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77th Army Band brings swinging Christmas concert to Oklahoma

(77th Army Band/Facebook)

The 77th Army Band brought a swinging Christmas concert to McAlester, giving a nod to the big band era, and adding a jazzy touch to holiday favorites.

Judging by the spontaneous standing ovation that followed the band’s performance, audience members at S. Arch Thompson Auditorium for the Thursday night performance liked what they heard.

Jeff Wolf, one of the volunteers who helped arrange the concert along with Dennis Wilson of the Indian Chapter of the Scottish Rite, spoke of their hope prior to the event that people in the McAlester area would fill the auditorium for the concert sponsored by the McAlester Scottish Rite and the city of McAlester— and that’s what happened as the band played to a packed house.

Before the concert began, 1st Sgt. Andrew R. Foxworthy told the News-Capital the band had previously performed on this tour in Texas cities such as Lubbock and Amarillo, performing concerts and playing at school assemblies.

“It’s been great to get out and play music for as many people as possible,” he said. “To serve the nation through music is one of the greatest honors any of us has experienced.”

McAlester-area residents and visitors attending the event were treated to a cornucopia of Christmas music, featuring a variety of musical arrangements.

Band leader Warrant Officer 1 Martin R. Johnston joined Wilson onstage before the curtains opened after the posting of the colors by the Choctaw Honor Guard.

“We would not be here today if not for you,” Johnston said as the the curtains opened to reveal “The Pride of Fort Sill,” the 77th U.S. Army Band.

Beginning with a holiday instrumental, the band kicked it up a notch as Specialist Brittany Simmons strode onstage singing a high-octane version of “Winter Wonderland,” with an arrangement inspired by the big band era.

“I grew up an Army brat, traveling with my family,” Simmons said, calling Christmas a familiar time of year to be shared with family and friends.

The band them moved to the intro of “A Christmas Song,” Mel Tormé’s classic holiday song, popularized by Nat King Cole. Simmons sang “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” as she and the band filled the song with snaps, crackles and plenty of pops.

For “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ Simmons and the band scored with a jazzy arrangement that took the classic song to territory far removed from Dean Martin’s laid-back version.

As the applause subsided, Simmons said, “This year marks my third year as a soldier. Last year I was in Korea with my unit.”

Breaking into a big band arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” Simmons strutted across the length of the stage as she sang, jumping up and landing on the stage floor as the band hit its final note.

“It took joining the Army for me to get to go home for Christmas,” Simmons said, sharing the news she will be home for Christmas this year, before breaking into the bluesy “Please Come Home for Christmas,” going into a spit-second falsetto at all the right places.

Following Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” the concert moved from the Great American Songbook. With a guitarist playing arpeggios, picking descending and ascending notes on the strings, he led Simmons into “Oh Holy Night” — with the keyboards, drums and percussion kicking in following the opening lines.

Band members David Berggren and Dennis Montaño hoisted a pair of electric guitars and stepped to their respective right and left portions of the stage as the light screen behind then turned a sunset red, then changed to other colors and patterns. Both guitarists fired off a series of notes that led to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” combining parts of new age, classical and rock music for a unique instrumental sound.

As the song neared its peak, Berggren and Montaño both intensified their solos, backed by the rousing drums, percussion keyboards and horns behind them, until the song reached its conclusion and the two guitarists shared a fist bump after completing their intricate guitar duel.

Berggren took another turn as he again strapped on an electric guitar and stepped to the front of the stage, saying he now wanted to sing one of his favorite Christmas songs. He started slowly with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” before the entire band joined in and they launched into the full-scale, rocking Bruce Springsteen version of the holiday classic.

As the band played on behind him, Berggren said a special guest was in the building tonight. “Some call him Kris Kringle,” Berggren said, as that famous fellow dressed in white and red entered the auditorium from a side door near the stage and began running up down the aisles, thrilling the children in the audience — and quite a few grownups too, going by the smiles on their faces.

Specialist Timothy Hecker and Jarom Christensen shared saxophone duties throughout the night, with Christensen taking a solo turn on an instrumental version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“No Christmas concert would be complete without this song,” said Simmons and the band broke into that modern-day hit that’s already become a standard, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — leading to a standing ovation for the 77th Army Band as the concert concluded.

“It was a great crowd,” Simmons told the News-Capital following the concert

McAlester High School senior Desiree Torres joined the audience members who spoke with some of the band members after they exited the stage, talking briefly with Simmons.

“I’m going into the Navy in June,” Torres said. She hopes to follow in the path set by Simmons of joining a military band during her time in the service.

“I want to sing with the Navy,” said Torres said.

If the audience liked what the band brought to the concert, it appeared the feeling was mutual regarding the current tour.

“It was the best crowd I have seen,” said band member and French horn player Aaron Atwood. “Definitely the most enthusiastic and definitely the most numerically.”


(c) 2022 the McAlester News-Capital

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