These holidays, most of us will hear a big band Christmas carol or two. But when jazz musicians hear them, they want to join in. That’s the story behind Rich Wetzel’s “Big Band Christmas” show, a tradition that this year returns to Tacoma Community College with Wetzel’s Groovin’ Higher Orchestra and vocal soloist Steve Stefanowicz.
“Around 2000 a lot of my friends and I were playing at and hanging out with Red Kelly at his jazz club,” says Wetzel, a Tacoma jazz trumpeter and band director. “Around Christmas we all were listening to our favorite jazz Christmas recordings and talking about how great all these amazing arrangements were, and how fun it would be to find those old charts and put together a show like that.”
So Wetzel did just that. For years, his Big Band Christmas has combined a traditional big band lineup with unusual symphonic elements like timpani, xylophone, French horns and soloists, incorporating classical and swing styles.
This year, Wetzel has found rare out-of-print tunes like the Les Brown “Nutcracker Suite,” sourced from a friend in Australia, and the Maynard Ferguson classic “Christmas for Moderns,” which Wetzel says was a favorite of Miles Davis in New York back in the day.
The performance has often been held as a dinner show at the historic Temple Theater downtown, but this year Wetzel is taking it back to Tacoma Community College to improve the acoustics and ticket prices.
“We hope to get lots of people of all ages out to the show, be it family and friends or a company holiday outing,” says Wetzel.