Christmas Quartet

You’ve done “The Nutcracker” and the office party. The tree’s up, and it’s time to abandon the agenda while you’re still up. Three things are left to do before Dec. 25 — give to charity, bake a few cookies and stay put.

If you must leave the house, take the family Sunday to Our Lady of Malibu for the free concert, “A Jazz Classic Christmas,” starring vocalist Merry Clayton, harpist Carmen Dragon, saxophonist Curtis Amy and cellist Marston Smith.

Dragon is known for soothing the soul year-round. Talk to the woman a minute and you hear soft, celestial and spiritual notes of harp in her voice. Although she’d put it differently, the message of the longtime Malibuite and guiding light behind the second annual concert is, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Backed by keyboard, flute, bassoon and percussion, Dragon assembles an elegant quartet of performers for the expected tunes, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts roasting…) and “Joy to the World.” What’s unexpected are the arrangements.

“I condensed some of my father’s full 80-piece orchestra scores down to chamber arrangements for eight pieces,” Dragon explains. “The synthesizer handles the transposition of instruments such as trumpets and horns for keyboard.”

Carmen Dragon, Sr., the late Glendale Symphony maestro and film composer, conducted holiday concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for nearly three decades. “It’s nice to be able to carry on those traditions,” she says.


Christmas traditions evoke cherished memories for pop, rock and gospel diva Merry Clayton. “My father was a bishop in New Orleans,” says Clayton, whose two brothers and a sister are also ministers.

“It was a time of making sure that people who didn’t have, had. With hot chocolate in thermoses, riding in the car, we’d go as a family to deliver baskets and turkeys. It’s what you did.”

The bishop often told his daughter, who was born Christmas day, “You came to us on Christmas, baby, and life hasn’t been the same since.”

When the family moved to Los Angeles, Clayton sang in the Morin Moriah Baptist Church choir with Darlene Love, lead singer of The Blossoms. At 14, she debuted with Bobby Darin at the Coconut Grove. The teen-ager recorded with Darin, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Della Reese and more.

For five years Clayton appeared with Ray Charles as a member of The Raelettes. The young songbird took to Charles’ musical director, Curtis Amy; the couple was married in 1970.

Recording highlights include four solo albums; solo, duet and back-up for the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” and for Carole King’s “Tapestry;” vocals for Joe Cocker (five albums) and Bob Dylan. Clayton is featured on soundtracks for the Stones’ film, “Performance;” Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud;” the rock opera, “Tommy” and the 14 million-selling “Dirty Dancing.”

On stage, Clayton created the Acid Queen for the original London production of “Tommy.” She appeared in the features “Maid to Order” (with Malibuite Michael Ontkean) and “Blame It On The Night” and as a series regular on “Cagney & Lacey.”

In 1996, Clayton, Darlene Love and Marianne Faithful celebrated a three-month, sold-out engagement at New York’s Rainbow Room. Her touring, symphony and concert dates, both here and abroad, are extensive.

Jazzman Curtis Amy came to Los Angeles in 1955. He remembers holidays back home in Houston to mean good cheer, good food and lots of it. “Are you kidding?” says Amy, “It’s Texas; everything is big.

“For Christmas, my grandmother made a special chocolate cake she knew I loved,” he says. “With a half inch of icing. My mother let me scrape the batter, then I’d clean out the icing bowl.” Amy savors the sweetness of half a century ago as though he were tasting it that moment.

In 1960, the tenor and soprano saxist brought a blues background to Pacific Jazz Records. He made six albums for the label, the last of which, “Katanga,” was reissued in October. “Katanga” joins a series of legendary West Coast recordings that Blue Note revisits.

Following “Sounds of Broadway, Sounds of Hollywood” for Palomar, Amy recorded “Mustang” on Verve; a reissue is expected next year. In 1994, he returned to the studio with “Peace for Love” on the Fresh Sounds label. “Peace for Love” liner notes look back on Amy’s solo contributions to “Tapestry,” to the Doors’ “Soft Parade” and “Touch Me” and to the albums of Lou Rawls, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, among others.

For this concert, cellist Marston Smith departs from the popular format. Smith will perform unique Celtic compositions upon a custom-made, electric cello. His full Renaissance costume promises to be a sure kid-pleaser.

The Malibuite is featured on albums of more than a dozen recording stars and with the band, Earth, Wind and Fire. Smith’s studio work includes soundtracks for “Out of Africa,” “Officer and a Gentleman,” “Poltergeist” and “The Right Stuff,” to name a few, as well as recording for many TV series. Concert credits include work with Air Supply, Burt Bacharach, George Benson, Jackson Browne, John Denver and Dionne Warwick.

The quartet rehearsed at the musician’s union, Local 47, in Hollywood. All music is courtesy of the Recording Industries’ Music Performance Trust Funds.

“A Jazz Classic Christmas,” Dec. 20, 7:30 p.m., Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church, 3625 Winter Cyn. Rd., 456-2361.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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