For a band whose sole purpose is to play the soundtrack of a 50-year-old TV Christmas special for just one week out of the year, the gig would seem a rather simple one — show up, play the tunes, collect the money, go home. For keyboardist Jen Gunderman, however, being the leader of the seasonal combo The Ornaments is anything but humdrum.
“Our shows at the Belcourt are always wonderful,” Gunderman says. “The very first year, the parents started letting the kids go down front. Before we knew what was happening, there was a little baby mosh pit — children pogoing like I’d never seen before in my life. There was one little girl who hooked her fingers onto the stage and swung her leg up. She was going to get on that stage no matter what, and then her mom came running up and grabbed her. It was hilarious and so fun. What’s going on in front of us is always more interesting than what’s on the stage.”
Such a spontaneous audience reaction is helped along by the music — Vince Guaraldi’s classic jazz soundtrack to the beloved holiday animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas. For the past decade, The Ornaments — Gunderman on piano, James “Hags” Haggerty on bass, and Martin Lynds on drums, along with an assorted mix of guest musicians — have been bringing musical Christmas cheer to Nashville audiences.
The Ornaments’ performances go beyond the simple invocation of nostalgia or the pure joy of a group of experienced musicians jamming familiar tunes. The group’s annual shows have come to symbolize Nashville’s fellowship of musicians, as well as the joy of sharing special musical moments with an audience. But alongside that seasonal celebration of music and camaraderie is the story of Gunderman’s personal artistic and emotional journey. It’s a tale of discovery that reflects Charles Schultz’s unpretentious, yet complex tale of the search for the true meaning of Christmas and how even the saddest of Christmas trees can become a centerpiece of joy and goodwill with some help from friends.
Gunderman’s personal musical journey began when she was only a few years younger than Schultz’s cartoon musical prodigy, Schroeder. “I started piano lessons when I was 5 because I had a kindergarten teacher who played that I really admired,” she says. “I went to high school in Kansas and college in New York, and I studied classical music pretty much exclusively and majored in classical piano.”
Although Gunderman loved all types of music, her concentration on classical was the result of the limited musical options that seemed available in the pre-riot grrrl world of the 1980s. “I was in a jazz ensemble in high school, and I loved rock & roll, but I’m not sure I ever saw a woman playing on stage in a side role,” she recalls. “I knew I didn’t want to be a lead singer, so being a rock musician just wasn’t on my radar. I was very serious about music, but I didn’t think there was much potential for me to play professionally because I knew I wasn’t a good enough classical player. When I got out of college, I moved to Manhattan, and the second job I got was working in the A&R department at Columbia Records.”
Working for a record company kept her around music, but Gunderman wasn’t expecting to play. That’s when a chance occurrence planted a seed that eventually sprouted opportunity. “I met the band DAG,” she says. “They were a funk/R&B group from Raleigh, N.C., who were signed to Columbia. They were recording an album in Muscle Shoals. I was the assistant to the A&R guy, and he was cool enough to let me tag along. One day we were in the studio and nothing was happening, so I sat down at the piano and started playing Chopin. The producer came in and was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ because I was just the girl that answered telephones. I ended up shaking a tambourine on some of the recordings, and it was so fun hanging out and watching them record.” Although the rock music bug had bit her, Gunderman didn’t realize how deeply the contagion had entered her bloodstream until she left the record business to continue her education.
“I was in the middle of a Ph.D. program in Seattle when the guitar player from DAG called and said their keyboard player quit,” she recalls. “I spent a couple of years on the road in the van, and that’s how I got into playing with bands.”
Relocating to Raleigh, Gunderman also strengthened her relationship with guitarist Audley Freed. His band, Cry of Love, was signed to Columbia as well, and the couple had been dating since meeting in New York. They married in 2000, and that same year, Gunderman left DAG to play keyboards for the country-rock outfit The Jayhawks.
“That was a couple of years of amazing learning,” she says. “DAG’s music was probably more technically challenging, but the Jayhawks would just let anything happen. They hated rehearsing and were pretty freewheeling, so that’s where I learned how to improvise and really play with a band.”
After two years with The Jayhawks and a year backing singer-songwriter Caitlin Cary, Gunderman moved to Nashville with her husband. She quickly became an in-demand session and road player.
“I took Will Kimbrough’s advice and said yes to everything that people offered,” Gunderman says. “I started gigging all over town, doing session work or playing live gigs, but the stress of both Audley and I being freelance eventually got to me. We had just bought our house in Inglewood, and I thought one of us needed to have a steady job. I sent a letter to every music school and music store asking if they had a room where I could teach piano lessons. The only person I heard back from was the Dean of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt.”
Gunderman soon joined the school as an instructor and has divided her time between academics and session work for more than 10 years. “I was lucky to find such an open-minded dean,” she says. “I think the combination of graduate school and being in rock bands piqued his interest. It’s been a great working relationship.”
