Back in early autumn, I ran a series of blogs on my favorite jazz pianists. With your indulgence, I would resume with a wonderful – if somewhat under under-appreciated – pianist, whose name I will broach in due time (not that you haven’t just checked the bottom of the post). But first, a necessary screed.
The holiday season is finally behind us, and for a humbug like me, I’d hazard that IT’S ABOUT TIME. Consider this: Hanukkah started at sundown on November 27, the day before Thanksgiving. Figuring that the “holiday season” runs through New Year’s Day, that’s a holiday season of 36 days, a full 9.86% of the entire year. There’s just so much good cheer and rapacious consumerism a person can indulge. So it’s time to put the tree out by the curb, toss away what remains of that toxic, rum-infused fruitcake, brace ourselves for our credit card bills, and settle in for the winter, with the knowledge that Spring Training (and with it the rebirth of life as we know it) is but six weeks away.
For me, one of the biggest problems of the extended holiday season was the non-stop music. Now don’t get me wrong; I like holiday music as much as the next guy (more, if we’re talking about Bach and Handel). But really, for how long can we tolerate the high-fat aural regimen of silent nights, roasting chestnuts, spinning dreidels, little drummer boys, and sugar plum fairies before our ears occlude with phlegm-like plaque and simply stop working?
With one lovely exception. You see, for my kopek, the most consistently enjoyable holiday music was dashed off in 1965 when the jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi was hired to score a TV special called “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Here’s what happened.
Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) was born-and-raised in San Francisco’s North Beach, (which, pardon the gratuitous comment, I am looking at as I write this from my home office across the Bay in the Oakland Hills). In 1961-62, Guaraldi recorded a piano trio album for Fantasy Records in San Francisco entitled “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”. The album featured a number songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfá from the French/Brazilian film ”Black Orpheus”, which won an Academy Award in 1960 for Best Foreign Film. Figuring to cash in on the developing Bossa Nova craze, Fantasy Records issued Guaraldi’s version of Jobim’s “Samba de Orpheus” as a 45-rpm single. The result was a classic good-news/bad-news situation. The bad-news: Guaraldi’s “Samba de Orpheus” had about as much success on the radio waves as a neo-Nazi motivational speaker at a Rabbinical convention. The good-news: the Guaraldi original casually placed on side “B” took off like a Saturn V booster. That original is a piece called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, a haunting Bossa Nova with swing solos. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” shot to the top of the charts and it garnered Guaraldi the 1963 Grammy Award for “Best Original Jazz Composition”. (It was a category that only existed from 1961 – 1967, as opposed to those categories that continue to flourish, like “Best Teutonic Thrash Metal-Psychobilly Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals, with/without Skin Flute” and whatnot.)
Scene change. In 1963, a then 30 year-old, San Francisco-born TV producer named Lee Mendelson quit his job at KPIX-TV in San Francisco and started his own production company. His first documentary, about Willie Mays, was entitled “A Man Named Mays.” Not long after the Mays documentary first aired, Mendelson read a Peanuts comic strip in the San Francisco Chronicle that featured Charlie Brown’s utterly pathetic baseball team. According to Mendelsohn, “What came into my mind was ‘You’ve just done the world’s greatest baseball player, now you should do the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown.’”
We cut to the chase. In early 1965, Mendelson, along with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and animator José Cuauhtémoc “Bill” Meléndez were hired by the Coca-Cola Company to produce an animated Charlie Brown Christmas special for television.
Who would provide the music was soon settled as well. Mendelson was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge when he heard Vince Guaraldi’s single, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on his car’s radio. Mendelson got a hold of Ralph J. Gleason – the jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle – who connected him with Guaraldi. Guaraldi jumped at the opportunity to score the special, and the rest is indeed history. Guaraldi’s music gives the Peanuts gang a cool, contemporary, adult hipness that transcends entirely the sort of cartoon music generally associated with animated television. It is no overstatement to say that Guaraldi’s music is as important a “character” in the special as is Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy van Pelt.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” received its debut on CBS, on December 9, 1965; it earned an Emmy and a Peabody and a permanent place in our culture.
Vince Guaraldi got famous, though once again, it was a good-new/bad-news situation. The good news? He was famous. The bad news? He was “type-cast” into the role of being Charlie Brown’s musical alter ego. So closely was he associated with the Peanuts/Charlie Brown franchise (he ended up providing the scores for 17 Peanuts TV shows) that his skills as a pianist have been overlooked. And while he was no techno-wizard like Oscar Peterson (who is?); and while he broke no new ground like, say, Lennie Tristano, or Bill Evans, or Thelonious Monk, Guaraldi was always the epitome of taste, cool, and could swing like the devil. He blew clean, spacious, beautiful lines and played the piano with style and sensitivity. With his trademark walrus moustache, black-rimmed glasses and ubiquitous cigarette, he was every inch the 1960’s San Francisco jazz hipster.
(Postscript. I had dinner with Lee Mendelson during the late 1980’s. He was married, at the time, to a student of mine at the San Francisco Conservatory, an über talented singer, songwriter, and voice-over actor named Desirée Goyette. Lee and Desirée came and dined with my wife and I at our extremely modest ranch house in Oakland. I remember having had a wonderful evening. But what I most remember was Mendelson’s professional advice: never say no, never say never, and embrace serendipity at every opportunity. It is advice I gratefully took to heart.)
Must own CD’s:
The Vince Guaraldi Trio: “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus/Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, Fantasy
The Vince Guaraldi Trio: “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, Fantasy
Below: the Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fred Marshall, bass and Jerry Granelli, drums) with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete performing “Outra Vez” (“Once Again”) by Antonio Carlos Jobim, recorded in 1963 at “Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual”.