An Introduction to Vince Guaraldi, the Jazz Composer Who Created the Best Christmas Album Ever, A Charlie Brown Christmas

When A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas first aired 58 years ago, few had any con­fi­dence that it would be a hit. Its sto­ry and ani­ma­tion, bare-bones even by the stan­dards of mid-nine­teen-six­ties tele­vi­sion, made a pos­i­tive impres­sion on nei­ther CBS’ exec­u­tives nor on many of the spe­cial’s own cre­ators. They did­n’t expect that this very sim­plic­i­ty would turn it into a peren­ni­al hol­i­day favorite — nor, pre­sum­ably, that its sound­track by the Vince Guaral­di Trio would become one of the most beloved Christ­mas albums in exis­tence. Now that we’re well into the sea­son when the music from A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas is heard every day in homes, cafés, and shop­ping malls all around the world, why not get an intro­duc­tion to Guaral­di, the man and his music, from pop cul­ture video essay­ist Matt Drap­er?

“Born in San Fran­cis­co in 1928, Guaral­di cred­it­ed his two uncles with spark­ing his inter­est in jazz as a child, with the future musi­cian already learn­ing the piano by age sev­en,” says Drap­er. After serv­ing in the Kore­an War and return­ing home to study music at San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty, Guaral­di began to “pur­sue his love of jazz in local clubs.”

He soon formed his trio, and record­ing their first albums in the mid-nine­teen-fifties, he “expand­ed his use of Latin jazz and bossa nova.” In 1962 Guaral­di scored his first hit with “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a sin­gle from an album inspired by Mar­cel Camus’ Black Orpheus. It was a radio broad­cast of that song, so the sto­ry goes, that caught the ear of Lee Mendel­son, who would pro­duce A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas, as he crossed the Gold­en Gate Bridge in a taxi­cab.

Mendel­son ini­tial­ly com­mis­sioned Guaral­di to com­pose the music for A Boy Named Char­lie Brown, a tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary that ulti­mate­ly nev­er aired. But its record­ing ses­sions brought forth “Linus and Lucy,” which became Peanuts’ de fac­to theme song, and when Coca-Cola agreed to spon­sor Peanuts Christ­mas spe­cial in 1965 — a scant six months before Christ­mas itself — Guaral­di was called back to score it. “A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas is a rather melan­cholic sto­ry cen­ter­ing on Char­lie’s search for mean­ing and worth in the hol­i­day sea­son,” says Drap­er, “so it’s fit­ting that a large por­tion of Guaraldi’s score is tinged with sad­ness.” Yet “Guaraldi’s melan­choly isn’t over­wrought or forced; rather, it’s minor and sub­tle,” unlike the aver­age film score that tries to “beat its lis­ten­ers over the head with emo­tion.”

The sound­track album, which you can hear (and see accom­pa­nied by a Yule fire­place) on the offi­cial Vince Guaral­di Youtube chan­nel, offers musi­cal vari­ety from the “ton of swing­ing style” in its ver­sion of “O Tanen­baum” to the “waltz brim­ming with ener­gy” of “Skat­ing” to “Christ­mas Is Com­ing,” with its “hints of rock-and-roll.” In the video just above, com­pos­er-Youtu­ber Charles Cor­nell explains what makes it “with­out a doubt, the best Christ­mas album ever” (a title held along with that of the best-sell­ing jazz album in his­to­ry after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue), not least its being less “in-your-face Christ­mas” than oth­er sim­i­lar­ly themed record­ings. Yet he also acknowl­edges that Guaraldi’s most beau­ti­ful com­po­si­tion for a Peanuts spe­cial isn’t in A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas, but It’s the Great Pump­kin, Char­lie Brown, from 1966. When next fall fall rolls around, do make “Great Pump­kin Waltz” the first song you hear.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Enjoy Clas­sic Songs from A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas, Per­formed by Vince Guaral­di Trio Drum­mer Jer­ry Granel­li

Why “White Christ­mas,” “Here Comes San­ta Claus,” “Let It Snow,” and Oth­er Clas­sic Christ­mas Songs Come from the 1940s

Charles Schulz Draws Char­lie Brown in 45 Sec­onds and Exor­cis­es His Demons

The Endur­ing Appeal of Schulz’s Peanuts — Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #116

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (5)
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  • Michael Zeuch says:

    Vince was a dear soul. I love his trio music. So sad he left us so soon.

  • Bev Donley says:

    The poignant melan­choly of the melody of “Greensleeves”/“What Child Is This,” is my favorite part of my favorite Christ­mas album. It is aching­ly beau­ti­ful.

  • Therese says:

    What a great video pre­sen­ta­tion about Vince Guaral­di! Thank you so much. You’re an excel­lent pre­sen­ter. I did­n’t know any of this back­ground, and I learned a lit­tle about music the­o­ry. Hap­py Hol­i­days!!

  • David Partikian says:

    Thank you for this piece!

    Guaraldi’s albums with Bola Sete remain on my most played pile every year.

  • BC says:

    Thank you Thank you Thank you. Beau­ti­ful. I lis­ten to this album all year. It makes me so hap­py and also sad. It also angers me that “we” now have to pay to see this won­der­ful Christ­mas pro­gram but for­tu­nate­ly I can hear the music all year. Great pre­sen­ta­tion. Mer­ry Christ­mas

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