by Dusti Rhodes
Christmas owes its coolest soundtrack to a taxi driver.
While working on a documentary about Charles Schultz and his legendary Peanuts comic strip, television producer Lee Mendelson was approached to create a children’s Christmas special for CBS. Luckily his current project meant he needn’t look any further than Schultz’ large-headed crew for characters, but the music wasn’t so readily available. Mendelson was struggling to find a sound that would match the cartoon’s sophisticated wit.
Then he took a taxi over the Golden Gate Bridge.
On the driver’s radio was “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Vince Guaraldi, a San Francisco jazz pianist/guitarist who had won a Grammy for the song. Upon hearing the award-winning number, however, Mendelson began to lay plans for Guaraldi that would ensure his golden gramophone would pale in comparison to his next achievement.
Vince Guaraldi grew up in San Francisco and entered its music scene in the early 1950s after serving as a cook during the Korean War. After playing in groups around the Haight-Ashbury area, Guaraldi began writing his own compositions and quickly became a favorite in the scene (even sitting in with The Grateful Dead). He was known for his unique sound and style which produced hits including “Cast Your Fate,” a song that earned him a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition, but enjoyed only mild success on the charts and airwaves compared to later covers. This is what makes Mendelson’s taxi-cab encounter with Guaraldi’s version all the more serendipitous.
After hearing Guaraldi’s version, Mendelson immediately tracked him down and asked him to score A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi agreed and thus sealed his fate as the man behind the most iconic holiday album of all time.
And if not most iconic, definitely the coolest.
During those first winter weeks, it’s understandable for retail employees and customers alike to roll their eyes at the onset of “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” But when you hear the first few notes of Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” it’s impossible to fight the nostalgic grin brought on by a vision of cartoon kiddos and Snoopy tracing figure eights on ice.
Guaraldi made use of some notable favorites, putting his own spin on mainstays such as “O Tannenbaum,” “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” and “Greensleeves,” but his originals have proven to be worthy contenders to their classic counterparts.
“Christmas Time is Here,” “Skating,” “My Little Drum,” and “Linus and Lucy,” sit in our brain right alongside tunes about Rudolph, Frosty, and Ol’ St. Nick, ready to trip our Yuletide circuits come December. But Guaraldi’s creations lack the cheese factor thanks to a blend of the playful and bittersweet. What better device to drive a narrative about the difficulties experienced during the holidays starring cartoon children with better vocabulary (and more anxiety) than most adults?
Like Guaraldi, the Peanuts are too cool for kid stuff.
Guaraldi’s contributions to the Peanuts films have been attributed with bringing jazz to new audiences while still keeping time with the old ones and it’s no surprise if you listen to Pre-Peanuts Guaraldi. Many of the Christmas creations share hints of Guaraldi’s past compositions – whether in sound or in spirit.
Most notably is “Chelsea Bridge” from the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s 1953 self-titled album in which is weaved many progressions that seem to have been lifted and placed into the iconic “Christmas Time is Here.” Give it a listen and don’t be surprised if you find yourself expecting a slightly off-key children’s choir to chime in at some point.
Those still looking to pad their holiday playlists could easily add the above to the mix along with other early tracks such as “It’s De-Lovely,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” and “Alma Ville.”
But don’t retire Gualardi for the holidays, shake the snow out of your ears and you’ll find his utilization of jazz, bossa nova, pop, and swing go as well fireside with Nat King Cole as they do poolside with Esquivel.
Just don’t be surprised if a guest poses the same question at either gathering: “This is from that one Charlie Brown movie, right?”
Even for fans, Guaraldi is so unmistakably himself, yet so recognizably Charlie Brown that a distinction is hard to make. Both are accessible, yet ahead of their time; charming, yet despondent - like a 6-year-old who believes he suffers from pantophobia.
Perhaps that’s why Mendelson asked the taxi driver to turn the radio up.
For further listening enjoyment: