By Ande Jacobson
For some, the holiday season starts when decorations begin appearing all over town, which these days could happen as early as July. For others, it’s Thanksgiving. That feast signals the start of gatherings with friends, family, colleagues, or even among friendly strangers on the street. For others still, it’s when those ubiquitous brass quintets start playing all over enticing listeners to drop a few cents (or dollars) into their bright red kettles. None of those can hold a candle to the thrill that has enthralled San Jose on the third Saturday of December for over two decades (in 2018, it’s the 15th, the earliest possible date). That fateful day marks the holiday tradition known as the San Jose Saxophone Christmas, or SJ SaxMas for short. This year marks the 25th Annual SJ SaxMas, and it’s set to be the biggest yet.
What is San Jose Saxophone Christmas you might ask? It is the day when over 200 saxophone players gather together to play holiday music. Last year, there were 218 players. Another recent year there were 221, but the record so far was 224. The players of all shapes, sizes, and ages range from musicians just starting out to professionals who have been playing for many decades. And the saxes they play include some not seen elsewhere ranging from a soprillo sax, the tiniest commercially made saxophone in existence, to the contrabass, the biggest saxophone made, along with everything in between.
A friend who used to play cello for the San Francisco Symphony came every year claiming that for him, the holiday season didn’t start until he got to hear the “saxophone orchestra.” No matter what you call it, it’s a special event.
Ray Bernd is the founder of SJ SaxMas. 25 years ago, he started with a small group of saxophone enthusiasts at Christmas in the Park in San Jose. That cold, December evening began a holiday tradition that has grown in participation and audience over the years and now reaches far beyond the local area. Ray has received inquiries from all over the country asking about this event. He writes most of the arrangements for the group taking holiday tunes, and borrowing from here and there, to create masterpieces that showcase just what saxophones can do. A few years back, he even started a second SaxMas event up in the Sacramento area. The Sacramento edition performs on the first Saturday of December and celebrated its 7th annual event on 1 December 2018. It’s not as big as the San Jose event yet, but it’s still pretty young. Sacramento’s SaxMas may be over for this year, but the San Jose event is revving up to dazzle audiences on Saturday, 15 December 2018.
The players gather in the morning the day of the concerts. They don’t get the music ahead of time, but those who have been participating for many years have probably played most of the repertoire over time. Ray has a large library that he rotates through, although he often revises the charts between airings. He also adds one to three new charts each year, so there is new material for everyone.
After renewing old friendships and rehearsing for a couple of hours, the group sets out to perform two concerts around town. The first is outdoors (weather permitting), and the second is indoors. This year, due to the changing local landscape, the concerts are not in the locations they’ve been in for the past several years. This year, the first concert is at 2 p.m. at Santana Row. The second concert is at 5 p.m. at Eastridge Shopping Mall. Although the group has been playing their indoor concert at Vallco Fashion Mall for the last several years, they had played at Eastridge for many of their earlier years, so this time is a little like returning home.
Do yourself a favor and come listen to the *free* holiday saxophones on Saturday, 15 December 2018 at:
2 p.m. – Santana Row in front of the fountain by Vintage Wine Bar, near Left Bank Brasserie
5 p.m. – Eastridge Shopping Mall in the Center Court area on the first floor, near the elevators – right in the center of the mall.
Here’s a little sample from previous SaxMases of what you’ll hear:
There is sometimes even choreography:
Here’s that first tune again, but this time a year later showing the bari and bass sax choreography. They are an energetic bunch.
Don’t miss 2018’s special edition of SJ SaxMas.