Good Grief, Vince Guaraldi!

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As my beloved Peanuts characters would say, “Good grief!” The Christmas season is upon us, and due to the way things fall on the calendar this year, Advent is very compressed. Feels like there’s even more to get done in a smaller amount of time!

There’s nothing like Linus to keep us focused on the true meaning of Christmas. If you’re a fan of A Charlie Brown Christmas, you know the scene to which I’m referring: Charlie Brown shouts out in desperation, “Isn’t there anyone out there who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

To which Linus, that little voice of wisdom, responds by reciting the account of the birth of Christ from the second chapter of Luke.

If you’re a fan of this classic Christmas special, there’s a good chance you like the soundtrack, too. It’s certainly not typical of the music you’d hear on other animated programs – particularly in 1965, the year A Charlie Brown Christmas first appeared.

I wanted to mention the fellow who’s made so many people feel good the minute they hear the Linus and Lucy song. I became aware of Vince Guaraldi as a little kid….though it took a few years before I found out his name. Even at a young age, I was a big fan of a jazz tune that was popular at the time: Cast Your Fate to the Wind.

It stuck with me, and by the time I was playing piano I learned to play it by ear. I didn’t make the connection until some time later between the musical style of that song and the Charlie Brown music – but it’s obvious in retrospect.

Vince Guaraldi was a San Francisco jazz artist (known for his big, black handlebar moustache) who started to make a name for himself in the 1950s: he played a lot of studio sessions, toured with Woody Herman’s big band, and was received extremely well at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958.

He hit the “big time” in 1963 with his trio as they won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition…..for Cast Your Fate to the Wind!

By the mid-1960s, when I first heard that tune, that song was everywhere.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally tracked down a copy of the recording.

If you’re interested in hearing more of the Vince Guaraldi Trio – and Cast Your Fate to the Wind in particular – check out the album Impressions of Black Orpheus. The song has been covered by other artists like George Winston, so I’ll bet you’ll recognize it even if you don’t know it by name.

The Charlie Brown connection came when Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson (the producer of the Peanuts animated specials) heard a live club performance of Cast Your Fate to the Wind on the radio when they were in San Francisco.

The story has it that the two went immediately to the club, where Schulz introduced himself and proposed that Guaraldi’s trio provide the music for the Christmas special then in the works. The rest is history! (Guaraldi went on to compose the scores for 16 Peanuts specials, as well as the film A Boy Named Charlie Brown.)

Sadly, Vince Guaraldi died of a sudden heart attack in 1976 when he was just 47 years old. I found an article recently that quoted him as having said, “I don’t think I’m a great piano player, but I would like to have people like me; to play pretty tunes and reach the audience. And I hope some of those tunes will become standards.”

I think he accomplished that.

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