This December 21, 2013 witnessed the 41st annual Aardvark Christmas Concert, an event first held on December 23, 1973. The concert is a tradition in Boston, always well attended—this year they ran out of programs.

Flyer for 1973 Aardvark Christmas Concert

Flyer for first Aardvark Christmas concert, 1973

Aardvark itself upholds two concert-night traditions it started in 1973—that the program be musically arresting, and that the night benefit a good cause. This year Aardvark did both, again, in most pleasing fashion. It performed the entire Ellington-Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite, and I can’t recall anybody doing that in Boston, and it donated generously to the Pine Street Inn. ‘Tis the season.

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is of course the chief musical preoccupation of trumpeter, composer, and arranger Mark Harvey. He was already something of a Christmas music veteran in 1973. For three years he’d been leading the Boston Brass Ensemble, a group he organized to play at the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and other holiday events. Aardvark grew out of the Boston Brass Ensemble. It added a rhythm section to the brass group, and it expanded the repertoire into the realms of Harvey’s interests, big-band and free jazz.

Christmas in Gospel and Brass was a benefit to aid the victims of the devastating October fire in Chelsea, and it was by no means a run-of-the-mill holiday concert. Aardvark teamed with the Ronald Ingraham Concert Choir for the evening, and a crowd of about 600 turned out to hear them at the Church of the Covenant at 67 Newbury Street.

Ray Murphy opened his enthusiastic Boston Globe review the next day with: “A most eclectic Christmas concert filled the Church of the Covenant with shades of Christmas past, present and future last night when the Boston Brass Ensemble and the Ronald Ingraham Gospel Choir combined their considerable talents.” The “Aardvark” name was so new, Murphy missed it.

The Brass Ensemble (without rhythm section) played a varied set, moving from medieval plainchants through Bach chorales, traditional Appalachian carols, and music by Debussy and Gabrieli.

The 16-member Ronald Ingraham Concert Choir followed with what Murphy called “its own gospel brand of religious ecstasy.”

Then the rhythm section joined the brass for a half-dozen pieces, including “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (also played at the 41st concert), Duke Pearson’s “Christo Redentor,” and the finale, “Gloria,” from Harvey’s Mass.

The encore brought Aardvark and the Ingraham choir together for a hand-clapping, standing-in-the-aisles rendition of “Amen” from the movie Lilies of the Field. It was joyous. And no one wanted it to stop.

Thus started the grand tradition of the Aardvark Christmas Concert. No one—not Harvey, not anybody—could have imagined we’d have forty more, and still be counting as 2013 concludes. It also, said Harvey, “established the larger identity of Aardvark as a group oriented toward exploring and experimenting with new ideas and approaches, yet also interested in respecting tradition by reinterpreting and extending it.”

For the record, Aardvark’s personnel for that first concert included Ritchie Garrick, Skip Potter, Claudio Roditi, Pancho Saenz, and Mark Harvey, trumpets; John Clark, Ed Goble, and Mike Johns, French horns; Tom Everett, Tom Plsek, and Raul DeSousa, trombones; Sam Pilafian, tuba; Ted Lagodmos, vibes; Chris Amberger and John Voigt, bass; Billy Elgart, drums; and Carla Bee, soprano voice.

The 2007 Christmas Concert introduced “No Walls,” with its soaring finale, and I was pleased to find a video of Aardvark playing it. No video can match the impact of hearing this triumphant piece in performance, but give a listen for a little taste.