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Music / Vince Guaraldi

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The man, his keys, and his 'stache.
  • Albert Ammons
  • Erroll Garner
  • Bill Evans
  • Red Garland
  • Pete Johnson
  • Oscar Peterson
  • Jimmy Yancey
Vincent Anthony Guaraldi (July 17, 1928 – February 6, 1976) was an Italian-American jazz pianist and composer.

A self-proclaimed "reformed boogie-woogie player", mainstay of the post-war West Coast jazz scene, and lifelong San Franciscan, Guaraldi first cultivated his idiosyncratic style of impressionistic jazz in the '50s while working as a sideman for notable names such as Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, and Woody Herman. A heavily stylistic improvisational "ear player" whose trademarks included deep, hypnotic bass lines and rapid-fire soloing, Guaraldi's quirks largely came from necessity rather than intent; he was born with stubby fingers, which didn't naturally lend themselves to the piano. After a number of attempts at striking out on his own—having already recorded a few albums that incorporated a diversity of musical styles—Guaraldi scored an unlikely pop hit with the 1962 single B-side "Cast Your Fate to the Wind", which subequently earned him a Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition. The fact that he first grew his mustache around the same time that he was Growing the Beard artistically is, at least as far as we know, purely coincidental.

It was "Fate" that would bring Guaraldi to the attention of television producer Lee Mendelson, who in 1963 had been hired to create a documentary based on the life and works of Charles M. Schulz, creator of the world-famous comic strip Peanuts. The light, breezy, Bossa Nova-inflected jazz style Guaraldi had pioneered proved an unlikely but inspired fit for Charlie Brown and friends, and although the documentary failed to get off the ground, Guaraldi was kept on hire for Mendelson's next project: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Though the special suffered from an infamously Troubled Production, one song Guaraldi had written for the project—first played live over the phone to Mendelson—was a catchy little ditty called "Linus and Lucy", which would subsequently become the Bootstrapped Theme for all the animated Peanuts specials and films, and by association, one of the most universally-recognized pieces of instrumental jazz music in history. The upbeat energy of Guaraldi's music even helped to galvanize the resolve of Mendelson and his production crew, and against all odds, A Charlie Brown Christmas not only made it to air in 1965 but became a sensation, and has remained a timeless Christmas television staple ever since. Another of Guaraldi's compositions for the special, "Christmas Time Is Here", featured a blend of major and minor keys which perfectly mirrored the mixed emotions that Charlie Brown—and many others—have toward the holiday season. The accompanying soundtrack album is largely viewed as Guaraldi's best, and has become an iconic part of the Yuletide musical canon. With more than four million copies sold in the last half-century, it is not only one of the most popular Christmas albums in history, but ranks behind only Kind of Blue by Miles Davis on the list of the all-time best-selling jazz albums. A further testament to its enduring popularity is that, for the 2020 and 2021 holiday seasons, the album made the Top 10 on the Billboard Album Chart (not the Christmas Album chart, the main album chart), while 2021 also saw Guaraldi return to the Top 40 nearly six decades after "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" when "Linus and Lucy" cracked the chart.

Guaraldi would continue putting the musical swing in Charlie Brown's step to the last,note  becoming progressively more experimental and adventurous with his compositional work—incorporating new technology such as electric pianos and synthesizers as they became available—though always remaining within the framework of the established Peanuts style, even as he flirted with the realms of funk and classical. He would occasionally even make the odd vocal turn, notably singing the themes for Snoopy's "Joe Cool" persona, as well as "Little Birdie", the soundtrack for Snoopy's epic battle with a recalcitrant folding chair. It was at Guaraldi's suggestion that, in lieu of actual voices, trombones would become the go-to vocalization method for adults in the animated Peanuts universe for decades. A key Peanuts collaborator for Guaraldi was arranger John Scott Trotter (a man not wholly unfamiliar with the seasonal idiom, we might add) who would largely handle score material not incorporating the piano. Guaraldi was notably absent from certain Peanuts productions such as Snoopy, Come Home and the two musicals; in the case of the former, Mendelson and Co. were pursuing a style informed by the aesthetics of Disney films of the time at Schulz's behest. Rather ironically, Guaraldi rarely if ever actually performed Beethoven fanatic Schroeder's renditions of old Ludwig Van's masterpieces, probably owing to the technical complexity of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

