Jazz Notes

A Charlie Brown Christmas

A Children’s Introduction to Jazz

The second (or third) in a series commenting on jazz albums I happen to enjoy. About as casual a listener as can be, I know nothing about jazz: couldn’t tell you jack about style other than what’s immediately obvious, wouldn’t understand theory even if I was handed a book, can’t imagine how to begin parsing through contemporary artists when I’m still mired in bop albums from the 50′s and 60′s. Just know when I do or don’t like something, try to make sense of it through my real-life encounters rather than abstract musing.

A_Charlie_Brown_Christmas_(Rmst)VINCE GUARALDI TRIO – A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy ’65): Sentimental and nostalgic value aside, Guaraldi’s soundtrack for Charles Schultz’s beloved Peanuts children’s special contains capable covers and stunning originals. CBS executives were originally upset with Guaraldi’s arrangements (and, more generally, with much of the show’s content), believing it to be out of sync with the tastes of the anticipated audience. But what was unneeded fretting gave way to a children’s introduction to jazz. It certainly was mine. Even if I didn’t pursue jazz until well into my teen years, its effect is akin to the first albums I ever truly loved: A Charlie Brown Christmas stands as the meter by which any jazz album I listen to is measured against. Few stand up.

Most perfect about Guaraldi’s soundtrack is its reflection of the show’s theme; a resistance to the crass commercialization of Christmas. The droopy “Christmastime is Here” mirrors Charlie Brown’s melancholy demeanor, “Linus and Lucy” funnily capturing the energy of the title’s characters. Where the kids want a shiny aluminum tree for their pageant, Charlie Brown opts for a tiny, unremarkable real one whose pine needles are constantly shedding. And where Snoopy wins an award for overloading his doghouse with Christmas lights and decorations, he dismantles them all at the last moment to decorate Charlie Brown’s tree. Similarly, Guaraldi echoes these sentiments in his arrangements, never going over the top, often going the route of smooth, cool versions of popular, traditional Christmas songs (“O Tannenbaum,” “What Child is This?”) or ones slightly retooled (“My Little Drum” a new imagining of “Little Drummer Boy”). Even when the trio kicks things up they never overstimulate. “Christmas is Coming,” easily the most energetic and one of the best pieces here, gives the impression of lighthearted celebration even in its exhilaration, refusing to be led into mindless piano-bashing and bass-slapping.

What made A Charlie Brown Christmas so great was that even though it resisted secularism, it reintroduced religious themes without being didactic or mind-numbingly obvious. Same goes for Guaraldi. The covers of very traditional church tunes never sound like sermons, often having humorously dashed-off piano runs. And while Guaraldi is in top form throughout the entire run, respect has to be paid to Jerry Granelli, whose drum work doesn’t overshadow the integrity of the piano but always supplies riveting rhythms. Same goes for Fred Marshall on double bass, his nimble fingers helping to hammer out one of the more famous bass lines in jazz history. (I’m talking, of course, about “Linus and Lucy.”)

Discovering Vince Guaraldi years after first encountering A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special had a dual effect: it reminded me of what I’d always known—that music doesn’t emanate from nowhere but has a human creator—and it opened up a world of rich music by a man with whom I’d long been unfamiliar. Finding Guaraldi as the thin mustachioed man who, for instance, colored Linus and Lucy’s personalities with a curious piano line whose bass foundation shifted underneath the airy top dispelled the illusion of a theme that felt it had risen organically from the earth. The only pauses are the children’s choir of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and the second part of “Christmas Time is Here.” There’s a throwaway minute of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, included for completion and performed in-show by Guaraldi’s avatar Schroeder. Small price to pay for what may constitute the greatest Christmas album ever recorded.

Unfortunately, the re-releases of the album have succumbed to a bit of commercialization, with several different versions floating around. Assuming it’s impossible to find a copy of the original eleven cut format, I suggest seeking out the 1988 reissue featuring one bonus track, a swinging version of “Greensleeves.” The 2006 reissue features alternate takes I’ve not heard myself and can’t recommend one way or the other. And there’s another release this year featuring the twelve cuts of the 1988 version plus tracks from the Charlie Brown Halloween and Thanksgiving specials. If you happen upon a used CD, ask the storeowner (or garage sale thrower) to give it a spin first. Some copies of the 2006 reissue had been re-mastered incorrectly, screwing up “Linus and Lucy” in particular.

So we might revere Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” or enjoy Elvis’s rockin’ delivery or enjoy a classical evening with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (seriously, it was a regular around my house when I was a kid), but the Vince Guaraldi Trio cut amazing renditions without consciously attempting to impress their audience. Smart move. Considering how discerning children are, its survival and continued celebration are a testament to A Charlie Brown Christmas, both the cartoon and the music.

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