Get to Know…Vince Guaraldi
Had he never recorded a note for any of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts specials, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi’s legacy as a brilliant composer and pianist would still be secure. His joyful and supremely melodic style is as immediately recognizable as any in music, and more than thirty years after his death his admirers encompass a wide range of musicians and music lovers; from casual jazz fans to purists, and even to outright jazz haters who proclaim, “I don’t really like jazz, but I love his stuff.”
For this primer of Guaraldi’s recorded output, I’ve categorized his music into three main areas rather than go with a strictly chronological approach. These categories are not meant to be rigidly applied, but for the novice I think it makes more sense this way. There’s great music to be found in each area to be sure, so I definitely recommend trying a little bit of each category. This is by no means a comprehensive discography (although this site is), but rather it highlights his most important/interesting work and is a great place to start if you want to build a Guaraldi collection.
But first, a bit of background…
By the early 1950s, Vince Guaraldi (born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928) was already one busy musician. He played a number of low-profile gigs at weddings and tiny venues before receiving his first big break as the intermission pianist at a place called the Black Hawk. His main duty? Filling in for piano legend Art Tatum in between sets. Yeah, no pressure there.
Eventually Guaraldi’s Bay Area connections brought him into contact with Cal Tjader, a vibraphonist and early proponent of Latin jazz. It was as a member of Tjader’s new trio that Guaraldi entered the studio in November 1951 and made his recorded debut on The Cal Tjader Trio, released as a 10″ LP on the Fantasy label. Guaraldi appeared on a number of Tjader releases throughout the decade, and it was during this time that he began to develop his own musical voice.
From about ’53 to ’55 Guaraldi spent most of his time not in the recording studio, but honing his style in venues around the North Beach area. In 1955 he began to strike out on his own, and formed a trio with guitarist and longtime friend Eddie Duran and bassist Dean Reilly. The three became a fixture at the hungry i club in San Francisco, and in August ’55 Guaraldi entered the studio (with different personnel) to record the first album featuring his name – Modern Music From San Francisco. In truth, however his quartet shared the billing with Ron Crotty and Jerry Dodgion’s groups as well.
Guaraldi’s first recorded sessions as a leader played it pretty safe, but are nonetheless worth checking out. Toward the end of his recording career he returned to a more conventional post-bop style, but with more interesting arrangements and a much looser vibe.
Not yet thirty years old, Guaraldi made his full-length recorded debut as a session leader in 1956. The trio of Guaraldi, Duran, and Reilly turned in a fairly mild and understated effort featuring standards such as “Chelsea Bridge,” “Django”, and “Fascinating Rhythm”. Guaraldi contributed just one original, “Fenwyck’s Farfel”. As debuts go it’s competent and pleasant, although it really only hints at what was to come.
While Guaraldi’s second album with his trio explores similar musical themes as the first, it’s an altogether more cohesive and enjoyable set. Make no mistake, his intention here is not to get you dancing in the aisles or even doing much more than tapping your feet. This album showcases the sensitive and introspective side of Guaraldi, who offers one very good original composition with “Like a Mighty Rose.”
Right around the recording of Flower, Guaraldi returned to the Tjader camp for a second stint and it’s there that he spent most of his time during the rest of the ’50s. What I’ll call Phase 1 of Guaraldi’s career basically continued until the early 1960s. When he finally returned with an album of his own in 1962, it proved to be the beginning of great things (see the first album in the next section).
Ah yes, the Vince Guaraldi freak-out album. Let’s just say that there is some real truth in advertising with this one, but I’m going to defend this album from its many detractors. This is clearly the work of an artist with a lot to say and a willingness to take some real chances. The opening cut, “Nobody Else,” is a wistfully melodic original that seemed to herald a pretty sedate but enjoyable disc. Then comes the nearly seven-minute “Lucifer’s Lady”, as close to psychedelic rock as Guaraldi ever came.
But wait, then there’s “Black Sheep Boy”, a cloying pop number (with string section) that features lead vocals by the man himself. It’s one of two numbers featuring the vocal stylings of Guaraldi, and I like them. Sure he’s not a strong singer in the traditional sense, but there’s an earnestness and sincerity that comes through on these songs and works for me. But I totally get how some are turned off by his singing.
The one track that many seem to bag on is Guaraldi’s cover of the Beatles chestnut, “Yesterday.” Yes it has a string section and is cheesier than a grocery store dairy case, but something about it just scratches me where I itch. I’m a sucker for this type of smooth, AM gold-ish music from time to time and I love this take on Paul McCartney’s most covered song.
