This December, world-class jazz bass player Sean Drabitt leaves the bright lights and snow in New York City to return to his home city of Victoria to perform in a tradition that’s close to his heart.
It’s one of the city’s biggest holiday hits over the past two decades, and one that he started: A Charlie Brown Christmas at Hermann’s Jazz Club.
“I remember doing that show probably 15 years ago or more when I started it and then, maybe 10 years later, I noticed they were all over North America. Every city has a Charlie Brown show now at Christmas. But when I first started doing it, I didn’t remember seeing anybody else doing it,” Drabitt said.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has it all: a turkey dinner, sing-along sheet music for the audience, and top-tier musicians bringing the animation’s soundtrack to life while the original 1965 film streams silently on a TV. Drabitt’s musical show remains remarkably unchanged from its inception, including Brit Jarvis still on piano. The only change is Joe Pool, a drummer from Vancouver, stepping in for Drabitt’s close friend, Josh Dixon, who passed away. Nothing much has needed to change, because Drabitt said the show has always just worked.
“I thought when I first put it together, ‘This is something that people will want to come back to every year’ and it came to be exactly that.”
Drabitt was inspired to start the show because the music had a huge influence on his career.
“I’d say that [animation] and Tom and Jerry cartoons are some of the first exposure I had to real straight-ahead jazz,” he said. “It became my life doing that for a living, and it had a certain impact on me. You know, everyone loves that music.”
“Be-bop was around in the ‘40s and it became more musician’s music so people saw it being more of an intellectual exercise. [Whereas] hard-bop brought the blues back, it brought it more accessible. Charlie Brown, Vince Guaraldi’s music, and Horace Silver really added that hard-bop movement and playing. Of course, I didn’t realize any of that at the time, I just liked it.”
Drabitt, now 53, said his career started when he was 15, and playing jazz is all he’s ever done for a living.
Originally, he started off with electric bass, but a switch to the upright proved to be a challenge he had to overcome to launch his jazz career.
“I kind of hated it for a year – it’s a painful, hard instrument, but once you start to get it together it has its merits,” he said. Consider that his hands need to smoothly cover 42 inches of string to create the elaborate voicings of jazz baselines.
“In order to produce a good sound, you really have to pin the notes with your left hand and pull a sound out of the bass with your right … and a lot of the work and practice with the bow is just to be able to focus your energy so you’re relaxed in every other way except the amount of effort you need to put in.”
“But I love it. I have no regrets, I never wanted to play anything else after that.”
After performing and teaching music in Korea for the last five years, Drabitt has found his groove in New York. It’s a competitive environment, where he has to know over 1,000 songs at any time off hand. Though he loves it, A Charlie Brown Christmas in Victoria remains his holiday homecoming. He has, after all, performed at Hermann’s since he was 15.
“I love that show. Half of my life I’ve been coming out to Victoria to do it,” Drabitt said. “I have so many great memories playing there through the years.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas returns to Hermann’s Jazz Club with multiple shows Dec. 21 and 22.