In 1976, Vince Guaraldi passed away from an undetermined cause of death between shows at Butterfield's nightclub in Menlo Park, California. The last song he ever performed was an interpretation of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby". Out of respect for his inimitable talent, the Peanuts production team made the conscientious decision to largely forego the classic "Guaraldi sound" in future specials for decades to come, until finally reincorporating it in the early '90s under the guiding hand of longtime Guaraldi champion David Benoit. The continuing outpour of love and respect for Guaraldi's work from the public and music historians alike grows for each passing year. For instance, when The Peanuts Movie was in production, the producers had to give public assurances that they would be using Guaraldi's compositions where appropriate. The breadth of influence Guaraldi's music has had on generations of young future jazz listeners is patently incalculable.

It's truly amazing how far you can get playing for Peanuts!

Partial discography (albums released during his lifetime):

  • Vince Guaraldi Trio (1956)
  • A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing (1958)
  • Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962)note 
  • In Person (1962)
  • Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete & Friends (1964)
  • The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi (1964)
  • Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1964)note 
  • From All Sides (with Bola Sete, 1965)
  • Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral (1965)
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
  • Live at El Matador (with Bola Sete, 1966)
  • Vince Guaraldi with The San Francisco Boys Chorus (1967)
  • Oh Good Grief! (1968)
  • The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi (1969)
  • Alma-Ville (1970)

Tropes associated with Vince Guaraldi:

