Born: July 17, 1928 | Died: February 6, 1976 Primary Instrument: Piano
By Derrick Bang
Like most so-called overnight successes, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi--who forever described himself as a reformed boogie-woogie piano player--worked hard for his big break.
The man eventually dubbed Dr. Funk by his compatriots was born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928; he graduated from Lincoln High School and then San Francisco State College. Guaraldi began performing while in college, haunting sessions at the Black Hawk and Jackson's Nook, sometimes with the Chubby Jackson / Bill Harris band, other times in combos with Sonny Criss and Bill Harris. He played weddings, high school concerts, and countless other small-potatoes gigs.
His first serious booking came at the Black Hawk, when he worked as an intermission pianist ... filling in for the legendary Art Tatum. It was more than scary, Guaraldi later recalled. I came close to giving up the instrument, and I wouldn't have been the first after working with Tatum. Guaraldi's first recorded work can be heard on Vibratharpe, a 1953 release by the Cal Tjader Trio. Guaraldi then avoided studios for the next few years, preferring to further hone his talents in the often unforgiving atmosphere of San Francisco's beatnik club scene. In 1955 he put together his own trio -- longtime friend Eddie Duran on guitar, Dean Reilly on bass -- and tackled North Beach's bohemian hungry i club. He also returned to studio work that year, making his recorded debut as group leader, although with different personnel: John Markham (drums), Eugene Wright (bass) and Jerry Dodgion (alto sax). What soon came to be recognized as the Guaraldi sound, however, resulted from several recording sessions with his hungry i buddies. The original Vince Guaraldi Trio, with Duran and Reilly, can be heard on two releases: The Vince Guaraldi Trio (1956) and A Flower is a Lonesome Thing (1957)
The late 50s were a busy time. Aside from studio sessions with Conte Candoli (two albums), Frank Rosolino (one album), and Cal Tjader (at least ten albums), Guaraldi toured in 1956 with Woody Herman's third Thundering Herd, replacing Nat Pierce on piano for one season. Not too much later, just after midnight during 1958's first annual Monterey Jazz Festival, some 6,000 rabid but by now quite tired jazz fans came to their feet when The Cal Tjader Quintet blew them away.
Thanks in no small part to the sound of surprise from the feisty Guaraldi, whose extended blues riffs literally had the crowd screaming for more, Tjader's quintet received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
National prominence was just around the corner. Inspired by the 1959 French/Portuguese film Black Orpheus, Guaraldi hit the studio with a new trio -- Monte Budwig on bass, Colin Bailey on drums -- and recorded his own interpretations of Antonio Carlos Jobim's haunting soundtrack music. The 1962 album was called Jazz Impression of Black Orpheus, and Samba de Orpheus was the first selection released as a single. Combing the album for a suitable B-side number, Guaraldi's producers finally ghettoized a modest original composition titled Cast Your Fate to the Wind.
Fortunately, some enterprising Sacramento, California DJs turned the single over...
...and the rest is history.
Cast Your Fate to the Wind became a Gold Record winner and earned the 1963 Grammy as Best Instrumental Jazz Composition. It was constantly demanded during Guaraldi's club engagements, and suddenly jazz fans couldn't get enough of him. He responded with several albums during 1963 and '64, perhaps the most important of which was Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete, and Friends, with Fred Marshall (bass), Jerry Granelli (drums) and Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. That marked the first of several collaborations with Sete, a musical collaboration whose whole was greater than the sum of its already quite talented parts.
Guaraldi was also a recognized fixture on television, if only in the greater San Francisco region. He and jazz critic Ralph Gleason documented the success of Cast Your Fate to the Wind in the three-part Anatomy of a Hit, produced for San Francisco's KQED; later, shortly after his first album with Sete, Guaraldi did a Jazz Casual TV show for the same network
The most prestigious task, however, was yet to come. Even before Duke Ellington played San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, that venerable institution's Reverend Charles Gompertz selected Guaraldi to write a modern jazz setting for the choral Eucharist. The composer labored18 months with his trio and a 68-voice choir, and the result is an impressive blend of Latin influences, waltz tempos, and traditional jazz supper music. It was performed live on May 21, 1965, and the album became another popular and critical hit. Clearly, if Vince Guaraldi could write music for God, he could pen tunes for Charlie Brown.
The jazz pianist's association with Charles Schulz's creations actually had begun the year before, when Guaraldi was hired to score the first Peanuts television special, adocumentary called A Boy Named Charlie Brown (not to be confused with the big-screen feature of the same title). The show brought together four remarkable talents: Schulz, writer/producer/director Lee Mendelson, artist Bill Melendez and Guaraldi.
Guaraldi's smooth trio compositions -- piano, bass and drums -- perfectly balanced Charlie Brown's kid-sized universe. Sprightly, puckish, and just as swiftly somber and poignant, these gentle jazz riffs established musical trademarks which, to this day, still prompt smiles of recognition.
