How an Unremarkably Wonderful Work Is the Most Successful Jazz Album, Ever

How can it be, in fact, that Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas is perhaps the only universally adored record in jazz history -- the Sgt. Pepper's of improvised music?

When, a month ago, I received in the mail the reissue of the soundtrack to the TV show A Charlie Brown Christmas, I very nearly tossed it in the give-away pile. After all, I had owned that record -- first in LP, then later in CD -- since I was a little kid in the '60s. I'd listened to it certainly hundreds, and possibly thousands of times. I'd heard the tracks 1- times more often in malls, at friends' houses, on the radio and, of course, on television.

Even the cover of the disc seemed as common and unremarkable as a hot dog or yellow No. 2 pencil: Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus holding hands as they dance around a cartoon Christmas tree, with Snoopy sitting in the place of a star or angel. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" it proclaims in red and green printing, "featuring the famous PEANUTS characters". Then, almost as an afterthought, the artist: "Vince Guaraldi".

Why even put it over the speakers again? I can probably scat the whole thing, note for note, from memory.

And then, of course, I kept it and started playing it almost every day.

The Contention

Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas, I now posit, is the most successful recording in the history of jazz.

What? More successful than A Love Supreme? More successful than Kind of Blue or Louis Armstrong singing "Mack the Knife"?


It depends on how you define success, of course. I don't claim that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the pinnacle of jazz artistry. But there is no jazz album that is more universally known and loved in the United States. Most people will crinkle their nose if you slip some Keith Jarrett into you car's CD player. "Why does he moan like that?" You try to hip folks to Coleman Hawkins over dinner and they're likely to say, "So, do you mainly listen to really old music?" Cassandra Wilson? "That man's voice gives me the willies." Friends who aren't already jazz nuts may tolerate this stuff, but they rarely applaud it.

But if you ease Guaraldi into a cocktail party, the response is universal. "I love this!" "Linus and Lucy!" People will ask if they can borrow it. If they don't already have and cherish it.

The question then: WHY? What is it that made this modest -- and, frankly, somewhat unremarkable -- set of piano trio versions of (mostly) holiday tunes into a beloved record? How can it be, in fact, that A Charlie Brown Christmas is perhaps the only universally adored record in jazz history -- the Sgt. Pepper's of improvised music?

The History

Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip had nothing to do with jazz at the start, and in a sense it never did. Charlie Brown's friend, Schroeder, was a classical prodigy obsessed with Beethoven, and Snoopy the beagle could dance and had a thing for being "cool", but that's about it. But when the producer of a TV documentary on the making the strip was looking for music to accompany an animated sequence, he happened to hear "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on the radio.

In 1965, jazz had already pretty well disappeared from the radio, with rock 'n' roll and bubblegum pop fully ascendant. The odds that some DJ would flip over a single from a bossa nova album made by a minor San Francisco-area jazz pianist to turn a b-side into a hit -- it had to be a million-to-one. But it happened. Guaraldi, a jazz pianist of limited chops who played somewhat in the bag of Wynton Kelly and Mose Allison, had recorded bossas from the movie Black Orpheus, then padded-out the LP with some other material, including his own "Cast Your Fate to the Wind". A shocker of a hit, the tune was catchy, with a lilting verse and a chorus with a strong bass line. The improvising -- the "jazz content" -- wasn't anything special, but the tune was a ditty for the ages, a couple of well-crafted licks that wouldn't leave your mind.

Lee Mendelson, the producer in question, was a jazz fan and had considered turning to Dave Brubeck for this Peanuts documentary, but there was something about "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" that hooked him. In less than a month, he'd contacted Guaraldi and, over the phone, heard Guaraldi's first Peanuts sketch -- the bass line-driven ditty that would turn into "Linus and Lucy", the ultimate "Charlie Brown song". Mendelson was hooked, and Schultz loved it. When they team decided to make the first animated Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi was hired to record his own tunes as well as adaptations of holiday staples.

