Music

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"?

Yup.

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image