s good old fashioned American music.”
Denise Keating has sung with the Festival Singers for 10 years.
“I think at first it was a challenge to get the timing right, but the instruments really lend an excitement to the music and it actually raises our singing. And why not? Christmas music has been done in every musical way and why not Dixie?”
Choir member Bernie Carr agrees. “I just said to someone a minute ago, 'People are going to leave this concert and say 'Man, that was the greatest Christmas concert I have ever been to.'"
As the banjo, trombone, piano and trumpet take turns with solos, choir members are swaying to the beat and Childer’s wife Jean can’t resist jumping up to briefly dance with her husband while he conducts.
At first, Childers wasn't sure dancing during a performance was appropriate.
“I thought about that, too, and it would be very OK," he says. "My guess is they’ll be doing it in their seats, but it will certainly be OK.”