The Columbia Broadcasting System, however, was not hooked. Jazz, they apparently reasoned, was for adults at night with cigarettes and martinis, not sarcastic kids with anxiety problems. CBS tried to change things, but the show -- Guaraldi intact -- first aired on December 9, 1965. It earned a "50 share", meaning that half of all Americans watching TV that night caught the show. And they loved it.

Guaraldi was hired to do every Peanuts special (through the 15th, It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown, if you can believe it) for the rest of his short life. He died in 1976, only 47 years old. And while Peanuts had plainly given his jazz career a crucial longevity, he remained to the end a fairly modest jazz journeyman, a guy who said of himself, "I don't think I'm a great piano player", and who died after an evening's gig that can't have earned him more than a few hundred bucks.

So: am I really saying that A Charlie Brown Christmas -- an album made by a journeyman pianist who acknowledged his own mediocrity -- is a jazz record more successful than any other?

Yup. Here's why.

The Music Itself

People love this record. They eat it up. It is unconditionally enjoyed by 98 percent of the humans you'll find (the other two percent: the curmudgeons and hipper-than-thous who know that popular and appealing things can't be cool).

You can't chalk it up to the mere popularity of the holiday tunes -- every recording artist and his mother has tried singing "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)". Besides, only half the tunes are well-known carols. The rest are Guaraldi's own. This was 1965, so there are no guest stars, ringer producers, or gimmicks of any kind. The entire package: piano, bass, and drums, plus a few kids singing on "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing".

What makes it special, then, is very basic. First, it is unadorned, straight-up swinging jazz. Second, it is on TV.

As Wynton Marsalis wrote in his liner notes to Joe Cool's Blues, an album of Guaraldi covers, "When I was a boy, the only time you would hear jazz on television was when Charlie Brown came to town." When has jazz ever had regular access to the actual American public? This has always been the jazz fan's saw: if people just heard it, they'd dig it. And it turns out it's true. The Tube sells. Even jazz.

But if the music had not, itself, been such a straightforward exponent of the art form, the TV exposure would have been wasted. What is so remarkable about the Guaraldi music is how unfussily swinging it is, even as it moves around the jazz cocktail party, chit-chatting with all the major mainstream styles. As a survey of jazz styles, in fact, it's hard to beat for efficient musical tourism.

Straight swinging jazz in 4/4 -- the walking bass, the pinging on the ride cymbal -- starts us off. Though "O Tannenbaum" begins with a solo piano reading of one chorus, it is soon rendered in pure swing -- a strolling melody statement over brushes. Guaraldi -- with a nod, perhaps, to Sonny Clark and to Wynton Kelly -- elides the melody perfectly, playing one note where once four or five stood. Like a guy who says less and gets listened to more, this melody statement is James Dean hip. The solo is blues-infused, certainly, and Guaraldi knows just how to leave gaps in his right-hand line so the bass, the drums, and his own left hand pop through regularly, making the track seem larger and more expansive. It finger-pops; it toe-taps; it seems like the kind of music you'd want following you around while you walked the NY streets.

That kind of walking swing pops up on other tunes in part, each time a hip joy. "Christmastime Is Here" is an exuberant original that starts with rock-ish Latin groove, moves to bossa nova on the bridge, then swings plain as pistachio on the piano solo. The same tactic is used on the iconic "Linus and Lucy". The impossible-to-shake Guaraldi bass line also implies a Latin feel, but when it gives way to the quick 16 bars of swing, you just about feel your heart is going to burst with happiness. Despite the CBS suits fearing that jazz would mess up the happiness of a bunch of cartoon kids, it turned out the other way around -- the elastic joy of jazz made egghead Linus, crabby Lucy, and depressed Charlie Brown seem buoyant in their angst.

Guaraldi assays two jazz ballads -- his own "Christmastime Is Here" and Mel Torme's secular classic, "The Christmas Song". The first, sure, is Bill Evans lite -- but so what? It's a gorgeous melody (and one not ruined by the kids singing it with Mendelson's simple lyrics in a second version) that floats, minor and blue, over some pretty chords. The bass player even takes a nice solo. "The Christmas Song" is treated to a full chorus of solo piano -- unremarkable but sturdy -- after which the trio is in for a slow improvisation on the bridge, then back to the melody. What Guaraldi knew -- or maybe what the TV show required -- was economy. And that's what the ballads deliver: the jazz sensibility as a great editor, taking out the extra notes, the corny stuff, the frilly extras. People dig it still.

