How the Vince Guaraldi Trio's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Became the Soundtrack of the Holidays

What started out as a quick corporate check for a San Francisco trio blossomed into one of the most popular jazz albums of all time.

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Dec 16 2016, 5:27pm

Photos courtesy of Peanuts

At first glance, the two highest-selling jazz records of all time are opposites in their makeup. The first, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, is a celebrated masterpiece of innovation and radicalism—a moment in time when an eccentric genius decided to turn his back on standard chord progressions and redefine what the genre could sound like. The other, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was made mostly in one three-hour session in conjunction with a 1965 TV special paid by The Coca-Cola Company.

Yet both albums have sold over 4 million copies—kind of low compared to the highest selling of other genres, but still—and served as entry points to jazz for mainstream culture. At the time of their releases, the genre was still a largely misunderstood art, an evolution of blues and ragtime that was deeply rooted in the experience of being black in the United States. Kind of Blue was so profound that white America could no longer ignore it. And Christmas, set to a warming Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a Christmas tree that no one wanted (which would then be applied to characters from Peanuts, a comic strip written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz), was so earnest that they could even relate to it.

The two projects shared one more big similarity: Neither held many expectations going into their recordings. In the case of Blue, this was out of strategy; Davis wanted musicians playing on the album to have almost no rehearsal or idea what the finished songs would sound like, as to let spontaneity and improvisation guide the ship. For the trio that recorded Christmas, which was led by San Francisco-based pianist Vince Guaraldi, it was more a result of circumstance; CBS, the station airing the special, expressed reluctance in having jazz back a children's holiday cartoon. As a result, the trio had to work fast on a relatively small budget (each musician got around $128 for their initial work).

But the soundtrack—whimsical, joyous and, in certain moments, definitively blue—went on to defy expectations and become a massive hit, voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007 and placed in the Library of Congress's National Registry in 2012 at the same time as "Rapper's Delight" and Prince's  Purple Rain. Beyond the accolades, it's become ingrained in the fabric of the holiday season, a ubiquitous collection of nostalgia-invoking tunes that's undoubtedly on at least 100 of the 400-something Christmas playlists at Starbucks. The accompanying cartoon, too, remains a perennial favorite, still airing each year on television around the holiday (you can currently stream it for free on ABC's website).

"It's surreal for me," says Lee Mendelson, who produced the special and wrote the lyrics for "Christmas Time Is Here," the somber, wire-brushed carol sometimes now associated with the "sad walk" in Arrested Development. "It's totally hard to believe that it's traveled this far."

To exemplify its importance, Mendelson tells me how he's heard accounts that Prince played "Linus and Lucy," the buoyant piano-driven ditty off the record that's become the de facto theme of Charlie Brown, as the closer to his last concert before his death in April (he did in fact play it, although not as the final song). These kinds of fabled anecdotes, paired with the fact that the soundtrack is still selling tens of thousands of copies a year, begs the question: Has it somehow traveled farther than Kind of Blue? And if so, what does it mean that the most widespread album of a genre that's often described as "America's only true art form" is a soundtrack to corporate-backed Christmas special? To answer that, it might be wise to first look at the life of the short-fingered pianist behind the record.

Mendelson discovered Vince Guaraldi in 1963 while riding in a taxi over the Golden Gate Bridge. As he looked out upon the gleaming bay, a song on the radio, Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," a B-side to his latest album that was originally intended to be left off by the record company but went on to win a Grammy, caught his ears. At the time, Mendelson was producing a documentary on the beloved cartoonist Schulz and looking for someone to do its music. Upon hearing "Wind," he immediately knew that its creator (he had to call the San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic to find out it was Guaraldi) would be the right person for the job. The song's sound, he tells me, tapped into the story of Peanuts, which was about a young boy and his dog but often drifted into more advanced topics. "['Wind'] was improvisational jazz for adults, but it had kind of a whimsical quality," Mendelson says.

Guaraldi was a relatively young star in the local jazz scene at that point. After serving as a cook for the army in the Korean War, he returned to his hometown to pursue piano playing full time, despite not knowing how to read music. Because of this hindrance, he was fired from his first gig, a soloist in one of Woody Herman's big bands, before finding a place with Latin jazz musician Cal Tjader, whose work has been sampled by numerous hip-hop acts, from DJ Premier to Tyler, The Creator. In 1955, Guaraldi decided to start his own trio, which would change lineups multiple times in coming years. Vince supposedly had short stubby fingers for a pianist, but was infamous for holding nothing back when he played.

"He didn't really care if I didn't make all the breaks or the subtleties of his tunes," says Jerry Granelli, the drummer in the trio's lineup that would go on to record Christmas. "I knew that he loved to swing, so I just played like my head was on fire."

