Bending Towards the Light: The story behind ‘A Jazz Nativity’
I enjoyed speaking with singer, composer and producer Anne Phillips, and 9-time Grammy nominated and host of the Latin Jazz Cruise, Bobby Sanabria, about the upcoming beautiful and uplifting play, “Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity,” which will be performed on December 18 at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church in NYC. Along with Maurice Chestnut and Christopher Brubeck, Bobby Sanabria will be one of the Three Kings. Premiered in 1985 at St. Peter’s Church, A Jazz Nativity is the traditional Christmas story told through the medium of jazz that has included many great jazz artists, including Clark Terry, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton and Tito Puente, who have been a part of it playing the roles of the kings, shepherds and angels.
Listen to our conversation, above.
Sheila Anderson: I'd like to start with you, Anne. Tell us about the Jazz Nativity. How it began. How long you've been doing it. And basically the whole premise of this Jazz Nativity.
Anne Phillips: It began in the summer of 1985. The phone rang, and it was John Garcia Gensel, the jazz minister from, St. Peter's. He said, “Anne, I have suggested you as the writer of this thing called The Jazz Nativity.” I wondered why because he knew me as a singer, but how did he know me as a writer? I mean, I wrote a lot of commercials, but how did he know me well enough to do this?
Anyway, I said yes and this is what I wrote. In fact, I had just met the man that became my husband, Bob Kindred, who played a beautiful, warm tenor saxophone. The first thing I thought was that it would start in the dark with the tenor saxophone solo playing “Silent Night,” and that's the way it starts today.
Then it becomes the whole story of the nativity that we know. How she brought forth her firstborn. I wrote that for a soprano and the New York voices. The wonderful thing was that because I've been in the business long enough to know people and what they can do. The whole show is Christmas carols that we know like “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “The First Noel,” that carry the story through in an order that tell the story. The biblical things are sung by a soprano and a vocal group.
When the three kings arrive, of course, it's a highlight of the show because they come marching down the aisle and they present the gift of their talent. Those first years, there was Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente, Jimmy Slide, Harold Nicholas who were kings. It's really been amazing—the people that have done it and want to do it over and over.
I have a nine-piece band and Candito was in it every year until he passed away. Bobby's been in it. He was a king last year, but was so wonderful that I said, “I have to have him back.” Our three kings this year are Bobby Sanabria, Maurice Chestnut who is a great tap dancer and Chris Brubeck. The reason I know Chris is because when I was a kid and 17 and a freshman at Oberlin, I sang on the Brubeck at Oberlin concert where I met Dave and saw him over the years. When I heard his show, La Fiesta de la Pasada, which is a Christmas work, there was this wonderful 5/ 4 song, “God's Love Made Visible,” that his wife wrote the lyrics to.
When I was asked to write this show, I called him and asked if I could use that song. He was in it the first few years, came in and sat in on it. Now his son Chris will be playing it this year.
I am in Bozeman, Montana and last night, there was the most extraordinary first performance of it here. The place was packed and it sold out again on Sunday. It’s all local players which shows that you don't have to have big stars. The big stars from whatever city become the stars of the show and they are wonderful.
How many cities have you had the Nativity?
Anne Phillips: About 10 or 12. For instance, somebody heard it in New York and they were from Greensboro, North Carolina. That was 25 years ago and they've been doing that there ever since. It’s been published, Schirmer had it for a while, but unless it's on television, nobody knows what it is. There's nothing like this show. It's sung all the way through. Charles Kuralt wrote this beautiful prologue when we asked him to just be the host that we have used ever since. The host speaks in the beginning about how the light symbolizes truth and love and hope, hope that even in a dark season, we may begin to see the world bending towards the light.
Yes, I remember when I was in it a couple of years ago with Terrence McKnight and it was so moving. I remember the place was packed. It was a great experience. I see you're also streaming it. Is this is the first time you're streaming it?
