Nostalgia gets a bad rap these days, and for good reason. Too many people who pine for the past seem to want the very worst parts of it back. Sadly, even fun retreads—8-bit video games, 90s cartoon kitsch—became dark harbingers, as the memes of “Remember when?” listicles turned into carriers of viral evil. What a bummer. Is there any pop culture from the past that survives untainted by cynicism, sappiness, or trolldom? Unequivocally yes—that purest of artifacts is A Charlie Brown Christmas, and its perfection of a soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi trio. Nothing can touch its sublime mix of joy, innocence, melancholy, and bossa nova-driven cool.
The 1965 movie, an earnest exploration of the holiday through the worldly-wise eyes of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, has affected several generations since it first aired. But at first, the “unabashedly anti-consumerist story” met with disapproval from its sponsors, Coca-Cola and CBS, who “had no choice but to air it,” writes Liz Pelly at Rolling Stone, “they had already advertised it in TV Guide.” Guaraldi trio drummer Jerry Granelli remembers that the corporate execs “really didn’t like that a little kid was going to come out and say what Christmas was all about, which wasn’t about shopping. And then the jazz music, which was improvised.”
Although each holiday season we’re supposed to believe there’s a war on Christmas, everyone, from every faith or none, loves A Charlie Brown Christmas. Its plainspoken piety is a big part of its appeal, but equally so is the music: the unalloyed delight of “Linus and Lucy” and its dance scene (top), the downbeat charm of “Christmastime is Here” and its children’s choir…. The story of how the special came to be is a fascinating one, a series of serendipitous encounters that begins in 1963 with producer Lee Mendelson at work on a documentary about Schulz.
While driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, he just happened to catch Guaraldi’s hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (above). “It was melodic and open,” he thought, "and came in like a breeze off the bay. And it struck me that this might be the kind of music I was looking for.” He tracked the pianist and composer down to score his Schulz documentary. While that project fizzled, Coca-Cola liked it enough to enlist Mendelson for the Christmas special, and some of Guaraldi’s original music—including “Linus and Lucy”—migrated over, written, notes Derrick Bang, to “reflect Charlie Brown’s gentle, kid-oriented universe.” The whole soundtrack was laid down in three hours in the studio. “That’s just the way jazz records were recorded,” recalls Granelli.
“Christmastime is Here” was originally an instrumental (above), but at the last moment, Mendelson had the idea to “put some words to this.” Unable to find a lyricist in time, he penned those words himself. “We rushed it to the choir that Vince Guaraldi had been working with in San Francisco. And he recorded it, and we got it into the show about a week before it went on the air.” Guaraldi “probably would have loved to recycle much of the music from the never-aired documentary,” writes Bang, but the Christmas special called for a slightly different tone, so he wrote two additional compositions, including the bouncy “Skating,” below, “a lyrical jazz waltz highlighted by sparkling keyboard runs that sounded precisely like children ice-skating joyously on a frozen pond.”
The combined talents of Mendelson, Schulz, Guaraldi, and animator Bill Melendez have made A Charlie Brown Christmas an enduringly beloved classic, so critically successful at the time that the four collaborated on several other Peanuts films. In fact, Guaraldi composed music for a total of sixteen Peanuts movies, including the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Guaraldi’s compositional and instrumental skills will be forever linked to Charles Schulz’s iconic characters, perhaps no more so than during the winter holidays.
But he should by no means be solely remembered as the Peanuts composer—any more than the similarly bossa-nova inspired Burt Bacharach should be forever tied to his film themes. Guaraldi’s work stands on its own, or as jazz writer Ted Gioia recently tweeted, “I’ll say it straight: Vince Guaraldi was a brilliant, underrated jazz musician. No one need feel any embarrassment about enjoying (or praising) his music.” If, for some reason, you happened to feel you needed permission to love Guaraldi, there you have it.