They reflected the whimsical personality of a man affectionately known as a pixie, an image Guaraldi did not discourage. He'd wear funny hats, wild mustaches, and display hairstyles from buzzed crewcuts to rock-star shags.
Unfortunately, with an irony that seemed appropriate for a documentary about Charlie Brown, Mendelson never was able to sell the show, which remains unseen to this day by the general public. Fortunately, the unaired program became an expensive calling-card that attracted a sponsor (Coca-Cola) intrigued by the notion of a Peanuts Christmas TV special. Thus, when A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted in December 1965, it did more than reunite Schulz, Mendelson, Melendez and Guaraldi, all of whom quickly turned the Peanuts franchise into a television institution. That first special also shot Guaraldi to greater fame, and he became irreplaceably welded to all subsequent Peanuts shows. Many of his earliest Peanuts tunes -- Linus and Lucy, Red Baron and Great Pumpkin Waltz, among others -- became signature themes that turned up in later specials.
Guaraldi became so busy that the ensuing decade saw only half a dozen album releases, three of them direct results of his Peanuts work: A Boy Named Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Oh, Good Grief! At some point between his switch from the Fantasy label to Warner Brothers, Guaraldi took the time to produce and direct an album that has become quite obscure: 1968's Vince Guaraldi with the San Francisco Boys Chorus, released on his own D&D label. This was followed by two Warners releases: The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi, which marks Guaraldi's recorded vocal debut; and Alma-Ville, which showcases a Guaraldi guitar solo on one cut. On February 6, 1976, while waiting in a motel room between sets at Menlo Park's Butterfield's nightclub, Guaraldi died of a sudden heart-attack. He was only 47 years old.
A few weeks later, on March 16, It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown debuted on television. It was the 15th, and last, Peanuts television special to boast Guaraldi's original music. He had just finished recording his portion of the soundtrack on the very afternoon of the day he died.
Time ... passed.
Those who followed in Guaraldi's Peanuts-themed footsteps -- Ed Bogas, Desiree Goyette, Judy Munsen and others -- found the shoes impossible to fill. Not one produced a song or theme anywhere near as catchy as the Master, and several of the specials from the late 1970s and '80s consequently lacked a certain zip.
A whopping three decades later, no doubt responding to unceasing pleas from fans who had played Guaraldi's three Peanuts albums to death -- and wondered what had become of the themes and background music in all those other television specials -- Fantasy released 1998's Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits. The CD included nine previously unissued tracks, from the theme to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving to a vocal rendition of Oh, Good Grief, performed by Lee Mendelson's son's sixth-grade class.Four years later, in the summer of 2003, Vince Guaraldi's son, David, teamed up with Bluebird Records to release The Charlie Brown Suite. The centerpiece selection, long spoken of in reverential tones by fans who only knew of it but never had heard it, is the fully orchestrated Charlie Brown Suite, recorded live on May 18, 1969, during a benefit performance with Amici Della Musica (Richard Williams, conductor) at Mr. D's, a theater/restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach region. This awesome piece of music clocks in at roughly 40 minutes and skillfully weaves half a dozen songs into an integrated whole: Linus and Lucy, The Great Pumpkin Waltz, Peppermint Patty, Oh, Good Grief, Rain, Rain, Go Away and Red Baron.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic response to this new compilation of his father's previously unreleased recordings, David Guaraldi has big plans for the upcoming years ... and this Web site is the place to get up-to-the-minute information.
I don't think I'm a great piano player, Vince Guaraldi once said, but I would like to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and reach the audience. And I hope some of those tunes will become standards. I want to write standards, not just hits. He got his wish.
Windham Hill recording artist George Winston has been playing Linus and Lucy for years, during his concert appearances. A promise to record it and other Guaraldi cuts finally bore fruit in the autumn of 1996, with the release of Winston's Linus & Lucy: TheMusic of Vince Guaraldi.
Linus and Lucy also has been interpreted by Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck and David Benoit; the latter has become Guaraldi's ongoing torch-bearer in the most recent Peanuts animated TV specials. GRP Records had a smash hit back in 1990, with their soundtrack to the television special Happy Anniversary Charlie Brown, which gathered numerous jazz luminaries for their interpretations of classic Guaraldi compositions, along with some new cuts clearly inspired by Dr. Funk's Peanuts themes.
Christmas Time is Here has become a seasonal fixture, and pretty much everybody of consequence has covered Cast Your Fate to the Wind.
Let's fade with the words of Jon Hendricks, poet laureate of jazz, who once wrote:
Vince is what you call a piano player. That's different from a pianist. A pianist can play anything you can put in front of him. A piano player can play anything before you can put it in front of him.