DEL MAR — Hundreds of residents and passersby gathered outside the L’Auberge Del Mar on Dec. 24 for the 41st annual Christmas Eve concert — a longstanding holiday tradition for many a North County music-lover.
The free, afternoon event featured 20 musicians, with jazzy tunes and renditions of everything from The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to the Bob Wells and Mel Tormé classic “The Christmas Song.”
The sun came out behind the clouds just in time for Del Martians to set up folding chairs across every square inch of the hotel’s lawn area, many sporting Rudolph antlers, Christmas sweaters or red Santa hats, with antler-wearing pups in tow.
Tom O’Shea, an Encinitas resident who has been coming to the concert for 10 years, danced up and down the walkways, clapping in time to the jazz riffs.
“Most jazz listeners are sitters, but they’re happy for me to do my thing,” O’ Shea said. “It’s such a wonderful atmosphere, wonderful music.”
When the concert first began in 1978, it wasn’t so much a formal concert as an opportunity for a few local youngsters to busk in Olde Del Mar. One of those youngsters? San Diego jazz legend Peter Sprague.
Now over 40 years later, Sprague remembers when the concert was just he, his brother Tripp, and their band — The Dance of the Universe Orchestra — playing a largely improvised set list for five or so people. They performed one of their first Christmas Eve sets on the sidewalk in front of what was formerly the Golden Rolling Belly (now Jimmy O’s), on the corner of 15th Street and Camino Del Mar.
“It wasn’t legit, it was just a spontaneous thing that happened,” he said. “But it gained momentum. Now, it’s crowded.”
Crowded indeed — the event drew upwards of 300 people, with passersby watching from the adjacent sidewalks and bicyclists pausing on Camino Del Mar to get a better peek of the band. With only five musicians in its early days, the concert’s ensemble now brings together several vocalists, guitarists, a double bass player, a keyboard player, a violinist, a trombone player, a drummer, a flutist and a saxophonist.
The brothers still remain as the original anchors of the group, with Peter on his double-necked guitar and Tripp on the saxophone.
Speaking from his Encinitas-based studio (“Spragueland”), Sprague said the group didn’t consciously set out to make the event a tradition. As the crowds blossomed over the years and began spilling out onto the street, the band members opted to move it to the outdoor area in front of L’Auberge about 20 years ago. Since then, Sprague said it’s a day “everyone sets their calendar to,” — not just the returning musicians, but music-hankering locals as well.
Sprague noted that the musicians all donate their time for free to make the event happen year after year, though he is hoping to perhaps find a sponsor down the road.
“Of course we would do it anyway, it would just be cool,” he said.
Sprague said he structures the concert into two parts — the first being the core group of regulars, and the second inviting in younger musicians who are “just getting a start.”
San Diego native Nina Francis, 26, has been singing at the concert since she was 13 — she has been a mentee of Sprague’s since he recorded her high school jazz band’s music. She said she enjoys coming back to the concert year after year and seeing so many familiar faces.
“It really is like a community,” Francis said.
Although the event has changed over the decades and become more “polished,” Sprague said it still maintains the same spirit.
“To me it harks back to a time when Del Mar was kind of a looser, hippy town,” he said.
Sprague, who has won a handful of awards for Best Jazz Artist and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Diego Music Awards, “think(s) it’s neat” that the concert has continued over the trajectory of his career, from a “little kid” to an award-winning, esteemed musician.
“My intent with music and how it fits in my life is — I’m 63, my intent is to not retire, but to just keep doing it,” he said.
As such, Sprague plans to keep the concert going “as long as we can.”
“Doing that Christmas concert is kind of like busking at a higher level, and I think it’s a neat kind of art to say we’re going to continue to do that,” Sprague said. “And if things become really bad, we’re just going to go on the street corner and play for dollar bills.”