Artist Spotlight: Vince Guaraldi

Vince Guaraldi was a jazz pianist and composer whom you probably never would have heard of were it not for the Coca-Cola company. Thanks to them, Guaraldi wrote music you’ll never forget and helped create the smooth jazz subgenre. But let’s not hold that against him.

Sorry, Vince. I put the Peanuts kids as the first image instead of you. But I’m sure you know why.

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Guaraldi got his start in the 1950s playing for Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader and traditional jazz trumpeter Conte Candoli, eventually leading his own bands by the end of the decade. His first major break came in 1963, after recording a few covers of Luis Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songs from the film Black Orpheus. His recordings were mildly successful, until his B-side, the original composition “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” started getting radio airplay. It’s a light piece, but nothing I’d turn off if I heard it on my shuffle, if only because my dad used to play it when I was a kid.

This song was a hit, both for Guaraldi (he picked up a Grammy for it) and the British easy-listening cover act Sounds Orchestra, whose version cracked the Billboard top ten in 1965.

Legend holds that after TV producer Lee Mendelson heard this song on the radio (while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, no less) he tracked Guaraldi down so he could hire him to score an animated television special. While Mendelson’s first attempt at getting the Peanuts comic strip on TV had flopped, Coca-Cola had just commissioned CBS to do a Christmas special that they could sponsor, and Mendelson successfully pitched Charlie Brown and the gang. Guaraldi wrote this little ditty and played it for Mendelson over the phone, which sealed the deal.

The music from the special is a mix of Guaraldi originals, like the above earworm, and jazzy Christmas standards played by Guaraldi’s trio, which included Fred Marshall on bass and Jerry Granelli on drums. The trio’s easy-listening jazz style proved perfect for the ragtag-misfit feeling of the special, with its untrained voice actors and Schultz’s idiosyncratic, depressive, anti-commercial themes.

The special was a hit, and Guaraldi gained lifetime employment as the Peanuts composer. With the exception of the 1972 theatrical film Snoopy Come Home, he would score every Peanuts special and movie through his death, and picked up an Oscar nomination for the score to 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, losing to Let It Be.

Guaraldi died at age 47 of an apparent heart attack in 1976, just hours after completing the soundtrack to It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown. Some fans think that Guaraldi’s death signaled the end of the golden years of Charlie Brown specials, and that may be accurate. Honestly, Arbor Day? Future embarrassments in the series include the breakdancing-themed It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown; the live-action/animation mix It’s the Girl In the Red Truck, Charlie Brown; and the shameless NBC-NFL tie-in You’re In the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown.

During his lifetime, Guaraldi was often the subject of discussion among people who talk about things like “Is this artist really jazz?” This stems at least partly from his piano style, which is heavier than most traditional performers at the time. But his music is also more pop-oriented, which means if you’re a traditionalist, the answer to the question is probably No (despite his jazz Grammy win over traditional giants Paul Desmond, Lalo Schifrin, and Quincy Jones). I take a more expansive view, and would say that Guaraldi’s original compositions qualify as jazz, if only because we had no other appropriate terminology to describe them.

That changed, however, in the late 1960s, as many jazz musicians’ innate drive toward experimentation splintered the genre. The great ones like Miles Davis (and the weirdos like Pharoah Sanders) pushed jazz into new realms, while others sought … I’m not sure what. Solace? Commercial success? Something easier to listen to Sun Ra and the Arkestra?

Famed jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery recorded a series of albums that covered pop standards around this time, leaving out the usual improvisation and esoteric chord substitutions that had characterized previous jazz-pop covers. The success that Montgomery and others had with this approach led to a new generation of musicians we call Smooth Jazz, and many of them cite Guaraldi as an early influence. David Benoit and George Winston both put out recordings of Guaraldi’s work, and Benoit’s cover of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is a regular inclusion on compilation albums from this genre, such as the unforgettable The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz II.

None of this would have seemed odd to Guaraldi. He cut his teeth playing Latin jazz, right around the same time that the bossa nova fad carried many jazz artists to mainstream pop success. So I suspect that to him, instrumental music with a jazz flavor aimed at a pop audience would be totally normal. For my tastes, his work in the Latin idiom is quite strong; his heavier piano style lends gravitas to songs that could be more easily forgotten.

Since he died young, there were a few unreleased tracks that made their way out into the world later on. I’ll leave you with the unusually funky “Oaxaca,” which finds Guaraldi on an electric piano, with a saxophone and flute in his band. This was recorded in 1971 but never released; maybe Guaraldi was experimenting with a different sound, but decided against moving in that direction. Guess we’ll never know.