  • Bossa Nova: Like many Americans, he was introduced to the genre via Black Orpheus, and after recording Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus in 1962 it was a dominant influence on his music. Besides the Black Orpheus songs he also did a version of "Outra Vez", the Antônio Carlos Jobim song often cited as the very first bossa nova song (as recorded by Elizeth Cardoso in 1958). Even the Peanuts music has obvious bossa nova roots if you listen closely (this classical guitar rendition of "Linus and Lucy" gives you an idea of how well it fits in into a bossa nova framework).
  • B-Side: "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" was originally on the flip side of the single of "Samba de Orpheus", but one radio station in Sacramento started playing it instead, eventually making it a hit.
  • Christmas Songs: A Charlie Brown Christmas consists mostly of groundbreaking jazz arrangements of Christmas songs from throughout the centuries, but he also composed a few songs of his own, most notably "Christmas Time Is Here", itself now part of the classic Christmas song canon.
  • Cool Shades: When he wasn't using his regular ol' glasses, that is. Though they're still plenty cool.
  • Covers Always Lie: The Peanuts compilation Lost Cues, Vol. 1 features a distinctive Christmas theme on the cover, but it features not one Christmas special-related tune. It's been suggested this may just be a cash-in on the recognition factor of A Charlie Brown Christmas and its indelible connection to Guaraldi's name.
  • Cover Version: Though still doing the jazz and traditional pop standards that were part and parcel of the jazz culture of his time, Guaraldi always had a finger on the pulse of popular music unlike many of his contemporaries. He "jazzified" songs by '60s artists such as The Beatles, Donovan, and The Rolling Stones.
  • Dark Reprise: To underscore dire situations, Guaraldi would sometimes transpose his themes to a minor key. Prhaps the most famous example comes from A Boy Named Charlie Brown, in which a stark-sounding "Linus and Lucy" underscores Linus' frantic search for his lost Security Blanket.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: His first two albums as bandleader (Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing) use a piano-guitar-bass trio with no drums. They're also more mellow and moody than his later work.
  • Epic Rocking: Jazz being what it is, Guaraldi has no small number of recordings to his name that surpass the seven-minute mark, as well as a number that even approach prog-like runtime. The most literal example of this has to be his sixteen-minute reading of The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want".
    • Indicative of the free rein he was given with his Peanuts score work, he was even given a chance or two to do some Charlie Brown Epic Rocking: There's No Time for Love, Charlie Brown features a seven-minute montage scored by an unbroken performance of the cue "Pitkin County Blues".
    • "Holy Communion Blues" from the Grace Cathedral mass reportedly lasted for more than half an hour; this played as the churchgoers were given communion, and there were a lot of people who attended that historic occasion. Sadly, the full recording is believed lost, but even the edited-down version on the LP runs quite long at slightly under 12 minutes.
  • Forgotten Theme Tune Lyrics: Besides Carel Werber's lyrics for "Cast Your Fate To The Wind", Guaraldi himself wrote a set of words for it when he first copyrighted the song in 1960, that never got used.
    • The melody of "Star Song" was written to fit the words of a poem that had been sent to Guaraldi, but all the released versions of it are instrumental. After some digging, one fan finally found a copy of the poem.
    • "Oh, Good Grief!" actually has lyrics that were sung during one of the animated sequences of the 1963 documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown:
      Oh, good grief! Poor Charlie Brown!
      He's the saddest boy in town!
      There's no hope! There's no hope!
      He's a wishy-washy dope!
  • The Four Chords of Pop: With his admiration of Latin music, it's no surprise that Guaraldi loved the I - IV - V - IV chord progression (i.e. the "La Bamba" progression). Among many others, he used it in "Skating", "Treat Street", "You're in Love, Charlie Brown" and "Detained in San Ysidro".
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: It's come to be known over the years that in his last years, Guaraldi was growing increasingly worried about being known as "The Peanuts Guy" and felt he wasn't taken seriously as a musician. It's been posited that his return to a more traditional acoustic sound in what turned to be the twilight of his life was to help counteract this conception.
  • Improv: It's jazz. Vince's distinctive style of playing was based heavily on eloquent voicing. His patented "runs" frequently moved quickly between light and dark keys. There's a bunch of "vintage" Guaraldi runs that are heard all throughout his discography, though never in entirely the same way.
  • Instrumentals: His stock in trade; he rarely made vocal works. "Cast Your Fate to the Wind", for instance, is one of a relatively few number of jazz instrumentals to become a hit song, as well as win a Grammy. Ironically, after a poppier instrumental cover by British studio group Sounds Orchestral became an even bigger hit two years later, lyrics were written for it by Carel Werber, and a couple vocal versions became hits as well.
  • Kids Rock: Famously used a children's chorus for A Charlie Brown Christmas to represent the Peanuts gang, but this grew out of the boys' chorus featured in his Grace Cathedral mass. In 1967 he reused the concept (and many of the same kids) for the Vince Guaraldi with The San Francisco Boys Chorus album.
  • Limited Lyrics Song: "Monterey" from ... and The San Francisco Boys Chorus. The chorus just sings wordless vocals with the verse melody, and "Monterey, Monterey" in the refrain.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: Well, naturally. Several tracks on his first two albums ("Never Never Land", "Autumn Leaves", "Like a Mighty Rose") were solo piano pieces, as was "Für Elise" on A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Rain, Rain Go Away" (especially the opening section) is the Peanuts piece that fits the bill the most.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Christmas Time is Here" is a rather melancholy melody with some prominent minor chords, which strongly contrasts with lyrics that depict "happiness and cheer" and "joyful memories". That bittersweet edge makes it stand out among other Christmas songs and has probably helped it to become a standard.
