Vince Guaraldi was a piano player and composer from San Francisco, California. A fixture in the local jazz scene for years, Guaraldi achieved surprise success in 1963 with his composition “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”, a B-side to the intended hit song “Samba De Orpheus”. The record went gold and Guaraldi received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition. The song caught the attention of Lee Mendleson, tasked with producing and directing a Christmas special featuring the characters of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip. He contacted Guaraldi, and asked if he’d like to provide the music for the cartoon special. Together, the three men created a lasting tribute to Christmas and American life still broadcast on television every year. The “Peanuts” cartoon specials became a lucrative franchise, and Guaraldi provided the musical score to fifteen more, in addition to other side projects. Sadly, Vince Guaraldi died of a heart attack at only forty-seven years old, while relaxing between sets at the Red Cottage Inn in Atherton, California, just a couple miles from my childhood home.
Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976), piano, composer
“Vince is what you call a piano player. That’s different from a pianist. A pianist can play anything you can put in front of him. A piano player can play anything before you can put it in front of him”.
— Jon Hendricks
Christmas Time Is Here
Guaraldi wrote three pop standards in his career: “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”, the infectious “Linus And Lucy”, and “Christmas Time Is Here”, which nicely captures the quiet beauty of mid-winter. The instrumental version is best, but the vocal version with the San Francisco Boys Chorus is also excellent. The human imperfections of the boys’ voices add charm to these recordings, a key difference between recordings of this generation and the last.
Somewhere along the long road of marriage, Cheryl and I lost our way at Christmas time. We moved away from California in 1993, and I saw my family for Christmas just a couple more times before Mom and Dad were gone. Christmas with the Carters were warm, but I missed my fractured but loving family, and being with the four people who looked, sounded and acted alike. Daddy would come over for a few hours; Grandpa, Lois and Aunt Heather would come, too. Cheryl’s family was different, and I had difficulty feeling at home. Cheryl’s eldest daughter was an unwilling participant at times, arriving late and leaving early, and acting nervous and uncomfortable while there. But mostly, I missed my family, the people I felt truly at home with. Christmas time is lonelier when you’re middle-aged and childless; once the parents are gone, there aren’t enough of your kind around to feel like part of a group.
Spirituality and Materialism
We’re a very lucky family, and there has always an abundance of presents to give on Christmas morning. Over the years, the giving evolved from gifts that were needed, or wanted, to giving things we didn’t already have. Perhaps that’s the way it is these days. Stuff is so much cheaper and easier to accumulate. When asked, I describe my childhood as having all the things we wanted, but we didn’t want that much. Today I joke that we have three of everything. I feel obligated to find suitable gifts on Christmas Day, but it’s not easy finding the thoughtful one. Having children around at Christmas makes it easy to give.
I like venturing out to the Christmas tree farm on an early December weekend, and choosing and cutting down a small fir to take home. Sometimes we’d cut two trees down; Cheryl is a prolific holiday decorator. In fact, Christmas decorating became a yearly extravaganza that started around Halloween. I usually lose interest in the decorating once I acquire the tree and set it in the tree stand. Eventually, Cheryl tired of decorating the house without my help, and of caring for the live trees, so she purchased a pair of large artificial trees to use each season. Every year afterwards I thought of A Charlie Brown Christmas and Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. While I understand that she tired of decorating without me, I don’t understand the decision to use an artificial tree. The tree is a living being, and the most important decoration of all.
And that’s how holiday decorating offers an analogy of how we lost our way. Each of us had things we wanted. We cared about each other, but we failed to communicate, we failed to compromise, and in the end, nobody got what they wanted.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
The producers of A Charlie Brown Christmas were apprehensive. Actually, they hated the new cartoon, believing, among other things, that you couldn’t read passages from The Bible on network television. They were wrong; 50% of all households viewed the program, and critics loved it. Here’s an article describing their trepidation:
A Charlie Brown Christmas is pitch perfect. It is a quiet time of year, the end of the yearly seasonal cycle, and the birth of a new cycle of life. It is a time of reflection and giving, of dancing and joy. Vince Guaraldi’s music captures these moods subtly and beautifully; in my opinion, it is the greatest Christmas record of all time, and I play it at least once each holiday season.
Revisiting this story four years later, we’ve found our way a bit better at Christmas time, and last winter I helped decorate our one live tree. But I am still estranged from my sister, and my parents are still gone. Christmas will never hold the warmth and joy as those early years, when we were all together, in the days of Charlie Brown’s Christmas.
A New Documentary Circulates
Research for a new documentary is making the rounds at film festivals. Here is a link to the website for “The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi”:
Vince Guaraldi is another example of the musical creativity taking place in northern California during the fifties and sixties. Jazz critics tend to be a bit dismissive of his music, but with a begrudging respect for his popularity. One could argue that Guaraldi was an early practitioner of “smooth jazz”. He had a knack for writing popular standards, and by that measure, he succeeded.
Vince Guaraldi Songs:
Linus And Lucy, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭✭✭
Christmas Time Is Here, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭✭✭
Manha De Carnaval, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭✭
Cast Your Fate To The Wind, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭✭
Skating, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭✭
Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal), Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭✭
Christmas Is Coming, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
O Tannenbaum, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You), Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
Greensleeves, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
Moon River, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
Cast Your Fate To The Wind (Take 3), Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
Ginza Samba, Vince Guaraldi & Bola Sete ✭✭
Generique, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭✭
What Child Is This, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭
Alma-Ville, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭
My Little Drum, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭
Samba De Orpheus, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭
Since I Fell For You, Vince Guaraldi Trio ✭
Star Song, Vince Guaraldi & Bola Sete ✭
Manha De Carnaval, Luiz Bonfá ✭✭✭✭
The Christmas Song, Los Lobos ✭
The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole ✭✭✭✭
Moon River, Andy Williams ✭
Samba De Orfeu, Luiz Bonfá ✭✭
Since I Fell For You, Ella Johnson & Buddy Johnson ✭✭
Since I Fell For You, Stanley Turrentine & The Three Sounds ✭✭✭