By Aine Abruscati (@AAbruscati)
For the sixth year in a row, Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch are performing their Christmas show, “A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas,” now through Friday, Dec. 25.
In this year’s installment of the annual cabaret tradition, these celebrated artists are joined by Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums, together delivering holiday favorites including “Christmas Waltz,” Kay Thompson’s “Jingle Bells,” and other classics including “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “What Are you Doing New Year’s Eve?”
A couple of hours before curtain today, Billy Stritch, award-winning composer, arranger, vocalist and jazz pianist, spoke to Center On The Aisle (#COTA) about what makes the show so special to bring fans back each year, and newcomers to see what all the excitement is about.
#COTA: How was last night’s performance?
Stritch: Last night was fantastic. We’ve been doing this for six years and to me, the show gets better and better every year.
#COTA: How did the show become an annual tradition?
Stritch: Well, we did so well that first show. A couple of months into the New Year, the club asked us back. We continue to get invited and we keep saying yes. It’s so much fun for us. The show is a nice little hour and 10 minutes, and it really gets us into the spirit of Christmas. What’s great is performing these holiday songs in three-part jazz harmony. I have so much fun singing with the group.
#COTA: How do you determine the set list?
Stritch: Of course there are some holiday favorites that always make it in – “Winter Wonderland,” I sing “The Christmas Song” – but we try to change it up a bit every year to make the show interesting for the audience and ourselves. This year, we added five or six new songs. One of them is an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” by composer, singer and actress Kay Thompson, who recorded a lot with MGM Studios. Jim and I knew Kay towards the end of her life. She had such a great way of arranging for jazz.
Another new number is a song by Cy Coleman written in the 1960s but never done before. So ‘A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas’ will be its long overdue premiere. Klea sings the song, which is called “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again.” The set is a nice mix and we try to keep it very upbeat and joyful. All three of us were so influenced by the Christmas specials we saw on television growing up in the 1970s. The show is a bit of a throwback to that genre. It’s our way of spreading a little Christmas cheer.
#COTA: I imagine you’re pretty comfortable performing with Jim and Klea.
Stritch: We really enjoy performing together. Jim and I have known each other for over 30 years. We worked the same clubs in Texas; we both do the Monday Open Mic nights at Birdland; and we also perform at Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle. Singing with Jim and others comes natural to me. I love sharing the stakes with others and collaborating onstage.
#COTA: Is there anyone you look forward to seeing in the audience?
Stritch: We don’t know who’s going to show up until we get there. It’s great to see some of the same people come back year after year but just as nice meeting new people.
“A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas” runs nightly at Birdland through Christmas. All shows are at 6pm. Visit www.BirdlandJazz.com or call 212-581-3080 for more information and tickets.