A Trombone Christmas Reminiscence

Q: What do you call 158 trombonists playing holiday tunes?

A: A blast!

Now, it’s not often that I get to toot my own horn, but last November, when I learned about the inaugural Trombone Christmas Kansas City concert at Union Station, I roused my instrument out of hibernation and signed up before you could finish saying fa-la-la-la la la-la la la.

Instigated by Frank Perez and Will Biggs, Kansas City’s version is modeled on the All Western Trombone Christmas Concert in Anaheim, California, which started in 2010. (Perez was a member of Bones West Trombone Choir, the group that founded Trombone Christmas, for many years.) The Kansas City event joins seven others nationwide, but even in its first iteration had some of the largest participation numbers in the country.

We set up in the Grand Hall, in front of the miniature train ride that extends the model train display during the holiday season, overlooked by giant-sized Nutcrackers standing sentinel.

Consider the apparel donned: Santa hats dotted the ensemble, many folks wearing garish seasonal sweaters, some rocking Rudolph antlers and light-up noses. Other folks went more for the elf look. A few O Tannenbaum-ed themselves (and their horns) with ornaments and battery-powered string lights.

Teachers and students, teenagers and grandparents, amateurs and professionals, friends and strangers filled the seats by 8 a.m., brandishing tinsel on the bells of their horns and attaching colorful bows to their folding stands. Participants ranged from 5th-grade beginners to the Kansas City Symphony’s own associate principal trombone, Porter Wyatt Henderson.

The Grand Hall vibrated with the hum of a hundred plus heralds ready to proclaim the festive season. It was still only rehearsal.

By the 11 a.m. performance time, the audience thronged around the ensemble, vying with the holiday weekend crowd lining up for Union Station’s many train-themed activities and Santa sightings.

We played six-part arrangements of seasonal tunes, both traditional and modern, like “O Christmas Tree,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silver Bells” and “Mele Kalikimaka,” some from the Trombone Christmas songbook, some by local composers. A few of my favorites were “We Three Kings,” “O Hanukkah” and “Christmas Lullaby.”

Between pieces, Perez and Biggs announced the winners of the various contests, determined during rehearsal: “most holiday spirit,” “youngest and most seasoned participants,” “most years playing trombone” and “longest distance traveled to participate.”

Trombone Christmas is similar to the popular Tuba Christmas, a tradition started by the legendary Harvey Phillips. The first Tuba Christmas was in 1974 at New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza. The Kansas City Symphony hosts an annual Tuba Christmas on the stage of Helzberg Hall each year. (See page 10.)

In fact, the first Trombone Christmas was started because one of the founders, Douglas Grieve, realized so many trombone players were participating in Tuba Christmas.

But the trombone has served a historical association with the birth of Christ (and all things magnificent) for hundreds of years, often called upon to represent the voice of angels and the message of God.

As Buddy the Elf says, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loudly for all to hear.”

So sing, you choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Only use trombones.

This year, the organizers hope to surpass 200 participants, welcoming trombone enthusiasts of all ages and abilities, and if that isn’t loud enough to grow the hearts of some Grinches, I’d be surprised.

The performance begins at 11 a.m. Dec. 15 in Union Station’s Grand Plaza. For more information on the performance and participation visit www.unionstation.org/TromboneChristmasKC.

Above: “KC Studio” music critic Libby Hanssen (front row, left) had a blast when she participated in last year’s inaugural Trombone Christmas Kansas City concert at Union Station. (photo by Roy Inman)

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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