Having already spent considerable time exploring the Latin jazz sound in Cal Tjader’s groups, Guaraldi decided to record an album containing covers originally released on the soundtrack to the 1959 film Orfeu Negro (known to us as Black Orpheus). That music, composed by Luiz Bonfá & Antonio Carlos Jobim, ultimately helped to usher in the Bossa Nova craze in the United States. Guaraldi’s by-then unique style meshed perfectly with the lush, sophisticated melodies and rhythms of Bossa Nova, and he finally broke free artistically.
He also broke big commercially when DJs flipped to the B-side of the “Samba de Orpheus” single and started to play a Guaraldi original called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The song, alternately wistful and swinging (but otherwise not in the Bossa Nova style at all), is pretty much a perfect encapsulation of prime Guaraldi. The song became an unexpected hit, leading Fantasy to re-release the album to highlight the song on the cover. And to cap it off, Guaraldi took home the Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963.
You certainly can’t accuse Fantasy Records of not striking while the iron was hot, which is exactly what they did with In Person. Recorded in December 1962 at the Trident in Sausalito, California, this rush job of an album is actually a very worthy addition to any fan’s collection. Despite the less-than-stellar production values (even by early 1960s standards this sounds too tinny), In Person wins due to Guaraldi’s vibrant and melodic playing. Almost everything here is upbeat (lively bossa nova tunes like “Zelão,” “Outra Vez,” and “Chora Tua Tristeza,” as well as “Jitterbug Waltz” and one Guaraldi original, “Freeway”), which lends Guaraldi’s sedate and gorgeous reading of an old chestnut like “On Green Dolphin Street” even more impact.
Now deep into his Latin phase, Guaraldi took the additional step on this album of adding a string section to five of its nine cuts. The effect is pleasant, albeit not terribly stirring. If you listen to nothing else on this record check out the closing number, “Brasilia.” Its beautiful arrangement and chord structure will sound pleasantly familiar to fans of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
As great as Guaraldi’s other work is let’s face it, this is where most converts get their feet wet. I certainly did. And that’s OK , because the man was obviously inspired when he composed most of this music, so it’s by no means lesser Vince.
As the story goes, Lee Mendelson heard “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio and knew that he had found what he needed for the score to an upcoming Peanuts documentary he was producing. Although the film was never aired, Guaraldi’s soundtrack was released in 1964 and represents the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between him and Charles Schulz.
Many of the songs for the album were written to serve as character introductions (“Charlie Brown Theme”, “Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair)”, “Schroeder”), and it’s from this bunch that the timeless classic “Linus and Lucy” was welcomed to the world. There may not be a more memorable or beloved opening bar in jazz history:
What else can be said about A Charlie Brown Christmas? It has the dual distinction of being one of the defining albums of both jazz and holiday music. It’s not that Guaraldi’s playing was so much better than on other releases, so why makes this so special? I can’t say, but I’ll tell you what I love about it. For the soundtrack to an animated Christmas program, it’s effortlessly sophisticated yet endlessly accessible.
“My Little Drum,” Guaraldi’s twist on “The Little Drummer Boy”, contains that well-known melody but is haunting at the same time. The combination of his ringing chords and the childrens’ choir gives it and other songs an ethereal quality. Then there is the unbridled joy of “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating”, the latter of which is the song I hear in my head whenever I see the first snowfall of the winter.
This collection of musical cues really more for either Guaraldi completists or Peanuts aficionados. The dozen cuts on this album (as well as a second volume released in 2007) were picked by Guaraldi’s son David, who has become the de facto face of the Guaraldi estate, and come from four TV specials from the 1970s: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown, You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown, and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown. Although some songs are quite brief, they paint a good picture of Guaraldi’s music near the end of his life; whimsical, funky, and always impeccably performed. Take, for instance, the instrumental version of “Little Birdie” from Volume 2.
On the afternoon of February 6, 1976 Guaraldi completed work on the soundtrack to his 15th Peanuts TV special, It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown. That evening he was scheduled for a performance at Butterfield’s in Menlo Park, CA. While waiting in a motel room in between sets, Vince Guaraldi suffered a heart attack and died at age 47.
It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown aired on March 16 and included the following dedication in the end credits:
“For Vince, whose music will inspire us forever.”
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