|Dan Oxley, trumpet player of note|
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" & Dan Oxley
We as a society stick with the old, established songs - what I would call "turnips." In this age when creative people can use technology to get their material "out there," we still seem to want to stick with the traditional stuff. When was the last time a new Christmas song "broke through?" Was it "All I Want for Christmas is You?" Wasn't that a couple decades ago? And even this song is somewhat derived, at least in terms of the title, from "All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth."
I decided on a favorite many years ago: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." I came to embrace this song from an instrumental version. Dan Oxley, trumpet player, had "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" as part of a Christmas medley. The whole medley was outstanding.
When Oxley and his musicians broke into "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," it evoked such a peaceful image. A timeless image. And this was accomplished even without the lyrics being heard. I find the lyrics striking too, and for this we have Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, to thank. He wrote the words before a melody was ever composed. The lyrics and music blend so perfectly, it's surprising they were composed separately.
Oxley is what's known as a high-register trumpet player. You might think this isn't your cup of tea, as such brass playing can have a harsh quality (at least in the perception of non-brass players). I assure you Mr. Oxley is tasteful. He is selective on where he plays the high stuff, and his intonation is precise.
The Christmas medley of which I'm speaking starts with "What Child is This?" Oxley follows with "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and then we hear "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." One song is left: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
This medley is on a custom CD made by Del Sarlette of Sarlettes Music in Morris. It's a collection of recordings made by upper-register specialists of the trumpet. You can tell if someone is not a fan of this style, if that person uses the term "screech" trumpet. A fair percentage of the population falls into that category, and I feel no resentment. To each their own.
I have heard Morris Area music director Wanda Dagen say "screech trumpet" and that's fine. No self-respecting music director would want any of her trumpet players trying to play like that. My high school band director, John Woell, had no aversion to exposing his trumpet players to such renderings. Frankly, I think men are much more disposed to liking "scream" trumpet than women.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the skeptics on this. A part of me for sentimental reasons still likes to listen to some of this stuff. Dan Oxley's Christmas renderings - there are several - stand out. Sarlette's collection starts out with Oxley's interpretation of "Deck the Halls." Del titled the CD "Have Yourself a Screamin' Little Christmas." Oxley also presents "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Sleigh Ride," "Carol of the Bells," "O Holy Night" and "We Three Kings."
A spiritual dedication
Oxley was born in Japan to missionary parents. He discovered the trumpet when age eight.
He came to the U.S. to complete his high school education, his diploma coming from Wheaton Central High School in the Chicago IL area. He kept progressing on trumpet, playing in Jerry Franks' "Dimensions in Brass" in the 1970s. He joined the Christian group "Truth" in 1978. He met his wife-to-be, singer Donna Carter, with "Truth." You can't beat finding the "truth," eh? He and Donna settled in Los Angeles in 1980. They both finished college there. They lived in L.A. for ten years and then moved to Nashville TN.
Dan tours a lot to share his music and spiritual message. It would be neat having him come to Morris. How about at the Hosanna church? He visits festivals, conventions and colleges in addition to churches. He goes abroad sometimes.
Growing up in Japan, he learned how few Christians live there. This he cites as a reason for being so evangelical. I would suggest his missionary parents too.
It's neat how an instrument, as opposed to the human voice, can be a vehicle for promoting the Christian message. In 1996, Dan was the rare exception of being allowed into North Korea to perform. There he performed in the International Spring Arts Festival. I'd be pretty cautious about going to North Korea, no matter how innocent I was.
Oxley is associated with the trumpet but he has tinkered with this instrument. He's actually a specialist on what's called the "EVI," an electronic valved wind-controlled "midi" instrument. I read that "few musicians have mastered the EVI." Don't ask me to explain it further. On the recordings he simply sounds like he's playing trumpet.
Dan is a studio musician and producer and has an in-home studio. He has backed up artists in both secular and Christian music.
I'm sure Del Sarlette would be happy to make a copy of his custom Christmas music ("scream trumpet") CD. You can hear Maynard Ferguson's "Christmas for Moderns Medley." You might know that Maynard was a "scream" artist of special renown. He and his band came to the University of Minnesota-Morris twice.