"What Child Is This" is one of three waltz-time tunes on the record, though curiously one of the others is "Greensleeves" -- the same melody as "What Child". No matter, as both versions of the English folk melody are played well, the written tune sitting between a Guaraldi flourish that frames it with a jazz tinge. These rolling arpeggios might be thought of as a quick education in jazz harmony -- the fancier chords laid out for your ear to soak up. "Skating" is a skipping, syncopated waltz that sounds, frankly, like snow falling. The solo is the best one on the record, over a walking three -- a hip little blues squall in the middle of the flurry.

What it comes down to, perhaps, is a matter of doses. The jazz content is limited: just eight tunes. But for most folks, that's just about enough jazz for one sitting. The other tracks are holiday novelties: a clever variant on "Little Drummer Boy" called "My Little Drum", a vocal version of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" that the kids sing, a "Fur Elise" played by the cartoon pianist Schroeder. You listen to it and don't feel like you're being hit over the head with "jazz".

And maybe that's the thing with jazz. With the rare exception of, well, A Charlie Brown Christmas, it isn't on TV or the radio. To most people, jazz is not just an exotic language they don't understand; it's medicine they're supposed to take. Some friend pours it out on a spoon and says "open wide!" -- of course they're going to shudder. But in the tasty three-to-five-minute dollops that Guaraldi ladles out, it's a swinging spoonful of sugar. A little Latin groove, some bossa, some swing, a waltz, a ballad -- all soaked in snappy blues riffs and a tight rhythm section sound. No wonder Wynton loved it so much: A Charlie Brown Christmas is a conservative, student-friendly primer in mainstream jazz culture -- the best, in fact, there ever was.

The Context: Yesterday and Today

At the time this music came out, pop music was amidst a revolution, with the rock of the '60s screamingly ascendant but still existing alongside classic pop by Sinatra and the like. Jazz was revolting too, with Coltrane igniting free jazz into something so strong and hot that the jazz world was seemingly torn apart -- one path leading to "unlistenable" art music, the other leading toward boogaloo and then fusion. Mainstream jazz seemed either lost or old-fashioned.

Guaraldi's Peanuts music entered this landscape as a modest and middlebrow signifier for the kind of jazz that college kids and hipsters had been bobbing heads to in the late '50s, now arrived on the Tube for public digging. Though jazz had lost traction as a mainstream entertainment by 1965, it wasn't too late for reg'lar foax to get a sense of the pleasures in effortless swing and snappy blues licks. Not cutting edge -- but that's the point.

Today, A Charlie Brown Christmas has ascended to being a "Christmas classic" -- a staple of holiday parties, post-Thanksgiving strolls in Nordstroms or Barnes & Noble, and it's still on TV. In an age where you are more likely to hear a "house" version of "Joy to the World" than Andy Williams or Bing Crosby doing "Sleigh Ride", Guaraldi's music seems to be lasting. I suspect it is outlasting some of those wonderful but corny old classics because people -- without possibly realizing it -- hear in it the great things about jazz that rock and pop were able to cop all those years ago: a blues sensibility, the aspiration for effortless cool, the paring away of the unnecessary. A Charlie Brown Christmas is my dream come true: proof that everybody really likes jazz after all, though they don't exactly know it.

Which, just maybe, makes it a jazz classic as well as a Christmas classic. Not great art, perhaps, but the most widely loved exponent of a great art, Guaraldi's holiday music gets jazz right. He wasn't Bill Evans, no -- nor Thelonious Monk nor Duke Ellington nor Teddy Wilson, and so on. Just a cat from San Francisco, a guy who knew he wasn't "great", who nevertheless did something just right when he had the chance.

Talk about a holiday gift.

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