How Innovative Jazz Pianist Vince Guaraldi Became the Composer of Beloved Charlie Brown Music

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 Christ­masand 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Explains the Poet­ic Pow­er of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts

The Vel­vet Under­ground as Peanuts Char­ac­ters: Snoopy Morphs Into Lou Reed, Char­lie Brown Into Andy Warhol

How Franklin Became Peanuts‘ First Black Char­ac­ter, Thanks to a Car­ing School­teacher (1968)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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