How Vince Guaraldi’s Timeless Jazz Song Became a Cherished American Standard Because of Charlie Brown
It’s great music to hear anytime, but especially this time of year. It’s the late jazz composer Vince Guaraldi’s joyful music for the Charlie Brown TV specials.
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His song, “Linus and Lucy” has become the main theme of all the Charlie Brown specials, though it was first used in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
Nobody had ever used a soundtrack of hip piano jazz for an animated feature before this. Composers such as the great Carl Stalling did compose tremendously complex and brilliant music for cartoons, but his scores for Warner Brothers’ cartoons were orchestral scores, and all classically oriented. This was different. The main melody here is one of infectious and genuine joy. It’s hard not to feel good anytime you hear it. He composed its sweetly exultant theme, and performed it with spirited soul. Its tone is happy, borne not out of laborious hours of serious composition, but from the luminous liberation of jazz itself, of great musicians in the moment, jamming on a central theme. It was the perfect match for this world of chikldhood in which no adults were ever fully seen, or heard.
The idea arrived a cinematic setting, as Lee Mendelson remembered. A San Francisco writer/producer/director, he was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge listening to the jazz show on KSFO.
“It was a show hosted by Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins,” he said..” Right then, he played ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind.’ It was melodic and open, and came in like a breeze off the bay.”
That Bay-breezy song, which was so melodically uplifting that it was played on pop radio as well as the jazz stations, was by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Guaraldi was a San Francisco pianist known for his hip demeanor and beatnik beards, earning him the occasional sobriquet of “pixie.”
The song became a hit on the pop charts, albeit a mild one. Asked once if he felt had had sold out by creating the song, he said, “No, I bought in.” It won a Grammy in 1963 for Best Jazz Composition.
Mendelson wasn’t working on a Peanuts cartoon then, however. He loved Charlie Brown, but was more fascinated by his creator, another Bay Area artist, Charles Schultz. As first America and then the entire world became enchanted by the Peanuts cartoons then relegated to daily newspapers. Mendelson was at work developing a TV documentary about Schultz and this cartoon phenomenon, and it’s for that project that he enlisted Guaraldi to write the score. He wanted something with the feel and flow of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.”
Guaraldi was born in San Francisco and raised in the North Beach area. His uncle was Muzzy Marcelino, a beloved vocalist and whistler who showed Vince the way. His dream was to have a musical life like Uncle Muzzy. After serving in the army for the Korean war, he started mixing up jazz and Latin music as a sideman in vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s band. Soon he formed his own groups to explore this hybrid further – into the realm of Bossa Nova – and worked with kindred souls Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo and Stan Getz.
Vince Guaraldi live, as those who were there remember, was a passionate pianist who invested the fullness of his expression, both body and soul, into his performances.
As writer Doug Ramsey recalled to NPR of a performance with Cal Tjader in Seattle:
“[Guaraldi] was a very intense piano player — he completely committed himself to his solos. He was playing an upward series of arpeggios, and played himself right off the end of the piano bench on to the floor, got up as if nothing had happened, and went back to work, finished the piece.
“Later, I talked to Tjader about that, and he said, ‘Yea, he’s done that before.’ ” It was that commitment to the music, and his natural gift for beautiful melodicism, that distinguished Guaraldi.
“He had the knack, in both instances, of melody,” Ramsey says. “He was a thoroughly grounded pianist harmonically, but he wrote terrific melodies — both when he was putting them on paper, and when he was making them up in his improvisations.”
When Lee Mendelson first heard Guaraldi casting his musical fate to the radio waves, he called famed music critic Ralph Gleason, who connected him with Vince for the first time, a connection that changed the lives of both men.
Invited by Mendelson to create a piece with the same joyous jazz spirit of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” Guaraldi got to work on what became “Linus and Lucy” and not only created a similar vibe, he duplicated much of the original. Nobody seemed to mind. It was so good. When matched with the animated portions created by Melendez for use in the documentary, the effect was delightfully perfect.
Though the documentary was never produced, it allowed all involved to recognize the magic of what they had. It was undeniable to Mendelson and the rest that the Schultz characters animated by Melendez with a Guaraldi score was magic. Although the production for which they were assembled had fallen apart, Mendelson kept the team together and turned instead to the first animated TV special, “ A Charlie Brown Christmas.”.
To bring Shultz’s now-iconic characters to life- including Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Pigpen and, of course, Snoopy – he turned to the animator Bill Melendez. Born in Sonora, Mexico, Melendez worked on many of the Disney classics, such as Jumbo and Fantasia. He was an actor as well as an animator, and provided the voices of both Snoopy and Woodstock in each production. This came about, as the New York Times wrote, because “[Charles] Schulz would not countenance the idea of a beagle uttering English dialogue, Mr. Meléndez recited gibberish into a tape recorder, sped it up and put the result on the soundtrack.”
The music Guaraldi created for the documentary was beloved by all even before it became world-famous. The closeness to the original was never a hindrance, and perhaps its secret to success. It suited the spirit of Peanuts so well. Both Schultz and Melendez loved it, and agreed it had to be a part of every show.
“Many details [of ‘Fate] are imitated exactly,” wrote the pianist/writer Ethan Iverson in The New Yorker. “The main argument of ‘Fate’ is a strong, syncopated, even eighth-note melody harmonized in diatonic triads floating over a left-hand bagpipe and bowed bass, followed by an answering call of gospel chords embellished by rumbles in the left hand borrowed from Horace Silver. This general scheme is followed for ‘Linus and Lucy,’ even down to the same key, A-flat.”
Guaraldi, like Melendez, also contributed to the voices of the characters. Not only had they agreed that no adults would be fully seen, they also decided that even the voices of adults would register only as nonsensical noise. But what kind of noise? They turned to Vince. Needing an expressive human but non-verbal sound, he adapted and distorted some muted trombone lines, which had the perfect insistent frequency for a teacher or other random grown-up.
It’s now a cherished and certainly sentimental part of the American cultural lexicon, as much as The Wizard of Oz, and Guaraldi’s music has defined its unique spirit forever, as did Harold Arlen’s in Oz.
The team persisted in the creation of more than 45 other animated shows, and one many awards, including Peabodys and Emmys.
Guaraldi went on to create many other compositions for the Peanuts gang, including “The Great Pumpkin Waltz.” He also wrote the beautiful Christmas standard, “Christmastime is Here,” which he used with the Peanuts gang, and also recorded beautifully on his album Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral.
Sadly, he died suddenly at only 47. A tearful Lee Mendelson, soon after that sad news was known that Guaraldi was gone, announced that his music would forever be a part of every Peanuts production. And though the man has been gone now for decades, his timeless music and the joy it contains is as young and joyful as ever.
[Thanks to composer/old pal William “Bill” Holab for introducing me to the music of Vince Guaraldi long ago in Illinois.]