Pianist, composer, arranger
Vince Guaraldi is perhaps best known for writing and playing the jazz-oriented scores that accompany the “Charlie Brown” television specials. He defined for an entire generation, and subsequent generations, the sound and feel that accompanies the Peanuts gang. It is his composition, “Linus and Lucy,” that breaks the entire group into spontaneous dance. And it is his composition, “Christmas Time Is Here,” that follows Charlie Brown on his lonesome and burdensome quest for the perfect Christmas tree. But these works alone do not define Guaraldi. During his short life he had other achievements. Bob Doerschuk, profiling Guaraldi in Keyboard, offered this wide-ranging definition: “Throughout his career, Vince was an explorer, peering down unfamiliar paths in search of new changes, new rhythms, yet never forgetting his own voice, which spoke best in the language of melodic simplicity.”
Vincent Anthony Guaraldi was born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928, into a musical family. His uncles, Muzzy Marcellino (a television music director) and Joe Marcellino (a violinist and bandleader), piqued his early interest in music, and by the age of seven he began piano lessons with his mother, continuing to play throughout his high school years. After graduation and a tour in Korea, Guaraldi apprenticed at the San Francisco Daily News. While working there in 1949, he suffered an accident in which he almost lost a finger, an occurrence that proved to be a pivotal point in Guaraldi’s life. Doerschuk noted that “it was this incident, along with his family’s encouragement and his own desire to develop his talent, that committed him to the music world full-time.”
Later that year Guaraldi began classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and played his first professional outing. During the next decade, Guaraldi performed, toured, and recorded with various groups and soloists, including vibraphonist Cal Tjader, trombonist Bill Harris and bassist Chubby Jackson, Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd, and Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars. In addition, he also formed his own trio (piano, guitar, and drums) and recorded his first album, Vince Guaraldi Trio, for Fantasy Records in 1956.
Guaraldi’s musical style at that time was extremely energetic, influenced by boogie woogie and bebop. But late in the 1950s he came upon bossa nova, a musical hybrid of Brazilian samba and cool jazz with subdued, subtle harmonies and light syncopation. “It was during a trip to New York with Tjader that Vince had his first exposure to Latin American music, a style that was to have a profound effect on his own playing,” Doerschuk reported. “Years before most American musicians were even aware of bossa nova, Guaraldi was looking for ways to blend the piano into the hypnotic rhythms and soft textures that music required.”
Interest in this style of music and in the bossa nova-like soundtrack to the 1959 French/Brazilian film Black Orphans, which updated the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice against the carnival of Rio de Janeiro, led Guaraldi to record Jazz Impressions of “Black Orpheus” in 1962. This album gave Guaraldi national exposure and earned him commercial success. Ironically, what garnered attention was not the single from that album, “Samba de Orpheus,” but the B-side, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” Included as filler because the album was originally too short, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” caught on after a California disc jockey played it repeatedly, and it was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition for 1962. “With its unpretentious, almost stark framework, catchy theme, and tastefully restrained performance, the disc established Guaraldi’s sound in the ears of many young record buyers who had only been exposed to rock,” Doerschuk noted. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was one of the first jazz records to enter into the national Top 40 list. It also spawned further exposure through the film “Anatomy of a Hit,” produced by noted jazz critic
Full name, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi; born July 17, 1928, in San Francisco, Calif. ; son of Cannella Marcellino Guaraldi; died February 6, 1976, in Menlo Park, Calif. Education: San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Pianist, composer, arranger. Performed and recorded with vibraphonist Cal Tjader, 1950-52; played in sextet led by trombonist Bill Harris and bassist Chubby Jackson, 1953-56; toured with Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd, 1956-57, and 1959; again played with Cal Tjader, 1957-59; played with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars, 1959; played with his own trio, also worked as a composer, arranger, and performer (piano) for television shows and motion pictures, 1960-76.
Awards: Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition for “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” 1962; nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music Scoring for the film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.”
Ralph Gleason for public television in 1963, which profiled Guaraldi and analyzed his hit.
Because of the increased acclaim this record brought, Guaraldi felt compelled to explore new settings for his music. When he was approached by the California Episcopal Archdiocese to produce a celebration of the Holy Eucharist with music in the jazz medium, Guaraldi responded. On May 25, 1965, the Guaraldi Mass was celebrated, and recorded, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. A two hundred-voice choir performed Gregorian-like chants while Guaraldi and his trio accompanied with jazzy improvisations. Despite a few detractors who felt it inappropriate, the Mass received wide coverage and acclaim from such sources as Time magazine and Bishop James A. Pike, head of the diocese of California.
A new setting for Guaraldi’s music also came through his soundtracks for the Peanuts television specials and film. Ralph Gleason introduced Guaraldi to Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson, who had wanted a jazz track to accompany the cartoons, differentiating them from others done previously. Their collaboration spanned sixteen half-hour shows and one movie, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” for which Guaraldi was nominated for an Academy Award for best music scoring of a feature film in 1970. In 1981, Mendelson told Doerschuk, “I think Vince’s music was one of the contributions that made the Charlie Brown shows successful.… Vince gave it a sound, an individuality, that no other cartoon had ever had. I’d say that over the last fifteen years we’ve received as much mail asking about the music as we have about anything else in the shows.”
Despite the success of the series, Guaraldi failed to produce another hit record. He returned to playing in clubs and bars around San Francisco where he continued to expand his vision, playing with verve and intensity. Shirley Lewis Harris saw Guaraldi perform in 1971 and reported in Billboard that he “is still playing the same kind of jazz he did years ago, but with more guts than ever. This man can turn a piano into the closest thing to a human being just by putting his hands on the keys. He makes the piano laugh, cry, sigh, be coy or intellectual.”
Guaraldi played his last gig at Butteriield’s Bar in Menlo Park, California, on February 6, 1976, when he suffered a fatal heart attack between sets. Although it came as a shock to his fans and relations, the situation under which he passed away seemed ironically appropriate. His mother, Cannella Guaraldi, explained to Doerschuk: “When it happened down at Butterfield’s, when the end finally came, he went the way he would have wanted to go, with the piano.” Philip Elwood, in an obituary notice for Rolling Stone, defined Guaraldi’s achievements: “Deep down, Guaraldi was a jazzman. He was never comfortable if the artistic milieu was restrictive or his colleagues weren’t putting out. He was an experimenter, an improvisor, a creator. What more can we ask of an artist?”
Vince Guaraldi Trio, Fantasy, 1956.
Jazz Impressions of “Black Orpheus,” Fantasy, 1962.
Vince Guaraldi, Boia Sete, & Friends, Fantasy, 1963.
Latin Side, Fantasy, 1965.
Vince Guaraldi at the Grace Cathedral, Fantasy, 1965.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, Fantasy, 1965.
At El Matador, Fantasy, 1967.
Oh, Good Grief, Warner, 1968.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Fantasy, 1969.
Greatest Hits, Fantasy, 1980.
Billboard, August 21, 1971.
down beat, February 25, 1965; April 8, 1976.
Keyboard, July, 1981.
Music Journal, November, 1966.
Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976.
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