“Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer.” That charming little couplet entered the public consciousness on the evening of December 9, 1965, courtesy of the CBS television network, corporate sponsor Coca-Cola, and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. A Charlie Brown Christmas immediately became a holiday classic, airing annually since that evening and launching a string of 20 Peanuts specials.
Underpinning not just those memorable lyrics but all of A Charlie Brown Christmas was the music of San Francisco native Vince Guaraldi. Melancholy, funny, sweet, and bouyant, the pianist’s score is as much of a character in that universe as Snoopy. That may seem like hyperbole, but close your eyes for ten seconds and think about Peanuts. I’ll wait here.
You heard this, didn’t you?
Guaraldi’s path from North Beach beatnick jazz cat to the soundtrack of your childhood is a circuitous one that traverses some of the most iconic real estate in jazz mythology. Born and raised in San Francisco, Guaraldi graduated high school just as San Francisco was blossoming into a jazz-beatnik utopia. The legendary Black Hawk nightclub opened in the Tenderloin district in 1949, when the pianist was 21 years old, and North Beach’s hungry i opened its doors the following year. Ferlinghetti would open City Lights Bookstore just down the street from the hungry i in ’53, providing a geographical epicenter for the Beat writers. Tack on the fact that Guaraldi’s uncle was jazz musician Muzzy Marcellino, and young Vince’s future seems almost predestined.
Guaraldi gigged at the Black Hawk while attending San Francisco State, which in retrospect is a little like saying “Guaraldi gigged at Carnegie Hall in his spare time.” Prior to closing for good in 1963, some of music’s biggest names recorded albums at the Black Hawk, specifically Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Guaraldi started out as the club’s intermission pianist, filling in for yet another big name: Art Tatum. This led to a gig with Cal Tjader’s band and Guaraldi’s first recorded work, 1954’s The Cal Tjader Trio album on Fantasy Records. This was the first of several recordings with Tjader, eventually including one made at the Black Hawk. The pianist’s very first recording was the track “Vibra-Tharpe” from the Cal Tjader Trio album:
Throughout the fifties, Guaraldi enjoyed the success of a good, solid, working musician. Along with his work with Tjader, he recorded with a few other combos and with his own Vince Guaraldi Trio. If as the ’60s dawned he turned in his piano stool and took a job stocking City Lights’ bookshelves, Guaraldi would have cemented his place in the San Francisco jazz scene’s history, but then a strange thing happened.
In 1962, the Vince Guaraldi Trio released the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, a collection of songs from and inspired by the film Black Orpheus. His label (also Fantasy, the future home of Creedence Clearwater Revival) released “Samba de Orpheus” as a single. It didn’t do much until a Sacramento DJ flipped it over and started playing the single’s B-side, “Cast Your Fate To the Wind.”
“Cast Your Fate To the Wind” became Guaraldi’s first certified hit, attaining gold status and earning a Grammy in 1963 for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition, but perhaps more importantly it led directly to his work with Peanuts. While working on a documentary about the strip, producer Lee Mendelson heard “Cast Your Fate” and thought Guaraldi’s work fit the material well. While A Boy Named Charlie Brown never aired, the documentary marked the start of a long working relationship between Guaraldi, Mendelson, and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.
If you breezed right past “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” without listening, scroll back up and give it a click. What you’ll hear is a sort of prototypical “Linus and Lucy,” or “the Peanuts theme” as many think of the song. Before his career was cut tragically short in 1976 by a fatal heart condition, the pianist scored nearly 20 Peanuts shows. Guaraldi was only 47 years old when he passed away.
Vince Guaraldi In Person captures the pianist in that brief moment when he was enjoying his first great national success with “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” but hadn’t yet been transformed into a household name by Peanuts. It’s a beautiful record, filled with blues, bebop, and bossa nova, but for sheer plaster-a-smile-on-your-face delight nothing beats his take on the Mediterranean traditional song “Misirlou.” Keep in mind that this version was released just a couple of years after surf guitar king Dick Dale planted his flag in that number and made it his own, which simply adds to my enjoyment of Guaraldi’s arrangement.
If your interest in Vince Guaraldi ends with the Peanuts universe you have plenty of albums to choose from, but to my eye and ear Vince Guaraldi In Person is the one you want in your stacks. The trio is performing at their peak, but without the heavy weight of fame pressing on them (the album was recorded live in a Sausalito club). And then there’s that album cover, featuring Vince’s thick glasses, brush cut, and Rollie Fingers mustache. Come on! I’d buy this record just for that sleeve!
This one regularly trades in the 10-15 dollar range, which isn’t much to pay to delight your Charlie Brown Christmas watching friends with a bunch of trivia and deep cuts, is it? Bust this one out, slap on “Misirlou” and let the music history lesson begin. Happy hunting, and merry Christmas.
Categories: From the Stacks