The Importance of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas
Purely secular songs have only recently made their way into the holiday canon. These include James Lord Pierpont's "Jingle Bells" (1857), Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1940), Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song" (1944), Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" (1946) and Pola and Wyle's "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (1965). In that same, latter year, on Thursday, December 9, the Columbia Broadcasting System aired an animated Christmas special based on the characters of George Schultz's comic strip Peanuts. Since that time, both the program and its soundtrack have fully established themselves in the holiday canon and have never been out of circulation.
The mid-'60s was a time ripe for the commercial "perfect storm." Television had already harnessed its commercial potential as both a medium for advertising and the rhetoric shaping public opinion. Music evolved rapidly. In jazz, bebop waned and hard bop and post bop ruled. Rock 'n' Roll matured and dominated. Music was in great flux with the beginning of twilight in the "popular" music, as practiced by Frank Sinatra and the advent of rock 'n' roll as its replacement, sparked by the British Invasion. Jazz music had passed through its big band swing phase of the '30s and '40s into its small combo period of the '50s and '60s. By the middle of the 1960s, West Coast cool had given to a more cerebral jazz, giving rise to "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk," as typified by pianist Dave Brubeck. And for the mixed crowd of the period, pianist Vince Guaraldi provided a simply understood holiday soundtrack of seasonal favorites and new pieces introduced to the season by the maestro.
During the '60s, communications, entertainment and the Judeo-Christian holiday season married, for better or worse, creating the greatest advertising-promotional movement ever conceived before the Super Bowl became the whorish spectacle it now is. Add a dash of holiday childhood episodes, appropriately nostalgic music and text, with mom and dad types delivering the goods and one has a nuclear hook capable penetrating the deepest part of our unconscious, that area housing our comfort, both real and imagined. This is where advertising came from. But there would be no advertising without that hook, and as it turns out, as time passes, advertising is able to take advantage, not only of recollections of comfort but of past memories in general and how they comfort us today...through nostalgia.
Nostalgia is not a bad word. It can be used negatively when the more Romantic of us falls into melancholy only to remain there. But for the vast majority, it is a warm coat that may be summoned by a film, a smell or a song. It is the memory of a grandparent or a child, long gone, distilled from the detritus of life to the that fine essence of goodness. For those of a certain age, A Charlie Brown Christmas holds a nostalgic place equaled only by The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939) and, perhaps The Sound of Music (20th Century Fox, 1965) (which hosts its own piece of the holiday canon, "My Favorite Things"). A Charlie Brown Christmas embraced what was left of '50s innocence while promoting the subversive '60s in the message that Christmas was not about having more and the great things to come, but of an idea much simpler. That simpler message still exists among the noise of modernity, to the point it must be actively sought. But it is neither gone or asleep, that candle of hope.
Pianist Vince Guaraldi understood that he was going to have to appeal to both adults and children, two highly disparate demographics: one the veterans of World War II and some of their children, the early Baby-Boomers and the late Baby Boomers. His music must be both sophisticated yet accessible, intelligent, yet simple. His soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas accomplishes this through the careful programming of well-known Christmas carols with his own compositions, full of fun and whimsy.
Guaraldi was not a great technical pianist. He was no Paderewski. But he was a pianist like Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk and Errol Garner, one whose personal style was so readily recognizable as to be iconic. Think of Neil Young's voice and guitar, Rod Stewart's perfect rock rasp and Lowell George's slide guitar and you will get the idea. He was a supreme interpreter of jazz standards. Guaraldi's 1962 Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (Fantasy) is still considered a classic and still pales in popularity to his Peanuts soundtracks. It would be no surprise that Guaraldi would excel on the holiday canon. The opening "O Tannenbaum," a German carol from 1824, provided Guaraldi a sturdy harmonic platform on which to improvise. As Fred Marshall's bass solo finishes, Guaraldi ascends in blue notes, coming from behind as pianists as different as Floyd Cramer and Ben Folds would do after.