“Bending Towards the Light – A Jazz Nativity”

Anne Phillips’ longstanding New York holiday tradition bringing people of all backgrounds together to tell the Christmas story thru music.

Anne Phillips is an established musical writer, arranger, producer, and singer of Bending Towards the Light – The Jazz Nativity. Additional music by Bob Kindred and Dave Brubeck Additional lyrics by Henry Timm and Iola Brubeck.

She has worked with many well known artists like Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, The Tops, Lesley Gore, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bobby Vinton just to list a few legendary names.

She reminisces about her early days in NYC in the 60’s and 70’s and how busy she was with work. When Anne came to the city right after finishing at Oberlin College, she immediately found plenty of work singing and playing piano at restaurants and bars. She would be busy 6 days a week with these gigs. 

It was a golden era for musicians in New York. There was constant work with TV shows, recording sessions, concerts, jingles, and music demos for songwriters.

Anne with the Turtles for a Pepsi commercial.

She recalls recording dates that she would be involved with when a whole band was in the studio and a song would be recorded in its entirety in a single take and the great feeling everyone had when they completed a successful take.

She loves that feeling of camaraderie and collaboration from that era of young up and coming musicians like Carole King whom she sang back-up vocals for on her solo song, “It Might as Well Rain Until September” from 1962.

In addition to her amazing body of work, she is also known for her own musical creation, a jazz opera called  “Bending Towards the Light – A Jazz Nativity”. 

It’s a longstanding New York holiday tradition bringing people of all backgrounds together to tell the Christmas story thru music. The performance is an entertaining show full of joy and hope. 

The show premiered in 1985 and to this day has a large fan base no matter their religious beliefs or whether they are jazz aficionados or not. Fans continue to come every year and bring more friends. 

Anne continues to keep the show going every year. 

From the feedback she gets, she knows that people feel uplifted when they leave her show. She is energized by these fans and musicians who continue to support the show and want to be a part of it.

The show always has an incredible cast with many of the most prolific jazz musicians playing today. 

Characters in the show include the Three Kings, shepherds, and angels who in the 33 years of the show’s existence have been played by legendary musicians such as Tito Puente, Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, Al Grey, Roy Crowl, Phil Woods, Jackie Cain and tap dancers Honi Coles, Cookie Cook, and Jimmy Slyde.  

A photo from one of the earliest performances with Latin percussionist Tito Puente, tap dancer Honi Coles, and trumpeter, Doc Cheatham

The story line for the performance is based on the Christmas pageant. 

The kings, just as in the traditional version of the nativity story, come bearing their gifts , but instead of gold, myrrh, and incense, Anne’s Three Kings are a horn playing king, a tap dancing king, and the third king is always a Latin percussion or horn player bearing the gifts of their talent, music and dance. 

This year’s Three Kings feature: tap dancer, Maurice Hines, trombonist Steve Turre, and the final addition Bobby Sanabria as lead percussionist. Anne is thrilled to have Bobby participate in this upcoming performance on Sunday, December 16th.  

Bobby had previously been a special guest who played with her when the Jazz Nativity was performed in a Spanish translated version at B.B. Kings.

Bobby Sanabria and Anne Phillips at her NYC apartment excited about this year’s Jazz Nativity performance.

With her 33thannual performance of the show right around the corner, I was thrilled to meet Anne and hear about her music background and how the show came into existence.

Anne takes me back to when friend, John Garcia Gensel, a pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran church in the city and a lover of jazz music reached out to her with his idea. 

John would attend jazz shows becoming friendly with many of the musicians and because of this, he became known as the musician’s minister. John approached Anne with his idea to create a jazz nativity piece to be performed as a benefit at the church and Anne took on the challenge.

The piece today is still very true to its original concept. 

Composed of well known Christmas carols, as well as an original Anne Phillip’s song, and a piece borrowed from distinguished composer and pianist, Dave Brubeck. Anne walks me through the program in her animated way and I can tell how much she enjoys doing this. 

She explains each section of the piece both with loving detailed descriptions and also using her voice to express the instrument’s sounds. 

It starts with Christmas carols and readings all sung to Anne’s music, then upon seeing the star of Bethlehem shepherds enter singing “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “Bending Towards the Light”, and a jazz waltz version of “What Child is This” , then it moves to Mary singing a song that Anne wrote, “Softly Falls a Gentle Night” which is a lullaby, and a dancer coming in to represent the spirit of Mary. 

It all then builds up with saxophones playing “be ba bo ba po too ba…. BA BA BA BA BA TA DA DA”…..and that’s the signal for the Three Kings to enter. The performance moves to a tableau where everyone gathers around Mary and the manger scene for the kings to present their gifts of tap shoes and instruments. 

From that serene moment, the celebration starts with the Dave Brubeck piece “God’s Love Made Visible”. 

 Anne has a great back story to how she decided to use this piece. When she was a 17 year old student at Oberlin College another student at the college was putting together a jazz club and asked Anne to join.  

From there, the club decided to put on a jazz concert and asked Brubeck who had come to the college campus from California to be a part of it. 

The concert consisted of the Brubeck quartet, a conservatory trio, and Anne as the third act of this concert. The recording of this early concert later came to be the Dave Brubeck’s “Brubeck at Oberlin” album.


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