Charlie Brown and Snoopy and that sad little tree have become almost as much a part of the holidays as that jolly old elf and all those reindeer.
And equally ingrained in our collective consciousness is the elegant jazz score that accompanies the “Peanuts” gang as it celebrates the season in the classic animated Christmas special. Today, no jazz artist embodies that spirit more than David Benoit.
The contemporary jazz pianist, composer and five-time Grammy nominee created “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a tribute show to the beloved “Peanuts” holiday special created by Charles M. Schulz and composer Vince Guaraldi.
Born in Bakersfield and raised in Los Angeles, the 54-year-old musician was inspired to go into jazz piano by the 1965 “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV show. He saw it as a boy, and it has stayed with him since.
“It was such a landmark thing back in the `60s to use jazz in animation,” Benoit said from his Palos Verdes home. “I remember I was 10 years old when it came out. It was a lot of the reason I became a jazz pianist. It captured a spirit; It’s just genius.”
He began studying music a couple years later. His first piano teacher had a background in jazz, so, unlike most pianists, he learned jazz before he learned classical music. With a father who was a jazz guitarist, the music always was in the house and Benoit said he was drawn to its laid-back mood.
“Jazz was the weekend music, the music to relax to and have a cocktail to,” he said. “Classical was the weekday music, my mother’s music. The music we did our homework to.”
Five Grammy nominations later, Benoit is working on his latest studio album. The release, called “Heroes,” will feature Benoit’s take on a collection of standards by an eclectic array of his musical favorites, from The Beatles to Elton John, The Doors to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck.
“Those are my influences,” he said. “That is probably why I got into contemporary jazz_I was very into popular music and groove-oriented jazz.”
He said the CD should be out in the spring.
Benoit said contemporary jazz today is getting more and more fragmented. The genre has gone from the mainstream in the 1950s to a segmented niche that breaks down even further into jazz fusion, smooth jazz, traditional jazz and so on.
“What is disappointing to me is seeing a bitterness in some of the camps. It’s such a small percentage of the market now,” he said. “It’s supposed to be music that makes you feel good and gives you a chill. It’s about individual expression. I hope that is what the younger players think about and what is most important.”
From seeing the cartoon on TV to writing its music, Benoit’s career has come full circle as he became the official composer for the “Peanuts” shows, creating the music for 2003’s “I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown,” 2000’s “It’s the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown” and 1992’s “It’s Christmastime Again Charlie Brown,” among others.
Benoit also had the opportunity to meet his inspiration, “Peanuts” creator Schulz, a few years before his death in 2000. He said being associated with the Charlie Brown name is an honor.
“He was a wonderful man,” Benoit said. “I am best friends with the producer who brought me into (“Peanuts”). It’s that kind of organization. The people are unlike the kind of people you normally meet in television and show business. And it all started with Charles Schulz ... the most down-to-earth, unassuming person.”
Benoit’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” show began big, first with an orchestra and video presentations and then with Al Jarreau and Melissa Manchester. But now he has taken the concert back to its basics, playing with his piano trio and a saxophonist.
“I think that show got a little far away from the innocence of Charlie Brown,” he said. “I decided to do something very simple and pay tribute to the music of Charlie Brown.”
As has become his tradition on this Christmas tour, Benoit will bring out an area children’s choir to sing with him on the show’s final song, “Christmastime is Here.”
“(Using the children’s choir) is a marvelous experience. There’s not a dry eye in the house,” he said.