Growing up in the Midwest Christmas was always a special time to me. The family gatherings, the mysterious gifts that appeared under the tree, the spirits both in the air and in my parents glasses, and of course the true reason for the season. There was a mix of happiness and bittersweet, as you thought of those that had passed on and wouldn’t be sharing stories at the family get-together that year as well.
Of course, there was also the holiday specials that aired on the only three television stations we got in. Those holiday specials were something I planned dinner and homework around, rooting thru the TV Guide to find those air times and checking it twice. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty The Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, and of course the countless “very special” holiday episodes of shows like Diff’rent Strokes, Riptide, and Alf.
Of all those holiday specials none rang truer and hit me as hard as the Peanuts’ A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charles M. Schulz’ iconic animated show for CBS was one of those generational cartoons that spanned my generation, my brother’s generation, and even my dad’s generation. My dad grew up in the 50s and early 60s and was an aspiring cartoonist. Schulz was a huge influence on my dad and when those specials came on they were one of the few my dad would sit and watch with my brother and I. There was a simplicity to the Peanuts cartoons. A boy and his dog, and his many colorful friends. There wasn’t any snark in those cartoons. Just adventures and a lesson learned.
As a little kid, I never realized just how much the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas had affected me. It’s an iconic soundtrack by the West Coast jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi. Guaraldi was part of the West Coast jazz movement, falling into the same California cool sound as fellow pianist Dave Brubeck. As for how this cool jazz cat was picked to score a holiday cartoon, well one of the special’s producers Lee Mendelson heard a single version of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Guaraldi’s trio on the radio while traveling in a taxicab. This led Mendelson to getting in touch with Guaraldi who jumped at the chance to score the Schulz special.
The rest as they say is history.
I don’t think there are many other holiday records that are as iconic as A Charlie Brown Christmas. I really don’t. Vince Guaraldi captured such a breezy, cool, and soulful spirit for his score that it’s truly hard to top it. From the opening lines and swinging grooves of “O Tannenbaum’ to the burned in your brain catchiness of the classic “Linus and Lucy” theme(which has become THE Peanuts theme for now and forever), to the exquisite and melancholy “Christmas Time Is Here”, there isn’t a sour note throughout this record. I mean, Wes Anderson used “Christmas Time Is Here” in his masterpiece The Royal Tenebaums. How much more iconic can you get?
Vince Guaraldi exposed an entire new generation, and generations to come, to the swinging sounds of West Coast jazz. Little did these kids(and adults for that matter) know, but they were being exposed to some seriously hip tunes disguised as a soundtrack to the adventures of a boy and his dog.
Sadly, Vince Guaraldi died in 1976 at the age of 47 after suffering a massive heart attack. He had built a career prior to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and sadly that career stopped there. But in taking on this project he cemented a legacy. Guaraldi scored seventeen Peanuts television specials, as well as the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Vince Guaraldi’s songs are as pivotal and as much a character as Peppermint Patty, Pig Pen, and Woodstock. His songs are the heart and soul of those cartoons, and for me personally a massive piece of my childhood.
Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is a timeless album, and one I continue to be enthralled with even well into my 40s.