Anne Phillips: Yes. Friends and family out of town can see it.
Bobby Sanabria, you are a prince and now you're a king. How was your experience performing in this Jazz Nativity?
Bobby Sanabria: As you said, it's very moving. and besides the musicians, there's also a beautiful choir that accompanies this too. The sound is incredibly spiritual, massive, inspiring. I would suggest everybody bring your children to this. It's a great way to get them into jazz, kind of through the back door. I would even tell the kids, “Hey, we're going to go see this play or this musical presentation” and not tell them it's jazz. Let them experience the wonderment of jazz for the first time in a very surprising kind of way. The first time I did this was subbing for Candido, years ago. Then we did it once where I was there with Candido. And since the Maestro has passed away Anne has asked me to do it twice.
This is the fourth time I've done it and it's always gratifying. Always, an honor to do it. I must say, Anne is one of these people in the artistic community of musicians in New York City that a lot of people may not know about her, but she is very well respected, especially because of all her years as a recording studio vocalist and a vocal arranger.
When you mention Anne's name to any well-known vocalist, whether it's from the New York Voices, whether it's from the Manhattan Transfer or anybody else that's out there, when you say Anne's name, everybody steps back and treats her with reverence. It’s always great to be working with her.
Anne, have you taken your producing, writing skills and done another production that's different than the Jazz Nativity?
Anne Phillips: Oh, yes. I have one called What Are We Doing to Our World. I wrote the song itself quite a few years ago when I heard Jacques Cousteau talk about far out to sea he saw islands of debris and that sounded like a lyric to me so that's the song titled, “What Are We Doing to Our World.” I have a whole show that we've done several times in New York and other cities. The thing is that it takes sponsorship and it's not the kind of thing that corporate sponsors, or even the Jazz Nativity have ever been able to get a real corporate sponsor. It's all about numbers. Anyway, won't get into that. I also have a full musical, Damn Everything But The Circus, that was ready to go off Broadway right before the pandemic happened. It's a line by E. E. Cummings.
Bobby Sanabria: Sounds like it's about the government.
Anne Phillips: It's about life going forward. It's only six characters, one set, easy to produce. A wonderful woman named Stephanie Braxton, who has won Emmys for TV writing, has turned out to be the right person to put it all together, and it's there, all my music and lyrics.
When you started out in your career, had this been something that you'd wanted to do or just once you started doing it, you found that it was your calling?
Anne Phillips: When I was a kid, I used to write arrangements in my head going to sleep at night, but at that point I didn’t know there was such a thing as being an arranger. Who knew that? When I came to New York, fortunately, I could play piano and sing, so I worked six nights a week, playing and singing. Every restaurant had a piano in it, and wanted a piano player and singer. I did the dives, and I also sang opposite Bobby Short on his first gig in New York for two weeks at the Beverly Hotel.
Anyway, I then went on to singing demos for songwriters and television shows for people who could read music. Singers could work. It was wonderful. And then record dates—that was an incredible era of doing record dates all day all week long. You never knew u ntil you walked in who you were recording with. It could be Bobby Vinton or Mahalia Jackson, or Leslie Gore. It was wonderful time when music was all live and everybody was in the studio together and you had that thrill of knowing you have just done a take. After that it was commercials. I wrote “Taste that Beats the Others Cold” for Pepsi and that was really when I started arranging because who else was there to do it?
I had a company with my first husband and a rep and so I got to write for the Four Tops and Linda Ronstadt and Wilson Pickett, in their movies and their records.
Anne, where did you grow up?
Anne Phillips: Pennsylvania. I actually wrote a song about it. One night my husband was leaving for a gig and he said, “I haven't seen you at the piano in months. All you're doing is business” because that's the way the world had now become. He said, “Why don't you write a lyric?” and he hands me fried bananas. I wrote a lyric to “Fried Bananas” and Dexter Gordon's wife loved the lyric, so it's now published as a Dexter Gordon Anne Phillips tune.
