Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Dolton, Illinois, a tiny Chicago suburb, Jane Lynch enjoyed Christmases that were always a big deal.
“My dad would read ‘The Night Before Christmas’,” the award-winning actor tells Folio Weekly in a phone interview, “and then he would pretend to throw ‘sleep dust’ at us, and we would pretend to go to sleep. We didn’t have a chimney. When you’re a kid, you don’t ask questions.”
Now, years later, she sits in repose at home in Los Angeles, surrounded by three of her four dogs (Millie, Rumi and Bernice; Arbuckle is in the hospital) as she plots out the set-list for a Christmas extravaganza that’s making its way to Jacksonville’s Ritz Theatre this week.
A Swingin’ Little Christmas is built around an album of the same name that Lynch released on Kitsch Tone Records in November 2016. For the live performance, the actor-turned-singer is joined on stage by Tim Davis and Kate Flannery. Davis was the vocal arranger for Lynch’s launch-pad television series Glee; Flannery is best known as the splenetic, often tipsy Meredith on The Office.
The set comprises 10 standards and four originals, written by trumpeter and bandleader Tony Guerrero. The jazz quintet that accompanies the trio live is the same band performing on the album. The group also includes Robert Kyle on tenor saxophone, Dave Siebels on piano and Hammond B3 organ, David Miller on bass and Matt Johnson on drums.
“Musically, I’m really proud of it,” Lynch says. “It’s a really fun show!”
This is the third year she’s toured with the material, but it’s her first time in Jacksonville. “We started out in San Francisco, three years ago,” she says, “and we did four shows. We did 14 shows last year, and we’re gonna do 34 shows on this tour.”
What’s Lynch’s favorite holiday jam?
“My favorite Christmas song is ‘O Holy Night’, [as sung] by The Lettermen,” she says. “It’s just gorgeous!”
That carol isn’t on the album, but Lynch and co. do tap into a number of classics both pop and traditional, including “Jingle Bells,” “We Three Kings,” “Silent Night” and “Up On the Housetop” (the Jackson 5 version is positively bulletproof). They also perform a rendition of “The First Noel” that segues into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”
Indeed, it’s their love of the classics that unites the ensemble.
“We all share an aesthetic and a love for the music arranged in the late ’50s, early ’60s, kind of the jazzy, big-band stuff. The Christmas stuff that endured was recorded back then, like the Rosemary Clooneys and the Bing Crosbys and the Andrews Sisters, Andy Williams. So we’re hearing much of that ilk. It’s very much of a throwback of an album to that era, and the show as well.”
The show offers fans the chance to see yet another dimension of one of the most well-rounded performers of her generation. Born in July 1960, Lynch has spent the past 30 years compiling one of the most diverse and impressive résumés in Hollywood. Her legendary run as the antihero Sue Sylvester on Glee spanned 121 episodes (and included a staggering 728 musical performances) throughout six seasons, 2009-’15. That role earned Lynch an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a People’s Choice Award. She even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013. Her list of performance credits is lengthy, by any conceivable standard, ranging from voice-over work to movies to the musical Annie.
“It came together accidentally,” she says of her career. “I’ve never had specific goals, so I’ve never said ‘no’ to anything. I just want to be in the game. I’ll do anything, if it’s done well.”
For Lynch, this show is about more than just the music. It’s about setting a mood, harkening to bygone times and priceless memories. And the holidays are about more than just buying stuff.
“I don’t buy presents, and I don’t accept presents,” she says. “We do a grab bag with my family; we each get one person, and we can spend 50 bucks.”
She’s doing Christmas in Cali this year, but she usually goes back home to Illinois for the holidays. “I don’t even start thinking about Christmas until I hop on the plane and I’m heading to Chicago,” she says. “Then, as soon as I hit Chicago, nobody does Christmas like Chicago. I usually get a hotel room, Downtown. My sister comes from the suburbs and stays with me, and then we go to her house for Christmas dinner.”
A Swingin’ Little Christmas offers a fun glimpse at the life of a fully actualized artist,
a performer who has earned the ability to work on her own terms, without compromise. Her pride in the material is clear, and without artifice or ego.
“I don’t have that white-hot ambition that I had when I was younger,” Jane says. “Now, it’s more of a warm glow.”