December 2021 Article

December 2021 Article

Written by Bernie Brink
It’s the holiday season, and though Jazz 93.5 has a profusion of swinging holiday tunes both old and new, a perennial favorite of ours is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Over the decades, Vince Guaraldi’s wonderful score to the classic holiday television special has become a jazz and American icon. One of the best-selling jazz albums ever, it has achieved platinum status four times, having sold over four million copies and is second only to Miles Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue. While its association with a notable franchise helped it to gain exposure, its popularity endures on the strength of the musicians’ contributions.

Before the Charlie Brown Christmas special had even been conceived, Vince Guaraldi had already made an association with Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang in the early 1960s. Following the success of his first major hit, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” Guaraldi was first contracted to score music for a documentary film about Schluz and his famous comic strip. Ultimately, the documentary was never aired to the public, though Guaraldi’s efforts did yield a successful album, 1964’s Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown, recorded with his working trio with Monty Budwig (bass) and Colin Bailey (drums).\

A year later, plans were being made for a holiday special. However, the network (CBS) didn’t have much faith in the project, due to a series of misfires and the influence of commercial interests. Guaraldi was again called on to provide the score, but due to time constraints and budget limitations, recordings were pulled from a few different sessions, as well as some recycled material from A Boy Named Charlie Brown. History suggests that several different musicians showed up on these sessions, and some recordings were utilized for the television broadcast while others showed up on the album release.

Despite the haphazard nature of the project’s development, Guaraldi and co. delivered some very fine jazz music. “Christmas is Coming” opens with a rumbling bass line that pays homage to Guaraldi’s childhood love affair with boogie-woogie piano, with a brief “B” section that leans into the bossa and samba rhythms he spent much of his career developing. Guaraldi’s solo piano intro on “O Tannenbaum” is not only iconic, but a fine example of his unique harmonic concept, which then gives way to a lightly swinging interpretation by the trio with a piano solo that features many typical Guaraldi-isms. Of course, one of the record’s most memorable and enduring works is “Christmas Time is Here” – Guaraldi had always wished to pen a jazz standard, and he most certainly achieved that with this tune.

A Charlie Brown Christmas introduced a whole generation to jazz music. Fifty years from its initial debut, the music triggers nostalgia for many Americans young and old. But the album’s subject and association with a particular holiday have perhaps overshadowed what makes it so enduring in the first place: it is an excellent jazz trio record. Listen to Guaraldi’s holiday masterpiece (and plenty of other festive favorites) throughout the month of December on Jazz 93.5!