Try imagining A Charlie Brown Christmas without Vince Guaraldi’s jazz-piano trio score. It’s as difficult as imagining good ol’ Chuck successfully kicking Lucy’s football.
Guaraldi is in the pop culture and music pantheon thanks to his music for that inaugural CBS Peanuts feature in 1965 and the 14 ensuing specials he would work on before his death in 1976 at age 47. But the shows owe as much to him as he does to them: The writing and playing of the San Francisco native dubbed “Dr. Jazz” by his friends make A Charlie Brown Christmas and its brethren hip, just deep enough and multicultural. They animate the animation. Watch the special this year, or dig out your copy of the soundtrack if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people who own one, or better yet, get the new CD reissue, which features four outtake tracks. You’ll hear complex music that’s deceptively accessible.
Easily identified by his handlebar mustache and thick plastic glasses, Guaraldi was a relentlessly upbeat character, almost childlike in his enthusiasm. Lee Mendelson, who produced the Peanuts specials and recruited Guaraldi to score them, once said, “I used to have to pat him on the head and say, ’Relax.” Sure enough, the pianist who came up through the clubs and colleges in and around Beatnik San Francisco loved kids, and he was a Peanuts fan before collaborating with Mendelson, comics creator Charles M. Schulz and animator Bill Melendez on the specials.
Guaraldi’s sunniness comes through in the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. His performances are full of fanciful arpeggiated chords and bouncy vamps, and are sprinkled with sudden flourishes and little blue grace notes: Here was a man at play while playing. But he was also a formidable if unpretentious composer, channeling an array of influences, from straight-ahead cool jazz to its hot Latin variety to pop. Indeed, the biggest contribution of Guaraldi’s music is how its ethnic roots—black and Latin music—colorized Peanuts’ white bread world.
An overnight success long in the making, Guaraldi honed his chops and developed his style for years, mostly at gigs throughout the San Francisco Bay area. His formative period included a couple of valuable apprenticeships—one with Woody Herman’s big band and one with Cal Tjader’s Latin groups. The Latin bug stuck; Guaraldi’s breakthrough album was 1962’s Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, based on the popular movie’s soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Jobim that helped launch the Bossa Nova craze. Guaraldi also sought out collaborations with the brilliant Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete, fine recordings of which are still available. And he composed some bona fide gems in the style. Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus was the first album with the fully realized “Guaraldi sound.” All Music Guide describes it well as having a “madly swinging right hand and occasional boogie-influenced left hand, and a distinctive, throat-catching melodic improvisational gift.”
Guaraldi liked to refer to himself as a “reformed boogie-woogie pianist,” and his best-known composition, “Linus and Lucy,” borrows from the style with its bouncy, infectious bass line. But it’s more: Guaraldi gently shifts the key back and forth to create a modern profile. Then he and his trio set the boogie bass line aside for a Latin interlude, and later, some relaxed, straight-ahead swing.
Guaraldi’s tunes were little structures in which he propped styles, rhythms and colors against each other in ways that seem perfectly obvious, but only in hindsight. The simple-seeming complexity of Peanuts was not so different: It is a world built of earnestness, irony, slapstick and pensiveness, serious themes and whimsical one-offs. If the Charlie Brown Christmas score jibes so well with the Peanuts universe, maybe it’s because both comprise disparate elements that somehow achieve a harmonious balance. Consider the celebratory “Christmas is Coming”: It moves from jazzy pop held in place by an insistent bass note, to Latin and back; then it explodes into a blues with a wonderful walking bass line, before finally working its way back to the opening theme.
It was the radio gods brought Guaraldi and Peanuts together. The Black Orpheus soundtrack featured a wistful Guaraldi composition—somewhat corny really—called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” that became a gold record. It caught the ear of Mendelson as he drove his car over Golden Gate Bridge following a meeting with Schulz. Mendelson’s selection of Guaraldi—first to score a Peanuts documentary that never aired, and later the specials—now seems inevitable, but at the time it was as iconoclastic as Peanuts itself. No Christmas special had ever been scored with a jazz trio, and by the mid-1960s, the very idea was risky, because jazz itself had grown esoteric and experimental enough that most record buyers were wary of it. But Guaraldi had the common touch, and it was this relaxed, inviting quality that bewitched Mendelson when he first heard the composer’s work. True, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was jazz, he explained later, “...but it was melodic and open and came like a breeze off the bay.”
If Guaraldi’s music was accessible, it was also sufficiently complex and counter-cultural to suit Charlie Brown, a character adrift in suburbia and baffled by a commerce-crazed modernity. For a composer with a such a buoyant soul, Guaraldi found just the right colors to capture Chuck’s seasonal melancholy. It’s all encapsulated in two chords in “Christmas Time is Here”: The children’s choir sings “Christmas time is,” over a bright chord. The next chord, rolled out fluidly under the word “here,” is dark and suspenseful. Having proferred a taste of exotic harmony, Guaraldi leads the listener into the comfort zone of a graceful resolution.
This tasteful approach, sophisticated but without airs, was Guaraldi’s calling card in the Peanuts franchise and elsewhere. His jazz mass, performed at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965, used a mature minimalism to scaffold the service and lend it joy. The music doesn’t sound like someone striving under the glare of Bach’s ghost. It sounds, actually, like a Peanuts soundtrack, as Guaraldi’s trio plays Latin vamps and straight-ahead grooves with bluesy piano flourishes. Guaraldi was evidently as comfortable in his own skin as Joe Cool was in his.
Steve Garmhausen is a freelance journalist and musician living in Brooklyn with his wife Alicia and their baby girl Darlene.