Phil Driscoll has done some very tasteful Christmas arrangements, showcasing brass. So have Doc Severinsen, Jim Manley and Vaughn Nark. Del places a "warning" at the bottom of the CD back: "This disc contains some vocals!"
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
Civil War history is an area of special interest for me. I have written three blog posts inspired by the Sam Smith "running rifleman" statue of Summit Cemetery here in Morris. I'm especially proud of the third of these posts: a comprehensive story of Smith's life.
Turns out, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" grew out of the horrible U.S. Civil War. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem in 1863. He gave it the name "Christmas Bells." The Civil War had tragedy for the famed American poet. His oldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow joined Union forces without his father's blessing. Charles got an appointment as lieutenant. He was severely wounded in November of 1863 in the battle of New Hope Church in Virginia, during the Mine Run campaign.
Adding to the tragedy was the death of the poet's wife Frances from an accidental fire. The poet wrote "Christmas Bells" out of the despair he felt. It wouldn't be a classic Christmas song or carol if it was all despair, no inspiration. The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among mankind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day, 1863. It was first published in February of 1865 in the juvenile magazine "Our Young Folks."
Getting music established w/ poem
The poem was not set to music until 1872. John Baptiste Calkin used the poem in a processional accompanied by a melody he previously used, going back to 1848. (I'm surprised that a poem and melody written separate from each other could be coupled like this. Maybe I'm not getting the whole story.)
Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash recorded this version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." But we learn the poem has been set to more than one melody. A less common version has the poem set to "Mainzer" which was written in 1845. Is "Mainzer" derived from "manger?" No, the melody was written by Joseph Mainzer.
But wait, there are other versions, still, including one written in 2011 by the British pianist Jack Gibbons.
Johnny Marks of "Rudolph and Red-Nosed Reindeer" fame was captivated by the poem, and he set it to music in the 1950s. It is Marks' version or interpretation that we hear most often today.
Remember Ed Ames? He's among the star-filled roster to have recorded the song. Ames came up in entertainment ranks as a singer, but that changed pretty decisively when he was enlisted as an actor. He played the Indian in the "Daniel Boone" TV series, remember? But his biggest step into fame might have been when he guested on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and threw that axe. I have always wondered how spontaneous that really was. Without the "accident" I don't see how entertaining this would have been. (For those unaware, the axe struck the genital area on the drawing. Carson was ready with a "zinger.")
Kate Smith recorded "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." So did Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby and The Carpenters. Why did Karen Carpenter have to leave us when she did? She had an eating disorder. She was probably deathly afraid of putting on weight in those days when an "attractive" female had to fit a certain profile. No one would care all that much today. We'd love to hear Karen Carpenter sing "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" today.
Sci-fi writer enthralled by song
Ray Bradbury loved this Christmas song. He worked it into his novel writing, specifically his 1962 novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes." The whistled carol is an ironic presage of the evil that Cooger and Dark's carnival is about to bring to Green Town IL. Bradbury described the carol as "immensely moving, overwhelming, no matter what day or what month it was sung."
I should add that Bradbury was known to tell people he was "a graduate of the Los Angeles Public Library." I'm sure our Morris Public Library director, Melissa Yauk, would be delighted hearing that.
I saw an author on C-Span speaking about a book he wrote, about "blue collar intellectuals," that featured Bradbury among others (like Milton Friedman). The book was about people from a blue collar background who entered "the life of the mind." I have working class friends who are thinkers to a strong degree. I hope they look upon me likewise. Merry Christmas.
Addendum: Today we remember just the first verse, or the first few, of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." But there were four other verses that Longfellow originally wrote, which are now largely forgotten. They spoke directly to the events of the war that Christmas of 1863, and of the renewal of faith in that time of terrible trial. The first of these verses evoked the cannons' roar heard across the land.
But even then, the last verse brought a triumphant re-affirmation of the Christmas message.
Let's all embrace that. Let's embrace hope.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org