Happy Christmas everyone! Here is a tribute to someone I think about all year, but especially during the holidays.
Are popularity and quality mutually exclusive? Certainly not. But in the world of jazz, selling millions of records tends to guarantee that you will be dismissed as a lightweight. I can find no jazz critic with anything positive to say about the top-selling instrumentalist of all time, Kenny G, though perhaps the blandness of his music justifies the upturned noses. But there has been similar criticism of Herbie Mann, whom the Penguin Guide to Jazz describes as “influential, but cursed by commercial success,” as though success is the opposite of quality.
I don’t claim to be an expert, but I listen to a lot of jazz. My favorite style is West Coast: Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, George Shearing. Among these apostles of the Cool, Vince Guaraldi has a special place in my perfect playlist. Musically speaking, your first love is sometimes the sweetest.
Guaraldi created A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, the year I was born, and it debuted in December, when I was three months old. The album eventually went triple platinum, entered the Grammy Hall of Fame, and ended up on the Library of Congress Registry of culturally significant musical recordings. The television show was aired every year for decades afterwards and became a fixture of my childhood.
When I was a kid, everyone loved Peanuts. It was an unusual comic with a philosophical bent and a Zen-like minimalism. I liked it too, but what really grabbed me about the Christmas show was the music. I had never heard anything even remotely like it. It was by turns contemplative, wistful, evocative, and in the special case of Linus and Lucy, exuberant. The driving momentum of that song comes from Guaraldi’s boogie-loving left hand, way down at the deep end of the piano. But then the song unexpectedly shifts and becomes a flower petal dancing in a rivulet of spring rain.
We ladies know that the gentle touch is often the best. I love Dave Brubeck, but sometimes his staccato, aggressive approach to the piano becomes too rough, too harsh. Guaraldi is the master of the deft, light touch, yet his music at its best leaves you with something lasting and substantive. Like a Japanese haiku, it evokes a mood, a season, a riddle. A great example of this is his first big hit, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” Again the powerful left hand provides a moody undercurrent, but the song ultimately feels gentle and meditative.
Guaraldi’s style was a perfect fit for the ultra-cool sound of the Brazilian samba. Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd are credited with sparking the samba and bossa nova wave of the early sixties, but Guaraldi’s album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus came out the same year, in 1962. It was based on the soundtrack of the 1959 movie and included Guaraldi’s version of Luiz Bonfá’s “Samba de Orpheus” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “O Nossa Amor” as well as “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
Guaraldi’s interest in Brazilian music also led to his three-album collaboration with Bola Sete. “Star song” has the unmistakable sound of a Guaraldi composition. His best songs convey a feeling of quiet contentment, as though one is sitting on the patio with a bottle of wine after a perfect summer day.
So what’s the verdict of my trusty Penguin Guide to Jazz? “Guaraldi was a harmless jazz pianist, not as profound as Dave Brubeck, not as swinging as Ramsey Lewis, but capable of fashioning catchy tunes from favorite licks.” Of his Charlie Brown albums it says, “The first record in particular includes some charming miniatures, performed with surprising delicacy.” (No surprise to me, jack.) The critic grudgingly continues, “One might dismiss Guaraldi as the lightest of lightweights, but look how many records he has in print.”
And look how many people he turned into lifelong fans of jazz. Vince Guaraldi died in 1976 at the age of 47, far too young. But few jazz musicians have been as influential.