CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Christmas comes once a year, but it's a long season -- not that jazz vocalist Kim Nalley is complaining. She loves the season.
"Christmas for me is very multicultural," the San Francisco singer said. "We celebrate Hanukah and Christmas here."
It's a season of bright lights, silent nights and a wide variety of musical flavors. She'll be showing off some of these Thursday night at the Culture Center for Bob Thompson's annual Joy to the World concert.
The jazz singer and teacher for the Berkley, Ca.-based Jazzschool is this year's featured guest vocalist.
Nalley brings some serious vocal muscle to the annual holiday show. The jazz and blues singer has a 3 1/2-octave range, which means she can go from tenor to soprano. The publication Jazz Police says her voice "can go from operatic to gritty blues on a dime." It can fill a room without any amplification.
"I don't think my voice is so big," she said. "I just think there are a lot of people out there with very small voices."
Singing and music was very important to Nalley as far back as she could remember.
"We're all creative people in my family. We all sing and just about everybody plays something at least a little bit," she said.
There was always music around the house, especially during the holidays.
"I was raised Catholic," she said. "There was always a lot of excitement going through the advent calendar and opening up the little doors."
The Christmas season started early, with Christmas carols being sung between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving Day.
Her mother, she swears, was "Mrs. Christmas." For Christmas at their home in Connecticut, she'd paint holiday scenes on the living room window and set up Christmas-themed displays.
"She had all kinds of Christmas stuff," Nalley said. "Kids would come to see. She put Macy's display window to shame."
Nalley says the family didn't have a lot. Her father came from around Alderson, W.Va., and moved north to find work, but times were hard. The family had to stretch to make ends meet, especially around Christmas, but it all worked out.
"I believed in Santa Claus so much later than my friends did." She laughed. "I knew there was no way we got all that stuff from just my mom. We were just too poor."
The music she grew up around as a child influences her still. During the holidays, she tries to strike a balance between the traditional carols and popular Christmas songs. The familiar, tried and true carols bring people together in song. They can sing along, and Nalley says there's a kind of communion in a group of people joining voices.
She also likes the modern classics like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
"Jazz composers really created a new musical lexicon for Christmas," she said. "A lot of people love them, but they don't usually sing along."
The season offers a lot to choose from. It's hard to pick a favorite.
"But if I had to," she said. "I guess I'd say 'Silent Night.' Everybody knows 'Silent Night.' You go to Germany and they know 'Silent Night.' You go to Russia and they know it, too. Everybody knows 'Silent Night.'"
She's looking forward to cruising through the holidays. Aside from her appearance at the Culture Center, she has several shows booked at one of her favorite haunts, The Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko in San Francisco.
The holiday shows there have become a sort of grownup tradition for Nalley and led to a special Christmas CD, "Christmas Time Is Here," which she says captures part of the experience of those shows.
"Christmas Time Is Here" is available through her website www.kimnalley.com.