Jonathan Bulter: Love, faith and remembrance

Published on September 27th, 2019

By Jim Dail

Christmas has a lot of meaning for a man like Jonathan Butler, the guitarist who happens to be renowned in the world of jazz, and is the epitome of strength, faith, determination and love. So, of course, Christmas music is a big part of who he is, which is why his new record. “Christmas Together,” is a festive celebration.

“My last Christmas record was about 7 years ago, so I didn’t want to go out again and perform the same stuff and I wanted to make a different Christmas record with all my friends, with all the people I’ve worked with over the years,” said Butler, who will perform Saturday with Kirk Whalum as part of Thornton Winery’s 2019 Champagne Jazz Concert Series.

Indeed, it was quite a group of friends who helped on the record: Sheléa, Keiko Matsui, Dave Koz, Rick Braun, Gerald Albright and Whalum.

 “They were so gracious to get involved,” he said. “It was awesome. Every year we go out and do the same thing, and I like the idea of doing things a little different to keep it fresh.”

Of course, when it comes to Christmas music, Butler does have a favorite.

“I always listen to Christmas music, and Nat King Cole records are my go to when I listed to Christmas music,” he said. “There’s some songs that he did that were so amazing, like ‘Deck the Halls’ and so many awesome songs.”

Of course, Cole’s classics include “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The Christmas Song” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.”

“I want people to be ushered into the spirit of Christmas, and I don’t want people thinking about the producers arranging it to sound like just a bunch of great ideas,” he said. “If you start putting in too many chords and too many changes and not enough spirit and presence, you lose that wonderful feel. It’s all about the presence.”

He can point to several on his release.

“One of the big ones is ‘Joy to the World’ with Sheléa because she really just captured the spit of that song,” he said. “Rick [Braun] on ‘We Three Kings’ was just another great feeling. And then my wife turned me on to ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It was just a beautiful time.”

He certainly has praise for everyone who assisted.

“I have to give it to Gerald because he played his buns off on ‘Deck the Halls,’ and I had to keep revisiting where he was at and match his energy,” he said. “I had to keep being me throughout the project.”

There’s a lot of nostalgia.

“It really does takes me back, to discover that there are songs that are common that everyone knows, but that there are other different ones as well,” he said. “There are others I’d love to do, but these are very special. I mean, Keiko and Koz just walked in the door and kept all the fellowship going. Keiko called me up and I told her I’d like her to help on a song and she just asked what key, and I said C minor. She loved it, had what she needed and just came through big time.”

Then again, Christmas has always been about others from Butler’s perspective. It is well known that Butler grew up as one of 12 living in poverty in South Africa during apartheid.

“We grew up very poor, and for my family it was a constant struggle just to eat,” he said.

Yet, Christmas was special especially because of one main person.

“I can tell you right now that Christmas was about my mom,” he said. “I know at Christmas we praise Jesus Christ’s birth, but to me my mother was the star of the day. For her to feed her 12 children and their children and their grandchildren was just incredible. With the little that we had, the shack outhouse, the stove outside, it was a sense of community and you never felt poor on that day because you could always go next door, say ‘Merry Christmas’ and someone would give you something to eat.”

So much of his mother is in Butler.

“She was the constant breadwinner and the hardest worker,” he said. “When she came home on Christmas Eve, we knew what she’d have. She would come home and put her bags down and sit for a while and open all her Christmas cards all her clients had given her. My mother was a hairdresser, and her clients would put money in the cards and she would buy food for Christmas and it was a feast that lasted until Boxing Day.”

Growing up seeing his mother and his feelings at Christmas, it continues to be special.

“It was really about her being the star of the show, and music was all around my house,” he said. “People forgot their problems and that’s what makes Christmas so special to me and every year wherever I was I’d always look up Christmas Eve and reflect on my city and my family and one of the joyous thing was taking the bus in the city and see all the Christmas lights. During the holidays there are so many reasons to celebrate, and think about people you love. I always think of my mother.”

And soon after the Thornton Winery show, Butler is off to South Africa for his annual safari.

“It’s home, and it will always be home,” he said. “I always believe in representing South Africa and that’s a proud moment for me to always represent where I come from. When I’m on stage, every ancestor is with me.”

In a way, Christmas is with him on a daily basis.

“Discovering the kid in you those days at Christmas, it’s when you discover the child in you and to me nobody loves Christmas more than I do,” he said. “I love the holidays and it really means the world to me to go out and see people smiling. It’s really about kind of creating the atmosphere of Christmas and the music without being too clever.”


Where: Thornton Winery, 32575 Rancho California Rd. Temecula

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, September 28

Admission: General admission $85. Gourmet supper: Sold out

Information: Call 951-699-3021 or visit Website,


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