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Vince Guaraldi's Gift to Us All
A new reissue of the soundtrack to 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' crystalizes its importance
Welcome music lovers to the final edition of ‘Listening Sessions’ for 2022.
I hope this dispatch finds you in the midst of a restful break from the usual hubbub of the year. This edition’s essay offers some thoughts and reflections on A Charlie Brown Christmas, focusing primarily on Vince Guaraldi’s magnificent score which has been recently reissued but also a few ideas on why the special, first aired in 1965, continues to be an adored tradition this time of the year.
I hope you enjoy it but even more so, I hope that this holiday season, no matter how you choose to celebrate, is one marked with love, peace and joy. Thank you all for being here and I look forward to sharing more about the music that we all love early in the New Year.
My very best to you all.
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When A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on CBS on Thursday, December 9, 1965 at 7:30 p.m. eastern time, most, if not all, who were involved in its production assumed it would be its one and only airing on national television. That glum feeling resulted from a screening just ten days earlier for a nervous network alarmed by its haphazard animation, sluggish pace and utterly incongruous soundtrack.
But after the special—the first full-length animation production featuring Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang—a funny thing happened. The reviews from the critics were overwhelmingly positive and even more importantly, letters poured in from viewers expressing appreciation and adoration. Instead of completely missing the mark, those involved in the creation of A Charlie Brown Christmas had hit the bullseye, nurturing into existence a beloved tradition for so many.
That it endures is, in some respects, somewhat miraculous. Its plot does not revolve around any resolution of action—whether the pageant that Charlie Brown is enlisted by Lucy to direct ever comes together is left to the viewer’s imagination. Its interest is instead rooted in whether the Peanuts crew, principally, Charlie Brown, can find some intangible meaning in the season. Charlie Brown’s cry “is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” is a spiritual question as Linus’ answer—taken directly from the King James version of the Gospel of Luke—makes abundantly clear. It provides consolation and indeed, an entryway for Charlie Brown to temper his seasonal ennui with a feeling of inner tranquility. As he leaves the school auditorium, clutching the small, wooden tree he purchased—forgoing the Day-Glo of the modern aluminum trees on offer—a star shines in the sky. Charlie Brown smiles contentedly. He fights against the breaking of the spell. Snoopy’s first prize in the neighbourhood lights contest fulfilling the promise of “money, money, money” brings a shrug. Even as a return to despair appears to defeat him after a single ornament causes a branch on his tree to droop ominously, the rest of the gang then gathers around and prompted by Linus, an evangelist with a blanket, use Snoopy’s winning decorations to spruce it up and as Charlie Brown returns, they proclaim “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” and begin to hum ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.’ Everyone is imbued with the Christmas spirit, all are nourished by its message of hope and light. Cue the credits.
Among them is this:
“Original score composed & conducted by Vince Guaraldi”.
The list of jazz recordings that have penetrated the wider cultural zeitgeist is small but its size is in inverse proportion to its importance as a welcome mat to the music. A shortlist would include Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s bossa-nova crossover Getz/Gilberto, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. But even as these albums, in one way or another, have reached a popularity that extends far beyond the confines of genre, Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is in a class by itself.
Flip the dial on the radio at this time of year and one may not need to travel far before hearing Guaraldi’s swinging take on ‘O Tannenbaum,’ the two-handed funk of ‘Linus and Lucy’ or the shimmering waltz of ‘Christmas Time Is Here.’ Say what you will about the lack of imagination and daring of most commercial radio today but the fact that real, unvarnished jazz can be heard all over the dial right now is nothing to say “good grief” at.
It was Guaraldi’s first flirtation with popularity—he scored a top thirty hit in 1963 with ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ a composition that foreshadows the dreaminess and percussiveness that is such an indelible part of the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas—that brought the San Franciscan pianist into the Peanuts orbit. Lee Mendelsohn, a documentary producer, was putting together a short film on Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz, and heard Guaraldi’s hit on the radio and through San Fran’s foremost jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, Mendelsohn connected with Guaraldi and commissioned him to write the music for it. The documentary was never aired but a soundtrack album, Jazz Impressions of A Boy Called Charlie Brown, was released and introduced what became the theme song for Charlie Brown and gang: ‘Linus and Lucy.’ It yoked Guaraldi to the Peanuts world until his untimely passing in 1976.
