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One day in 1964, television producer Lee Mendelson got a call from jazz musician Vince Guaraldi about the documentary score he was working on.
“I gotta play something for you,” Guaraldi told him. “It just came in my head.”
So he wouldn’t forget, Guaraldi performed a playful, uptempo piece over the phone. It started with a 12-note left-hand introduction that is somehow both complementary and at odds with the right-hand melody that comes in four bars later, as if describing two different personalities. What Mendelson heard that day is the first performance of “Linus and Lucy,” better known as the Peanuts cartoon theme.
Guaraldi and Mendelson were creating, through perseverance and providential accident, a brilliant soundtrack and one of the most popular Christmas albums of all time. That record, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” is a wondrous mix of traditional and original material, scored for a jazz piano trio.
It is, almost by measures, solemn and playful. Written by a native San Franciscan, it evokes the snowy brightness of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz’s Midwestern winters. It’s catchy, joyous, swings like a hammer, and sounds as if it had always existed. To date, it has sold in excess of 3 million copies. Its origin story is a series of improbabilities.
Vince Guaraldi once described himself as “a reformed boogie-woogie piano player.” While this may not be entirely true, he certainly never lost a taste for what could be termed popular music. Born in 1928, and wisely choosing not to quit the piano after filling in for the legendary Art Tatum (“I wouldn’t have been the first,” he noted), Guaraldi was very much a part of the streamlined and cool West Coast jazz sound.
By the 1950s, a more relaxed version of American popular music was being promulgated in California, first by the Nat “King” Cole Trio and later the handsome singing trumpeter Chet Baker. By this time, Guaraldi was sitting in with established players and forming his own small band, playing in North Beach bohemian clubs. By the mid-1950s, nicknamed “Dr. Funk” by his colleagues, Guaraldi had formulated his own sound and was beginning to compose original songs.
In 1962, a new Vince Guaraldi trio was in the studio, covering Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa’s samba and bossa nova soundtrack for “Black Orpheus.” The film itself was groundbreaking, the retelling of an ancient Greek myth set in modern-day Brazil during Carnival. It won the Oscar for best foreign-language film.
Noticing a short running time for “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus,” Guaraldi quickly wrote an original instrumental called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” This song, originally released as a B-side to the single, became an enormous hit. It went gold and won a Grammy. Jazz critic Ralph Gleason made a documentary about “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” called “Anatomy of a Hit.” In it, Gleason asks a cigarette-smoking Vince Guaraldi if, by having a hit record, he thinks he’s sold out.
“I’ve feel I’ve bought in,” Guaraldi says, not missing a beat.
Guaraldi never tired of taking requests to play “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” once claiming that doing so was “like signing your name to a check.”
Producer Lee Mendelson heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, in a taxi crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. “It was melodic and open, and came in like a breeze off the bay,” Mendelson recalled. “And it struck me that this might be the kind of music I was looking for.”
Mendelson was just finishing a documentary about the popular cartoon character Charlie Brown and needed a musical score. He asked Ralph Gleason to put him in touch with Guaraldi. That movie never aired, but when the Coca-Cola Company commissioned a Charlie Brown animated Christmas television special a few months later, Guaraldi returned and finished the work he had started with “Linus and Lucy.”
Musically, everything that would be given voice in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was already present in “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” — the outsize sweep of the melody, the bright, open harmonies, and the rhythmic playfulness — all performed by a preternaturally tight, stripped-down jazz trio. And, in the middle of the arrangement, a relaxed improvisational section that swings mightily. This kind of syncopated rhythm had long fallen out of favor with jazz innovators. A holdover from an earlier time, it was discarded by the bop crowd. It has yet, though, to lose its resonance with the American public. Guaraldi wore it like a comfortable, tailored suit.
Recorded in the autumn of 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is mostly composed of traditional songs, which Guaraldi’s trio makes their own. The album opens with the centuries-old German folk melody of "O Tannenbaum". While it may not seem intuitive to try to update such a relic, there was a precedent: Jon Johansson’s brilliant 1964 album “Jazz Pa Svenska” (“Jazz in Swedish”), in which a young Swedish pianist, heavily influenced by West Coast jazz, arranged ancient folk songs of his country for piano and string bass. The results were spectacular: an autumnal collection that is not quite jazz or folk or popular music, but somehow all three, equally magisterial and intimate. “Jazz På Svenska” became the greatest-selling jazz album in Scandinavian history. Whether Guaraldi was familiar with Johansson is not known, but clearly they labored in the same fruitful vineyard.
Another Guaraldi original, “Christmas Time Is Here,” needed a lyric. Lee Mendelson couldn’t find anyone to turn it around quickly enough, so he wrote the lyric himself on the back of an envelope. “I didn’t know that much about music,” he later told NPR. “I just put down a long dash or a short dash for the notes and like the game hangman I filled in the spots on the envelope. It took longer to work out the dashes than the words! That was a first draft; we never changed it.” As with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church children’s choir from nearby San Rafael was brought into the studio to sing, slightly off-key.
The television special had been made quickly and on the cheap, being completed just 10 days before it was scheduled to air. It was characterized by a number of artistic decisions that the network, CBS, hated. They didn’t like that actual children, instead of professional actors, had been used to voice the characters. They didn’t like the “adult themes” of commercialization and overt consumerism. And they didn’t like the jazz soundtrack. When it premiered, on December 9, nearly half the viewing public in America tuned in. The reviews were nearly unanimous in their praise. The soundtrack album has never gone out of print.
Vince Guaraldi once said, “I want to write standards, not just hits.” He died suddenly of a heart attack in a hotel room in 1976, in between sets at a small jazz club. He was 47. He may not have lived long enough to have it made plain, but he did what he set out to do, and we listen every year.