It was a damp cold night and I stomped my feet to keep warm on the windy platform of the Long Island Railroad Station in Station Square (built, 1912) in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens. The Tudor architecture formed a graceful stone piazza with arches, arcades and turrets. Underneath the station was a niche filled with a crèche, and on the tiny center island, a tall Christmas tree. I stood in this exact spot on Christmas Eve as part of my family’s choir for as long as I can remember.
My brother, Bill, was the Concert Master, composer, arranger, conductor and the fourth trombonist of the Christmas Celebration of Carols. Bill wrote hundreds of carol arrangements that were original, and very beautiful with complex harmonies. The stand -out voice was my father’s magnificent operatic basso. He would belt out Good King Wenceslas Looked Out on the Feast of Stephen. There were other fine voices of musical friends and family members. I was the utility family alto, but if I thought I knew the alto part of Adeste Fideles, three years later Bill would write another challenging version. This was the most important night of the year for Bill, a lifelong bachelor, when he could share his talent with his family, dearest friends, in The Gardens, the community he so loved and where he lived his entire life. One Christmas, when my brother was enduring his lonely stint in the army in Korea, he sent his arrangements home so the tradition could go on without him.
The Celebration included a superb brass choir composed of first-class professional musicians who played Bill’s arrangements in sweet muted harmony. Our dear family friend and Bill’s trombone teacher, Cliff, was a gifted jazz musician (so good, he once stood in for Tommy Dorsey). He was a large man, warm, and gentle with a soft light laugh, and lips swollen from years of playing the horn. On two occasions, the famous jazz trumpeter Thad Jones joined us. I remember sitting in our small kitchen sipping tea Mom had brewed for him. The horn players always had flasks of vodka for “medicinal purposes” and they would grease the slides of their trombones with Ponds Cold Cream so they did not freeze in the damp cold air. They also greased their lips with shots of booze. When Bill noticed me shivering, he handed me a flask and said “Take a sip, Kath, it will warm you up.” I grimaced and sputtered when the raw vodka burned my throat generating guffaws of laughter. A train pulled up and the conductor called out a hearty “Merry Christmas!” Cliff handed him a flask and he took a great swig and hopped back on the train.
The tenor section had only two singers; my husband, Paul with his sweet “Tony Bennett style” and Cliff’s son, Dee, who never learned his part and made Paul laugh so hard he could hardly sing, although, for the most part, we took our performance seriously, not wanting to let Bill down. When it was finally time, we assembled on a small ledge over the Square squeezed together for harmony and warmth. Bill would command, “One, two, three, four,” and we would lean in to sing well. Our strong voices seemed to disappear in the bitter cold and it was over before you knew it, but we were relieved and proud when we walked down the flights of stone stairs to join the crowd. Santa arrived in a sleigh with candy canes for the little ones crying out in the dark “Mer…. ry Christmas!
After, we gathered in Bill’s modest apartment to warm up and drink his hot buttered rum served in a huge copper cauldron. Friends streamed in with babies on their shoulders, filling his cozy apartment with wall –to- wall revelers. Everyone finally went home except for Bill who spent Christmas Eve with Cliff’s family, often staying up until dawn. To this day, I can’t hear a brass choir play carols without tears coming to my eyes.
By Katherine Ryden