It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since The Ornaments — led by pianist Jen Gunderman, with bassist James Haggerty and drummer Martin Lynds — first played the Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas on the cozy stage of the Family Wash in East Nashville. At the time, the Wash was barely three years old, but had already established itself as not only a neighborhood pub, but a place for some of Nashville’s finest session and touring musicians to hang out. The members of the Ornaments were some of those musicians, so it only made sense that they might try something new for their friends during the Holidays. Word quickly spread and multiple nights were packed. They invited other musicians to be guest soloists; restaurant patrons got up to the gather around a lone mic to fill the shoes of the children’s chorus on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” It was beautiful, and immediately felt like something that should always be.
And so it’s been. For a week in December, two shows a night, the Ornaments have set up shop at the Family Wash. They’ve also added a couple of other venues along the way: The Belcourt Theatre’s Saturday morning kid show, and a Tuesday night at 3rd & Lindsley, creating even more opportunities for the community to gather around Guaraldi’s extraordinary and timeless music. This year’s run, celebrating 10 years, will be from Wednesday, December 16 through Tuesday, December 22. Tickets are on sale now at each venue’s website, or directly through the “Buy Tickets” link at each NowPlayingNashville.com listing for the multiple shows at The Family Wash/Garage Coffee and individual shows at The Belcourt Theatre and 3rd & Lindsley. Shows sell out fast, so it’s recommended you book now. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Chet Atkins Music Education Fund at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
Gunderman, when not leading The Ornaments in December, stays extremely busy year-round dividing her time between teaching, performing and recording. She is the Assistant Professor of Musicology at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School Of Music, specializing in American popular music history courses, and is an active studio session musician and producer. She plays keyboard and sings regularly with several bands in Nashville, most often lately with Sheryl Crow, and has backed a wide array of artists, including Dixie Chicks, Michael McDonald, St. Vincent, Keith Urban, Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Martina McBride and many more. She is also the host and director of the interview series Conversations at Blair, whose guests have included Crow and Peter Frampton, and is currently in production for the Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) “Understanding the Music Business: What Is Music Worth?”, which will be the Blair School’s first Coursera offering, and Vanderbilt’s first Coursera course produced entirely in their Always Available format.
With all that going on, and more, we still managed to track Gunderman down for a quick Q&A about the 10th Anniversary of the Ornaments, the music of Guaraldi, the new location of The Family Wash and the enduring appeal of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
HowToPlayNashville (HTPN): 10 years …. that’s incredible. I remember being there at the Wash the first year and haven’t missed it since. When you first decided to do it back then, did you think it might become a tradition? Was it something you hoped to continue?
Gunderman: It is so hard to believe it’s been ten years – I feel like we just moved to town! I definitely never imagined that it would become a yearly thing when we started out. It just seemed like a fun idea, and we had a ball playing that music and sharing it with our friends. We were grateful that the Family Wash wanted us back the next year. After that, something shifted, and people we didn’t know started telling us that coming to our gigs was a yearly part of their holiday tradition. They asked us to promise to continue playing, which we have been very happy to do! That has been the most humbling and gratifying part of the whole experience, to think that during the incredibly hectic holidays, people make the time to come to the show year after year.
HTPN: As you sit down each year to rehearse and get ready to perform the music again, do you find new things to love about Guaraldi? Is there something unique about Guaraldi as a composer that excites you as a player?
Gunderman: I think Guaraldi appreciated “perfect imperfection,” to borrow Sam Phillips’ phrase, and that is very liberating and fun for musicians. The mix of jazz, bossa nova, pop and blues elements, a charmingly off-key children’s choir, traditional Christmas carols played straight, traditional Christmas carols played as jazz, original tunes, Beethoven… I could go on and on. The fact that the album is not so precious – I mean, Guaraldi even took a few liberties with Fur Elise – made us feel like we had permission to play with his material, too. So we play some sections note for note and improvise and stretch in other places, and we feel like it’s OK that we are not actually jazz specialists!
HTPN: A few years ago you added the Belcourt and 3rd and Lindsley to the week. This year, in a way, you’re in a new venue now that the Family Wash has merged with Garage Coffee and opened up on Main street. New room, better sound and more space, but the same intimacy.
Gunderman: Of course all music is affected by the environment it’s played in, but this music seems to work everywhere, which is something else that’s kind of miraculous about Guaraldi’s work. We’ve played this gig in retirement homes, churches, rock clubs, and theaters, and I suppose we are more subdued or more freewheeling in different environments… but I think this music always feels warm, comforting and emotionally complex in any environment.
HTPN: The shows are well know for their special guests and soloists. This being Nashville, that means some of the finest musicians the city has to offer. Any hints as to what we can expect?
Gunderman: I believe we may have our first ever musical saw solo this year! Different nights will feature saxophone, pedal steel, trombone, electric guitar, flute, harmonica, and I’m not sure what all else. We just tell the soloists to bring and do whatever they feel. I did request the saw, though.
HTPN: There is currently a new Peanuts movie doing well at the box office, so I think it’s safe to say that Peanuts and Charlie Brown are as popular as they’ve ever been. A Charlie Brown Christmas, however, seems to even transcend that, and has certainly stood the test of time. What do you think is so special about it that keeps people tuning in each year, and then coming back to the show?
Gunderman: It’s truthful and not saccharine, but also not cynical, which is exceedingly rare in any holiday entertainment, in my opinion. The first thing Charlie Brown says at the opening of the TV special is something like, “It’s Christmas, and I’m depressed.” And this is coming from a cartoon child! Also, Guaraldi’s jazz score signals depth and complexity, and the sound editing and child actors’ voices are SO perfectly imperfect. The holidays can be difficult for everyone – maybe someone special is gone, or there is a conflict of some sort – and this 50-year old children’s TV special acknowledges that, and then proceeds to have the main character find redemption through music and dancing, friends, a spiritual message, and a refutation of commercialism. Genius.