Maybe yesterday you watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (if you didn’t, your Halloween wasn't complete) or maybe you’re getting ready to attend A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving... and if Thanksgiving comes, can A Charlie Brown Christmas be far behind?
Bound up with turning leaves, chill temps, and a seemingly renewed olfactory clarity triggered by a whiff of woodsmoke, the animated adaptations of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip evoke the American autumnal, in large part due to a sonic prompt: the music of Vince Guaraldi.
The story of how this veteran Jazz pianist and songwriter came to be inextricably linked with Charlie Brown and his dog Snoopy, the coolest canine in comics, will amaze you.
Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker and third generation San Franciscan, was making a documentary about Charles M. Schulz. As Mendelson tells it:
We completed the rough-cut of the documentary, and we reached the point where we had to decide on the music. I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (the subject of my first documentary at a local TV station in 1961), and I tuned into my favorite Jazz station. I heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Vince Guaraldi. Something clicked!
I called Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and asked him if he knew Vince. It turned out Vince lived in San Francisco, and Ralph set up a date for me the next day.
He met Guaraldi for lunch and asked him if he was interested in the project. As Mendelson relates, “a great fan of ‘Peanuts’ and a father of two children, Vince was excited about creating the score.”
A few days later he called me. He was very excited. “I’ve got to play something for you.” I replied: “I hate to listen to anything over the phone. Can I come down to your studio?” “No,” he said. “I’ve GOT to play it right now, before I forget it. I haven’t even written it down.” So of course I said okay and he started to play.
Don’t you wish you could have put your ear to that receiver? What lucky Lee heard before anyone else in the world was that pleasingly mesmeric piano loop that seems to swing clockwise then counterclockwise a few times before the melody and changes follow. Mendelson’s reaction was reasonable:
I was blown away! It simply SOUNDED like the children in “Peanuts.” He finished playing and got on the phone. “What do you think?” he said. “It’s sensational, perfect! Do you have a name for it yet?” “I thought we should call it ‘Linus and Lucy,’” he replied. Little did Vince and I know what that would mean to our futures.
On October 27, 1966, CBS aired It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the third Peanuts special to that point to be produced and animated by the incomparable Bill Melendez. It begins with Linus and Lucy walking out of their house en route a pumpkin patch to select a choice gourd. Appropriately, it’s “Linus and Lucy,” now embroidered with a flute like a butterfly delightfully flitting atop the melody, which accompanies their errand.
And then there’s our soft-spoken hero’s song. “The Charlie Brown Theme,” with its bossa nova beat, certainly reminds of Stan Getz and Jo√£o Gilberto’s hit, “The Girl from Ipanema,” but while the latter takes a wistful direction (sadly, the girl in question doesn’t see the narrator’s longing looks), the former bounces with carefree pleasure.
Ironically, Mendelson’s documentary about Schulz never saw a public screening. Neither man lost much sleep over it. The team of Schulz, Mendelson, Melendez, and Guaraldi coalesced into a creative dynamo . . . and all because one of them turned on his car radio. In calling his song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” Guaraldi had unknowingly picked the perfect title; not only did the number earn him the 1963 Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition, but the hit would literally fly through the airwaves to be heard by the man who, as producer and executive producer, would unite them in a single, massively successful artistic endeavor.
It’s easy to identify the music of The Vince Guaraldi Trio, even outside of the various Peanuts specials. Their songs exude a seductive blend of warmth with elegance; they bounce with joy and happiness and can inflect into tenderness and pathos. I encourage you to play the Vince Guaraldi Trio as your evening music—before, during, or after dinner—and see how it improves your mood and makes your house so much cozier.
Paul Desmond, the legendary alto sax player of The Dave Brubeck Quartet and composer of their biggest hit, “Take Five,” famously said that he wanted his horn to sound “like a dry martini.” Guaraldi’s songs often have exactly that kind of suavity. And not surprisingly, there’s a lot of Brubeck—a Jazz piano titan and fellow Californian to boot—in Guaraldi’s play. You can hear it in his melodies as well as his improvisations. Brubeck and Guaraldi could both swing like nobody’s business, but then they could change gears, slow it down, and hold you in a melodic caress that conveys all the noblest, most deeply human sentiments our species can muster.
When I have course to use my CD player, I often fill its platter with Brubeck and Guaraldi discs and throw in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations so I can stay oriented amidst an otherwise uncannily seamless mix of truly Cool Jazz. As much as Brubeck influenced Guaraldi’s ebullient piano approach, it was Brubeck who ended up covering Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy.” Brubeck was born in 1920, Guaraldi eight years later, but we lost Guaraldi in 1976. He was 47.
I think Vince Guaraldi’s greatest achievement was an extraordinary fusion of many of his best Peanuts songs into an orchestral ensemble, a live performance heard only by a small audience until his son, David, released the recording on Bluebird Records in the summer of 2003. “The Charlie Brown Suite” is a ravishing piece of American music, a lyrical preserve where Aaron Copland meets Dave Brubeck. (qv)
The Vince Guaraldi Trio teamed up with the Amici della Musica Orchestra to perform “The Charlie Brown Suite” before an audience at Mr. D’s, a recently-opened North Beach supper club, on May 18, 1968. Luckily for us, it was expertly recorded. Along with an intro and tender closing passage, the suite weaves together, over its magical 38 minutes, six classic Peanuts melodies:
“Linus and Lucy,” “Happiness Is,” “Peppermint Patty,” the “Charlie Brown Theme,” “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” and “Red Baron.”
Aaron Copland had his “Appalachian Spring,” but I submit that with “The Charlie Brown Suite” Guaraldi gave us the American Autumnal.
* Vince Guaraldi, The Charlie Brown Suite & Other Favorites, Bluebird Records, 2003.