The verse of it is, “I was a kid when I woke and cried/Take me to New York City, please/Let's ride to New York.” That was my nirvana.
And here you are all these years later. Now, Bobby Sinabria, you are a SOB, son of the Bronx. Did you always want to be a musician?
Bobby Sanabria: When I was a kid, I had different dreams. I wanted to be a race car driver. I wanted to be the second baseman for the New York Yankees. At the time that I was growing up, the team was so bad. I had a possibility of it when I was in high school. I was very good in track and field. But by the time I was a sophomore freshman in high school, my path had already been set. I actually saw Tito Puente when I was 12 years old playing in front of my housing project, the Melrose Project, doing a concert with the Machito Orchestra and Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, who had the hottest salsa band at the time.
I saw those three artists in front of my building and that blew my mind. I said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” So that's been my path ever since.
Bobby Sanabria, you are a host of the Latin Jazz Cruise here on WBGO from 4 to 6 pm on Saturdays, and you've been doing a great job. How many years has it been? It seems like you just started yesterday.
Bobby Sanabria: I think it's six years now. Time flies when you're having fun, right? You know how many times, Sheila, I've called you going, “Man, Sheila, you're really kicking butt playing some really hip stuff.”
Tell us again, where, when and how can people get tickets?
Anne Phillips: Well, first of all, if you go to jazz nativity. org, you will learn more about it than you know now, because as I say, it's hard for people to understand what this is. You'll get some idea there. It is on December 18th, which is a Monday night at St. Paul's and St. Andrew's United Methodist Church, which is a big, beautiful place. A lot of concerts are done there. It’s a gorgeous hall for us. We were there last year. It's at 86th and West End Avenue. This year the three kings are Bobby Sanabria, Chris Brubeck, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut along with a wonderful cast. The girl that is singing as Mary is Lucy Wyans, who won the Ella Fitzgerald, award years ago, and is a graduate of Purchase. You can read about her in Hothouse this month, her face's on the front.
Bobby Sanabria: I must say too, that for those of my fellow brethren in the Latino and Latina community, there's elements of Latin oriented jazz in the show. There's some R&B and funk elements too, all combined with an incredibly beautiful, large choir. I know that the Radio City Hall Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular is something that a lot of out-of-towners like to come to New York to see, but this is really something incredibly special because It incorporates our first love in America's greatest art form, jazz.
Anne Phillips: I was just going to tell you the funny thing was at St. Peter's, after I did that very first performance, which was small compared to what it is now, one of the maintenance men stopped me afterwards and said, “Lady, that ought to be at Radio City.”
Bobby Sanabria: For a limited run on Broadway for the holiday.
Anne Phillips: I know. It's all about getting sponsorship and it's so hard because we've never been able to get corporate sponsorship for it.
Sheila: Well, as they say, you never know who's listening. You never know who's watching. Who knows? Somebody may be watching and thinking, “I'm going to sponsor it.” You never know. As I say, “Dare to dream, right?” Keep dreaming. Keep hope alive.
Anne Phillips: I have to thank the people that have kept it going because the budget isn't that huge. As I say, nobody's charging star fees. They're all doing for scale. But there have been enough people through the years that love it and feel it to give me enough. This year was a nail biter, but it's going to be okay. That's how it's kept going, from people who know it and love it. If we could get the big bucks, we'd get it on television because what I would like to see is that it be done in more cities.
What I saw last night in Bozeman was absolutely amazing. People that came out just said, “I have never felt like this - this is Christmas.” They are smiling and uplifted.
Bobby Sanabria: It is a very moving thing. That's why I encourage everybody to come. No matter what background you're from in terms of your taste in music. You'll love it.
Anne Phillips: I'm so glad you mentioned children because I started children's jazz choirs because the kids love this show so much. It wasn’t to make a performance choir but just to let kids learn the tunes. A lot of them didn't know what a melody was. We won't go into that subject.