By Rod Peck
On Friday night, Nov. 22, local music fans were treated to a terrific kick-off to the holiday season with “A Cool Jazz Christmas” concert put on by the Muscatine Civic Chorale and the Mad Creek Mudcats at Muscatine Community College’s Bob Roach Little Theater. The program was directed by retired MCC music instructor Jan Phillips and is part of the school’s 90th anniversary celebration. My wife Terri and I are both alumni of MCC, and it was great for us both personally to be on hand.
For Terri and me, the evening started out just like every Friday night for us, with a pizza at Salvatore’s Ristorante by Papà Reno, located in downtown Muscatine on E 2nd Street. There may be a better pizza in Muscatine than Salvatore’s . . . I just don’t know where it is! For 10 years now we’ve been getting a pizza on Friday nights at Salvatore’s, and it never fails to live up to our always-high expectations. An indispensable part of Muscatine’s culinary landscape.
Shortly after we arrived at MCC, it was happily apparent that attendance at this concert had been under-estimated as staff was hurriedly setting up additional seating around the theater. It was great to see so many people coming out to support the program! When I’m attending a performance by amateur musicians, I always tell myself, “OK, remember that these folks are not pros, and so keep your expectations in check.” However, it was obvious from the get-go that this was no ordinary concert by a part-time choir, to which much credit must go to Mrs. Phillips, who is no amateur herself. Associated with the chorale since 1995 and MCC music instructor for 16 years before retiring in 2016, it was clear just by the confidence of her body language that she knew the choir had their material down pat.
In fact, the chorale was so well-rehearsed that the only miscue of the evening was choreographed into “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with sections of the singers intentionally coming in with the wrong days. This fooled me at first and I groaned inside, but then I realized that this was all a joke when everyone, including Mrs. Phillips, was laughing! Soloists Nathan Paulsen and Jenni Colbert, as well as accompanists Anita Zahniser and Sally Potter, all deserve special praise for their stellar contributions to this part of the show.
After the opening set by the chorale, the Mudcats came out and performed a set of Roaring ‘20’s era Jazz that was completely appropriate, considering MCC was founded in 1929. The Mudcats’ set can only be described as joyous; in fact I recall thinking while they were playing, “the only thing that could make this group more fun is if Louis Armstrong himself suddenly dropped down through the ceiling and joined in on trumpet!” Everyone around me, myself included, was smiling and toe-tapping throughout as the Mudcats played such classics as Joe Oliver’s “Sugar Foot Stomp.”
The final leg of the concert featured the Mudcats supporting the choir on a simply delightful collection of holiday standards, highlighted by soloist Sarah Fiedler on a “White Christmas Medley.” Once again, Mrs. Phillips must come in for high praise here; it’s a big enough chore to direct a 35-voice choir, but to coordinate them with a band that numbered nine musicians total is another feat in itself. In fact, it’s safe to say that she was the true star of the evening. Doubtless many hours of hard work by director, musicians and singers had gone into preparing the program, and on this night it all came together beautifully. Not only was the music in the show finely tuned as well as tremendously entertaining, but Mrs. Phillips was able to play host with total aplomb, graciousness and humor, giving the impression that it was all “no sweat a-tall.” What a treasure she is for our community!
I would love to see “A Cool Jazz Christmas” become part of Muscatine’s annual holiday events, just like the Holiday Stroll, as it is genuinely high-quality entertainment of the sort any small town in mid-America could be proud of. In fact, it’s already in need of a bigger venue, perhaps one of the churches or the high-school auditorium could play host in the future and it could be advertised a bit more widely. I have a feeling that those who were on hand could be witnessing the start of a new tradition.