  • New Sound Album:
    • Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus introduced his trademark piano-bass-drums trio format and a new Latin-influenced style.
    • Oh Good Grief!, a collection of re-recorded Peanuts themes, showed him moving from his acoustic jazz trio roots towards electric piano and sonic experimentation. The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi continued this trend. Electronic instruments eventually began to make their way into his Peanuts scores as well.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Invoked in the "Kyrie Eleison" section of the Grace Cathedral mass. It's sung in English, but the singers have the "ominous chanting" part down cold, which leads to some amazing deliberate Lyrical Dissonance once Guaraldi's mid-tempo jazz kicks in.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with his touring band circa 1968, consisting of guitarist Bob Addison, bassist Bob Maize and drummer Bobby Natenson.
  • Red Baron:
    • "Dr. Funk" was a moniker he earned for his playing when the term "funk" meant something completely different than it does today. He would later include elements of actual '70s funk in his Peanuts specials.
    • Naturally, he also composed the theme of the same name for Snoopy's World War I flying ace escapades.
  • Rearrange the Song:
    • Though he would often compose one or two new themes for a special, many of the themes that debuted in earlier ones would make appearances in later ones, often with a radically different arrangement. Just counting his different versions of "Linus and Lucy" alone is enough to make your head spin! Just like jazz itself, he never did the same thing exactly the same way twice. The exhaustive cue sheet archive shows the true scope of his inventiveness.
    • Oh Good Grief! consists entirely of re-recordings, often with some drastic changes to instrumentation and tempo.
    • "My Little Drum" from Christmas is a slightly reworked version of "Menino pequeno da bateria"note  from From All Sides. And the melody itself is more or less a slightly modulated version of "The Little Drummer Boy", making it a re-arrangement two times over.
  • Rhyming Names: "Treat Street". The San Francisco street where Fantasy Records was located at the time is actually called Treat Avenue, but Vince obviously went for Rule of Cool in titling the song.
  • Riddle for the Ages: It will probably never be known who exactly played the bass and drum parts on A Charlie Brown Christmas, thanks to sloppy record-keeping by Guaraldi and Fantasy Records. Evidence suggests he recorded the album at several different sessions with several different trio configurations, and just mixed various takes together on the album. Most of the songs are probably Guaraldi with his mid-60s trio (Fred Marshall on bass, Jerry Granelli on drums), but it's known that he did at least one session reuniting his Black Orpheus trio (Monty Budwig on bass, Colin Bailey on drums), and two other sets of players have claimed that they played on the album as well.
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: Literally the case with "Choro" on From All Sides, which is based on the opening of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 40th Symphony.
  • Rock Trio: Well, Jazz Trio, but his signature configuration had Guaraldi on piano, backed by acoustic bass and drums.note 
  • The Short Guy with Glasses: His height has been reported as being 5' 4" or 5' 6" (162 or 167 cm), and he was older than he looked. Apparently he grew his signature mustache after he kept getting carded at the jazz clubs he was playing.
  • Signature Style: Guaraldi specialized in straightforward small combo jazz, featuring strong melody lines peppered with unusual piano chords. He was more into conveying moods with his music than experimenting with musical forms. George Winston explains it in-depth in the liner notes of Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi.
    I feel Vince's playing can be divided into four main categories:...lyrical and impressionistic jazz...Latin-tinged music...mainstream jazz/bebop...and fourth, his Peanuts music, where his left-hand style often reflects his boogie-woogie influences. Vince had a very distinctive way of using jazz chords with wide voicings, as well as tone clusters, especially on the dominant 7th and tonic major 7th chords. He often used straight major triads, which is rare among jazz pianists. He favored the major keys of F, A♭ and C, sometimes E♭ and B♭, and occasionally G and D. His favorite minor keys were F minor and C minor, and sometimes D minor, G minor and A minor.
  • Smoking Is Cool: More than a few photos of Guaraldi feature him with a cigarette in some kind of context; indeed, one of the two Vinces featured on the cover of In Person is smoking one, sure enough. Considering his manner of death, this is the kind of Harsher in Hindsight unfortunately shared by all too many others.
  • Song Style Shift: "Peppermint Patty" starts out with a pleasant, elegant melody, then midway through switches to a charging, repetitive Rock rhythm punctuated by frantic keyboard runs. Basically, it reflects the character's Tomboy with a Girly Streak personality (the first half is the Girly part, the second half is the Tomboy section).
  • Stealth Pun: The name of the fittingly funky-sounding Charlie Brown Thanksgiving cue "Is It James or Charlie?".
  • Step Up to the Microphone:
    • The man himself, though not really one for singing, turned in some memorable work with Peanuts pieces such as "Little Birdie", and of course, Joe Cool's theme. He's got a deadpan, bluesy and slightly mischievous delivery in both that make 'em both really humorous.
    • He also sang two Cover Versions of Tim Hardin songs on The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi ("Black Sheep Boy", "Reason to Believe").
  • Stylistic Suck: The theme for Snoopy's romantic(?) Paw Pet Theater performance in Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown is off-tempo and deliberately poorly performed; there is even some warping of sound owing to its being diegetic mood music played on a skeevy record player.