Like the phone call that brought her into the rock world, the next change in her career came about purely through happenstance. “I was in a van on the road with Eric Brace’s band, Last Train Home, and we were listening to the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas and agreeing that it was the best Christmas record ever made,” Gunderman says. “I just happened to mention that I had sheet music for it, and we should get together sometime and jam with it. Eric got so excited about the idea that he called Jamie Rubin at The Family Wash, and five minutes later, there was a gig booked. It just went from there.”
First broadcast in December of 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become a holiday tradition. Adapted from Charles Schultz’s popular comic strip, Peanuts, and broadcast on national network television every December for the last five decades, the show now has generations of followers who have grown up watching Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas.
Even though its limited animation may seem dated by today’s digital standards, Schultz’s classic tale combines whimsical humor with the deeper themes of loneliness, depression, and the over-commercialization of Christmas. The story is powered by a superb piano jazz soundtrack by Guaraldi that mixes Christmastime standards (“O Tannenbaum” and “What Child Is This?”) with memorable originals (“Christmas Is Coming” and “Christmas Time Is Here”). For Gunderman and the musicians that joined her, it proved to be the perfect match of the immediately familiar with the opportunity for creative reinterpretation.
“It’s just a straight-ahead small jazz combo sound that never goes out of style,” Gunderman says. “We’re not jazz musicians. It’s imperfect the way we play it, but I tricked myself into thinking that there wouldn’t be any heavy jazz players listening to us.
The Ornaments’ “imperfect” performances were an immediate hit with audiences. After the first year at the Wash, the group expanded to other venues, spreading several shows throughout the week before Christmas.“
When we sold out the Belcourt the first time, I thought, ‘Oh Lord, they’re going to think we’re such posers,’ ” Gunderman says. “But I think the fact that we were not so precious with it — asking people to sing along, having guest musicians come up and jam with us — enables us to get directly to the joy of the music rather than worrying about being technically perfect. It really evolved organically. We’ve never had a problem finding bookings. People started approaching us, and we had to decide how many shows we could do in a week. Jim Gray from Last Train Home played bass the first couple of years, but he bowed out once we decided to make it an ongoing thing. Hags came on board at that point, and it’s been the three of us for eight years now, along with various guests.”
Over the years, the lineup of guests has included such first-class Nashville players as multi-instrumentalists Jim Hoke and Randy Leago, pedal steel player Pete Finney, guitarist Joe Pisapia, sax player Jimmy Bowland, trombonist Roy Agee, and many others.“
There’s genuine joy at all the gigs,” Gunderman says. “The feel changes depending on who the extra players are. We never rehearse with any of them and even though the soloists only play on a few songs, what they contribute is so wonderful. That’s something that’s helped to keep everything fresh musically. There’s plenty in there to keep us interested, especially great people on different instruments pulling it in one direction or another every night.”
For The Ornaments’ 10th anniversary, they are focused on the three Nashville venues that have become the band’s traditional residences, along with a private performance at a local retirement community. The Ornaments will be performing two shows nightly at The Family Wash, Dec. 16-19, and 21, a brunch-time show at the Wash on Dec. 20, a children’s matinee at the Belcourt on Dec. 19, and a closing show at 3rd & Lindsley on Dec. 22 that will feature a guest appearance by the brass ensemble Tuba Christmas Nashville. In past years, each show has attracted a different audience and brought special surprises, whether it was spontaneous pogoing preschoolers just discovering the feet-moving bop of “Linus and Lucy” or an ad hoc choir of retirees who blended their voices on the “loo-loo-loo’s” of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
In addition to the joy of performing, camaraderie, and audience reactions, Gunderman also has a deeper emotional tie to the music and the annual presentations — one that she’s kept close to her heart for the last 10 years.
“The guys in the band know this, and some of my close friends know it, but I would never mention it during a gig — these shows are for my dad,” she explains. “He died suddenly and unexpectedly on Christmas morning in 2003. The next year Christmas was still just a nightmare, but hearing this music was the first Christmas-related thing that I could even stand. Like Charles Schultz, my dad was from Minnesota, and he loved Peanuts, and he loved that record. When we played that first gig at the Wash in 2005, it made me feel good about at least a piece of the holiday.“
Afterwards, I realized this was the way to reclaim the holiday and pay tribute to my father,” she continues. “Christmas is hard for everyone. We all have a family member that is missing or some type of conflict, but we’re supposed to be having a good time. The Ornaments grew out of a rotten experience, but it’s become a beautiful and positive thing. It’s taught me a lot about working through grief, and working through the fear of being the lead person on stage, and even the fear of playing jazz.”
Beyond her personal emotional connections to the music, Gunderman sees a universal appeal in the simplicity of the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas.“
There is such an earnestness to A Charlie Brown Christmas,” she says. “It’s not saccharine. It’s really quite dark in places, but it speaks truthfully to the difficulty that most people have with the holidays. Even children can pick up on that. It’s about redemption — not feeling right at Christmas and then learning how to feel right. I think it was a magic moment in pop culture history, and it’s miraculous that it still resonates with people 50 years later.”