Column: Peter Sprague & friends play a free holiday concert

Over the past 43 years people have gathered in Del Mar for jazz artist Peter Sprague's annual free Christmas Eve day concert.
Over the past 43 years, people have gathered in Del Mar for jazz artist Peter Sprague’s annual free Christmas Eve day concert.
(Barbara Rix photo)

The queries have been coming in: Are you doing your free afternoon concert on Christmas Eve this year?

Nationally renowned jazz guitarist Peter Sprague is delighted to respond, “You bet.”

He and a group of his musically talented friends and relatives are doing just that at 1 p.m. at the outdoor L’Auberge Del Mar amphitheater at 15th Street and Camino Del Mar.

“It’s our gift to the community,” Sprague says. “The cast of characters changes each year, depending upon who is available, but they’re committed to doing it.”

The informal live show was silenced last year by the stringent rules of the pandemic.

Only once before in the past 43 years had the concert been canceled — that time due to stormy weather. It happened during the program’s infancy, and no last-minute indoor shelter was available, Sprague recalls.

A half dozen times since, they’ve been forced at the last minute to shift indoors to the Encinitas Community Center or a local Encinitas church. If rain is forecast, they now make sure an escape venue is ready. Updates are posted on Sprague’s website (

Sprague, also a composer and arranger, has recorded or toured with such jazz greats as Al Jarreau, Chick Corea, Sérgio Mendes, Dianne Reeves and Sonny Rollins, as well as making several of his own albums.

Guitarist Peter Sprague designed a two-neck guitar with both nylon and steel strings that he will play Dec. 24 in Del Mar.
Guitarist Peter Sprague designed a two-neck guitar with both nylon and steel strings that he will play Dec. 24 in Del Mar.
(Courtesy of Peter Sprague)

His holiday concert tradition began in 1978 with him, his brother, Tripp Sprague, and three jazz musician friends from San Dieguito High School in front of the now-defunct Song Gallery & Earth Song Bookstore. The group, called Dance of the Universe orchestra, often played on the sidewalk for tips.

The grassy amphitheater site where the concert now takes place opened across the street in 2001.

Not only will “Peter Sprague Plays the Holidays” be revived this year, it will pack a double whammy. A “live(ish)” streamed performance of the same artists and music lineup is taking place at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at Sprague’s music studio, SpragueLand, in Encinitas.

He describes this two-hour YouTube offering as attracting a different audience — one appealing to seniors, out-of-area followers and fans from as far as Europe and Japan.

SpragueLand has been fine tuned into the technologically ideal setting for virtual concerts. As soon as the pandemic emerged, Sprague turned his attention to honing his skills as a recording engineer.

Some of the top players in the county will perform seasonal favorites mixed with jazz and pop classics. The lineup includes Sprague’s sax-playing brother and Tripp’s daughter, Kate Sprague, on vocals, along with classical guitarist Fred Benedetti and his two daughters, The Benedetti’s.

While Sprague is tired of the pandemic, it has proven a productive time for him. He was one of the first area musicians to start livestreaming after COVID-19 stay-at-home advisories were issued.

“I’d always wanted to get more involved in video and do live concerts in my studio,” he says. When all the gigs fell through, he made the best of a bad scenario.

“When the pandemic came, that’s immediately what I fell into, and I actually had a great time. I accomplished something that has lots of legs to it.”

He has produced, videoed and streamed 24 music programs with various artists since spring 2020, offering a virtual tip jar for appreciative listeners.

He refers to the 7 p.m., Dec. 21 session as “live(ish)” because guitar maestro Benedetti and his daughters can’t be there. Benedetti just retired this month from Grossmont College where he was associate professor of music and headed guitar studies. They will record their parts earlier for inclusion in the live-streamed “Holiday on Saltwater” program.

Sprague will perform using the double-neck guitar he designed — one neck bearing nylon strings and the other sporting steel strings. Tripp will play a chromatic flute along with sax and harmonica.

Other musicians include Danny Green on piano, Justin Grinnell on bass, Johnny Minchin on harmonica, Duncan Moore on drums and vocalists Nina Francis, Lisa Hightower and Pamela Pendrell.

While the concert is called, “Peter Sprague Plays The Holidays,” the guitarist has learned that the audience wants more than Christmas tunes, so he is mixing it up.

For those who can’t make the free live performance, other gigs are on his calendar: the Peter Sprague Quartet Jan. 15 at Dizzy’s on Morena Boulevard, the Peter Sprague Trio Jan. 17 at The Athenaeum in La Jolla and at Ki’s Restaurant in Cardiff on Jan. 21.

Will the 66-year-old musician continue organizing these free holiday concerts?

“As long as it’s a good time, I’m in.”