Guaraldi and the band (which, in the early 60s, was rounded out by guitarist Eddie Duran and bassist Dean Reilly) became a staple in Bay Area jazz clubs, but remained relatively low-time until they recorded "Wind," a soft-spoken tune with a sparkly bridge that you can easily hear the makings of "Linus and Lucy" in. That's when things started to bubble, with Vince getting both the Grammy and the call from Mendelson soon after. Guaraldi started writing pieces for the Schulz documentary, which resulted in the creation of "Lucy," a song that Mendelson, upon hearing for the first time over the phone, knew would change his life forever. "As soon as I heard it, I knew that it was perfect,'" he recalls.

"There wasn't this thing where it was like, 'This is the record that's going to make us.' We did it and then went back to work the club that night."

The documentary wouldn't air till 1969, but Schulz, who wasn't a jazz fan until he heard Guaraldi's work, was pleased with its soundtrack, so he and Mendelson called upon the trio again when they were approached by Coke about a Christmas special two years later. By this time, the lineup now included a 20-something Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall, who were both looking for a shot at stardom when they joined. Instead, they got a grueling lesson in what it took to be a player on the local club circuit, performing six nights a week for low pay. Still, Granelli was in awe of Guaraldi's talent and discipline, especially considering he was self-taught—a "street guy," as Granelli puts it—rather than a sheet music stiff. He recalls one show at a venue in Los Angeles when Miles Davis himself sat in on one of their sets to watch Guaraldi hammer away at the piano. From what he remembers, the Prince of Darkness walked away impressed.

In the midst of the grind, the band viewed the Christmas special as just another gig. They were busily working on Guaraldi's latest creation, Bop City Suite, named after Jimbo's Bop City, a legendary after-hours jazz club in the city they played often, and were already hearing rumblings about CBS not wanting their sound to be involved in the project. As a result, enthusiasm going into recording was mild, at best.

"There wasn't this thing where it was like, 'This is the record that's going to make us," Granelli says. "We did it and then went back to work the club that night."

Guaraldi had the music already written, but they only had storyboards to work off of, so they prolonged each song's fade-out to ensure they could fit anywhere in the animation. After the initial three-hour recording session, Mendelson believed they were still missing a number to accompany Charlie Brown and his friends ice skating during the special's intro, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and scribble down some lyrics on an envelope for a new song. He then gave them to Guaraldi, who hired a children's choir to sing them on top of a slow instrumental. The end result was "Christmas Time is Here," one of the more muted holiday songs of all time, with a melody as quiet as the morning after a heavy snowfall.

"It was just a strange marriage of between a bluesy jazz song and having words that embellished Christmas," Mendelson says. "I don't know why it worked. It shouldn't have, but it did."

A Charlie Brown Christmas aired in 1965 and was well received, but the significance of its soundtrack wasn't truly felt until years later, after the trio had disbanded, with many of its members going on to play alongside celebrated figures like the Kingston Trio, Thelonious Monk and Lou Rawls. Tragically, this was also after the passing of Guaraldi, who died unexpectedly in 1976, a day after complaining to Mendelson of chest pains. The 47-year-old left behind an impressive catalogue beyond his work for Peanuts, including a number of solo records that were equal parts charming and moving, a reflection of the quiet aesthetic of his Northern California upbringing. During an interview with NPR in 2012 on the topic of piano jazz, renowned alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion described Guaraldi as having a "joyous thing…[that] made everybody else feel good." Those words could undoubtedly be applied to Guaraldi's musical output in addition to his persona.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Christmas went on to sell millions of copies. It was created largely by a unique talent in his prime who had an approach that gave jazz a simple and heartfelt appeal. If nothing else, the record should be respected for its ability to come off genuine in its distillation of the hard bop of the time. That, and of course how good its songs still make us feel; whenever I hear it playing over a loudspeaker at a coffee shop or department store, I can't help but harken back to a more innocent time.

No one recognizes that feeling more than Granelli, who, at the age of 75 is returning to the album's material after decades of avoiding it in favor of more experimental work.

"After [A Charlie Brown Christmas], Vince was getting a lot of heat, like, 'Oh you're so loud,'" he says. "But that's what we do to each other. They did it to Charlie Parker, too. I just decided to go left for a while."

He's currently in the midst of a tour across Canada where he's only playing songs from the Christmas special, which, as the years have passed, he's begun to appreciate more not just for its influence on pop culture, but also on the jazz community. This is proven, he says, by how after each performance so far, fans have admitted to him that they just experienced their first jazz show. In these moments, the irony shines through: More than half a century after its release, a soundtrack to a cartoon continues to open America's eyes to its one true art form.

Reed Jackson is Noisey's chief Snoopy correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.