Christmas With Musicians Is as Sweet as It Sounds
For most of my adult life, plus my teenage years, I've celebrated Christmas at my aunt and uncle's home just north of Los Angeles. The vibrant energy, American South–meets–California menu, and magical shape of the day is as much a creation of those who've attended the holiday feast as it is our hosts themselves.
My aunt is Patrice Rushen, whose decades-long multihyphenate career spans the highest echelons of jazz, pop, and R&B. A South Central L.A. native and versatile jazz pianist and keyboardist, she has seamlessly navigated being the lead act, music director, film composer, or featured band member with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Carlos Santana, and Lee Ritenour. But most probably know her as a singer-songwriter with groove-rich 1970s and 1980s hits like "Forget Me Nots," "Remind Me," "Haven't You Heard," and "Settle for My Love"—timeless jams that compose the sampling backbone of singles from Will Smith, Mary J. Blige, George Michael, and others. Patrice is esteemed in the industry for her past music direction of the Grammys, the Emmys, and the NAACP Awards (the first woman to do so in all cases), and her leadership has earned her the respect of mentors like Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin.
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My uncle, Marc St. Louis, is a renowned tour manager who's worked with acts like Lenny Kravitz, Guns N' Roses, Jennifer Lopez, and LeeAnn Rimes. I like to play a game where I say a city or town, and he can tell me the main venues and their capacity. Marc has likely been responsible for at least one of your favorite musical acts getting to and from a live TV taping or concert venue, ensuring that all personnel, their gear, and instruments get where they need to be. Moving large numbers of humans around in entertainment is no easy feat, and, true to his decades-long role in the vast world of live-event production, Marc tends to prefer being behind the scenes. But in January 2020, singer-songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys posted on his Instagram congratulating Marc for winning the Parnelli Tour Manager of the Year award, the most esteemed honor in the field. I figure the cat's out of the bag.
For all of their talent beyond studio and stage, my aunt and uncle are among the most generous human beings I know. Christmas at their home means you are family, even when you bear no relation. You're encouraged to come as you are, eat as much as you want, be ready to laugh, know you will need to speak up to be heard because my family does not shy from politics at dinner, and please, God, take some leftovers home.
Patrice starts on a 20-pound turkey the day before Christmas, dry-brining it overnight and slow-roasting day-of. Rubbed with her tailored blend of aromatics, spices, and more garlic than you'd believe and then treated with a dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer, depending on her mood that year, Patrice's turkey is too tender to remove whole from its roasting pan. My stepdad, Joe, usually carves it in situ and presents the brown-skinned bird on a serving platter. Patrice begins the collard greens early, too, because they're better after sitting in their potlikker for a day, the deep broth made rich and bright by liquid aminos, soy sauce, and a dash of apple cider vinegar. She special-orders Chilean sea bass, often the star of the show, and massages it with butter, dresses it with fresh-squeezed orange, ginger, soy, and ponzu, and then tops it with fresh cilantro. My mother, Angela, brings a beautiful ham.
Marc is on what I call "on-demand" duty, which is whatever Patrice needs to make the cooking prep or guest reception go well. Among my favorite things in life is to watch their dynamic throughout the day. It's "yes, dear," but with real love and respect, just the right amount of exasperation, and usually some winking at me like, "Can you believe this?" I'm always on everyone's side.
In addition to the family elders holding down the heads of the table and the kids of family friends running around, the guest list over the years has included friends of Patrice and Marc in and around music—from opera singers and horn players to producers and stage managers. Conversations meander from Things That Happen on the Road to remembering that one gig. I've learned from Patrice and Marc that it's easy to curate your dinner table when you have lived life by developing meaningful relationships.
The iconic drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler was a fixture at Christmas before he died in 2018. He was the drummer on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and played with the likes of Miles Davis and Tina Turner. Ndugu was like a brother to Patrice; they went to high school together and played on the same stages. He had a knack for asking me a pointed question that would get all up in my business within just minutes of arriving, in true uncle fashion.
The beautiful chaos of the day—the movement of vehicles, locations of multiple greyhounds, pouring of wine—has evolved over time, but certain things remain constant, like the importance of a stunning table, or how level-setting it is to approach a seat that's been dressed up just for you. Patrice and Marc's Christmas feast is always filled with music, some of which was written steps from the dining room. It's a soundtrack to which a room full of revelers can always sing along.