Who doesn’t know the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas? Now that the music from this Christmas classic has been played every year for 41 years, the previously San Francisco-based Fantasy division of Concord Music Group is releasing the album with four previously unheard alternate takes by San Francisco-based jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Though he previously performed with Woody Herman and Cal Tjader, Guaraldi forever will be known for the his work on the Peanuts television specials. As a result, though initially the combination seemed incongruous, Guaraldi’s use of jazz to characterize the cartoon’s scenes not only was apt, it introduced the public to the delights of jazz.
Guaraldi’s imagination was fueled by diverse influences. His call to work on the Peanuts compositions was the result of recording an unconventional jazz tune "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." Buried on side two of a single from Guaraldi’s album of Brazilian music from Black Orpheus, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" eventually received much greater airplay than the Brazilian music and it became number 22 on the country’s Billboard hits of 1963. When the producer of a television show about Peanuts’s creator Charles Schulz was searching for music, he was struck by the charm and energy of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" and he contacted Guaraldi. After several developments, Guaraldi eventually was recording one of the world’s most widely heard jazz scores.
The wonders of the Guaraldi compositions are their visual suggestions and their unforgettable sounds. The suggestions of "Skating" now are indelibly associated with ice skaters as its breeziness and lilt follow the drawn movement on screen while suggesting falling snow. The unmistakable bass line of "Linus and Lucy," instantly identifiable, no doubt was inspired by the personalities of those characters rather than applying a pre-existing song form to their interactions. And then, of course, there is "Christmastime Is Here," now one of the modern Christmas standards whose words almost everyone knows. As "Christmastime Is Here" is heard, everyone visualizes the scene of the Peanuts characters singing at the Christmas tree. In fact, a Christmas tree drawing, with Snoopy as the top ornament instead of a star, appears on the cover of the album. That drawing is the original album artwork, reprinted with the permission of the Charles Schulz estate.
Interestingly, the 2006 rerelease of A Charlie Brown Christmas includes four additional tracks that use a different bassist and drummer. Guaraldi, though respected by those who performed with him in other situations besides the Peanuts soundtracks, remains somewhat of an incomplete personality, unlike many other jazz musicians, due partly to his untimely death at the age of 47 in 1976. The inclusion of the alternate tracks sheds a little more light on Guaraldi’s work related to the Peanuts specials. More importantly, though, the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas is ingrained in the collective holiday consciousness, the rerelease of the album draws a little more attention to Guaraldi as well.
And that’s as it should be. For Guaraldi didn’t live long enough to realize that his A Charlie Brown Christmas would become some of the most popular Christmas music of the second half of the 20th century and beyond.