“It just blew me away. It was so right, and so perfect, for Charlie Brown and the other characters. I have no idea why, but I knew that song would affect my entire life. There was a sense, even before it was put to animation, that there was something very, very special about the music.” - Lee Mendelsohn on ‘Linus and Lucy’
For music as beloved and well-known as Guaraldi’s for A Charlie Brown Christmas, it has long been unavailable in a form befitting its status. While the first CD reissue included a bonus workout on ‘Greensleeves,’ the musicians credited on the album: bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey, only played on three of its 12 tracks. A second reissue in 2006, which hinted at the bounty of studio material locked away in the vaults, featured a new remastering but ultimately further muddied the confusion by substituting alternate takes for ‘Linus and Lucy,’ ‘Christmas in Coming’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ and while it correctly noted that bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli play on most of the tracks, it still didn't get the credits exactly right—a dilemma that was likely caused by Guaraldi’s propensity for not always keeping detailed records of who played on his recording sessions.
This Yuletide has a new, lavish reissue for fans to unwrap. Totalling four CDs as well as a Blu Ray audio disc, the new “super deluxe edition” of A Charlie Brown Christmas is as close to the definitive document of Guaraldi’s moment of immortality as we’re going to ever get.
There’s a new mix that bring an extra vibrancy and dimension to the music—perhaps the most dramatic example is on the bridge of ‘Linus and Lucy’ with the greater clarity brought to Bailey’s drums and its intricate dance between the cymbals and the toms. There’s also the original mix and, even better, three bonus discs (just under three hours of music) comprising all the available material from the soundtrack sessions—tapes of the recording of ‘My Little Drum’ (Guaraldi’s hip re-casting of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’) and ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ could not be found. It also solves, to the best extent possible, the mystery of who plays with Guaraldi on what: it’s Budwig and Bailey on four tracks (‘What Child is This?,’ ‘Linus and Lucy,’ (the recording on the soundtrack is taken directly from Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown) ‘The Christmas Song’ and ‘Greensleeves’) and Marshall and Granelli on all the rest. But above all, and not that this was exactly necessary, it provides a crystallization of why Guaraldi and his music met the moment of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The key, in my opinion, is in the special’s signature piece: ‘Christmas Time Is Here,’ a gentle, delicate Guaraldi waltz. The A section both exudes a sense of childlike wonder and provides a window into the season’s melancholia, neither feeling negating the other, with the bridge arguing for the resiliency of the magic and wonder of the season. The spell continues through Guaraldi and Marshall’s solos, which revel in both the song’s melodic and harmonic frameworks and then blooms in an extraordinary coda: Guaraldi and Marshall trilling notes over Granelli’s light brush work for a glistening, musical Christmas card. As the session tapes reveal, the performance came together quickly for Guaraldi and trio; the discovery of an almost complete alternate take further emphasizing the perfection reached almost immediately.
It was the same with ‘O Tannenbaum,’ Guaraldi’s recasting of the nobel German carol into a finger-snapping fandango. Before the first take, he offhandedly outlines the structure and then the trio proceeds to nail it completely. His feel for the song is complete, as if already sensing its importance in framing Charlie Brown’s search for a tree and his eventual epiphany about Christmas.
Guaraldi’s two other primary contributions as composer: ‘Skating’ and ‘Christmas is Coming’ reveal a more evolutionary approach. The former: gorgeous and full of the glory of awakening on Christmas morning to a ground full of fresh snow, is played with a skipping waltz beat the resolves into a regular metre for a Guaraldi solo full of his trademark bluesy barbs and sudden, angular single-line runs. Several takes have Guaraldi and Granelli engaging in a short Afro-Cuban duet before returning to the theme. The latter captures that excitement as the countdown to Christmas narrows. The chordal vamp that begins it is a telltale sign that Guaraldi was a deeply rhythmic player. Scattered across the first two discs of outtakes are a total of 18 takes—not all of them complete—of ‘Christmas is Coming.’ Decisions on how to approach the song’s bridge are made and abandoned as well as whether Guaraldi will solo. As is often the case with releases that permit us a glimpse into the creative process, what was ultimately chosen to be released: a take that features a bridge with a bossa-nova feel and a brief Guaraldi improvisation over a static, modal figure in the case here, bears the scrutiny now afforded the listener well after the fact.
Hearing Guaraldi at work, one hears a musician who is at ease, laid back and full of positive energy. It lends to the undeniable lustre that this music holds—it’s there in the cloudbursts of chords that form the heart of his solo on ‘My Little Drum,’ the fantasias he indulges in during his arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ and the refusal for the children’s chorus to sound too professional on ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ and ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.’
It transcends to touch millions upon millions each year. In the immediate years before his passing in 2021, drummer Jerry Granelli embraced his role in creating it through Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas, a show he toured each holiday season telling the tale of its creation, reveling in a success that no one saw coming and playing the music. Becoming the leading ambassador for A Charlie Brown Christmas’ universality was not something that came naturally to Granelli. For decades, he dismissed it as just another gig and its music as a form of jazz light years away from his more natural, avant-garde leaning. Yet with time and the mellowing it brings, he came to regard his role in A Charlie Brown Christmas with pride. Its in many ways, the most tangible example we have of its enduring, healing gift to us all.