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Vince Guaraldi was one of the few jazz musicians to make a dent in the Top 10 charts in the 1960s, and may be the only one to do it twice. Inspired by the film "Black Orpheus," his tune, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" was a surprise hit, and remains perhaps the most tranquil number ever heard on the pop charts. Then, in the mid 1960s, his original soundtracks for a series of Charlie Brown cartoon specials became one of the rare appearances of jazz on prime time television. Guaraldi once said that he really wanted to write standards, and he certainly did that.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Guaraldi remained a home town boy all his life. He attended Lincoln High School and San Francisco State College, and then began working as a professional musician. For the first few years, he lived from gig to gig, sometimes appearing with established jazz musicians such as Bill Harris, Chubby Jackson, and Sonny Criss, sometimes playing weddings and high school dances. His early inspirations were boogie-woogie pianists like Albert Ammons, but later he toned his style down, influenced by the cooler sound of people like Bill Evans.
He made his first recording in 1950, playing behind Cal Tjader on one of Tjader's earliest albums, and Tjader used Guaraldi on nearly a dozen other albums recorded in San Francisco throughout the mid-1950s. As the capitol of the beatnik world at the time, San Francisco had a busy jazz club scene, and Guaraldi preferred to stay local than to hit the road like most of his peers. He established himself as one of the better players in town, and worked his way up to such intimidating gigs as filling in for the legendary Art Tatum between sets.
In 1955, he formed his own trio with fellow San Franciscans Eddie Duran (on guitar) and Dean Reilly (on bass), and became a regular at the famed "hungry i" night club. He also recorded his first album, Modern Music from San Francisco, although with a different set of musicians, for the local label, Fantasy. The trio made its vinyl debut a year later, on The Vince Guaraldi Trio, where both Guaraldi's and Duran's work earned favorable notices from jazz critics and fans.
Guaraldi was a frequent visitor to the recording studio in the late 1950s, but mostly as a sideman. He tried life on the road briefly as a member of Woody Herman's "Thundering Herd," but decided to return to San Francisco at the end of that tour. He made a big splash with his performance with Tjader at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival, but he probably would have remained a well-respected but minor jazz figure had he not written an original number to fill out his covers of Antonio Carlo Jobim/Luis Bonfa tunes on his 1962 album, Jazz Impressions of "Black Orpheus".
Fantasy released "Samba de Orpheus" as a single, trying to catch the building bossa nova wave, but it was destined to sink without a trace when radio DJs began flipping it over and playing the B-side, Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." A gentle, aimiable tune, it stood out from everything else on the airwaves, and became a grass-roots hit, eventually earning Guaraldi a Grammy Award for the "Best Original Jazz Composition." Unlike many songwriters, who grow weary of their biggest hits, Guaraldi never minded taking requests to play it when he appeared live. "It's like signing the back of a check," he once remarked.
The next couple of years were full of experimentation for Guaraldi. He teamed with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete for two very successful albums, From All Sides and Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete, and Friends. His trio was hired to fill in for the Stanford marching band for the half-time show of the 1963 Stanford-Oregon football game. He was asked by Reverend Charles Gompertz of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to write a jazz version of the Episcopal Eucharist. Guaraldi worked for over a year on the piece for trio and a large choir, and performed it at the Cathedral in May 1965. Fantasy released a recording of the performance on the album, At Grace Cathedral. And Guaraldi collaborated with jazz critic Ralph Gleason on a three-part television on "Cast Your Fate" titled, "Anatomy of a Hit."
Around the same time, television producer Lee Mendelson heard the tune as he was working on a documentary Charles Schulz, the creator of the popular comic strip, "Charlie Brown." "I was thinking about what kind of music to use, and when I heard that song, something clicked," Mendelson later recalled. He contacted Guaraldi, who enthusiastically accepted the invitation to write a piece or two for consideration. A few weeks later, Guaraldi sent him a tape that opened with the number that became known as "Linus and Lucy."
"As soon as I heard it, I knew it was perfect," said Mendelson, and Schulz was also delighted when Mendelson played the tape for him. Mendelson hired Guaraldi to write and record the entire soundtrack. The film itself never aired, but Fantasy, which was in a bit of a doldrum between the decline of its jazz catalog and the emergence of its new rock slate, was only too happy to comply with numerous requests, and released an album of tunes from the show.
About a year later, Mendelson was hired to produce an animated version of "Peanuts" as a Christmas television special, and he didn't hesitate to hire Guaraldi again. Guaraldi reprised a number of pieces from the documentary, but also wrote new material, including the tune, "Christmas Time is Here Again," which has since become something of a Christmas standard.
Over the next ten years, Guaraldi would work with Mendelson on fourteen more "Charlie Brown" specials, and recorded three more albums of his music for the shows. He may have become type-cast as "that 'Charlie Brown' jazz guy," but the shows brought him a respectable income, and between that work and nightclub appearances around the Bay Area, Guaraldi was kept fully occupied. He switched from piano to electric harpsichord for his last "Charlie Brown" album, Oh, Good Grief!, and tried another work with choir for the album, Vince Guaraldi with the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Throughout these late 1960s albums, Guaraldi brought back his original trio guitarist Duran. He even filled in on piano for a number of Bay Area shows by the Grateful Dead in the early 1970s.
He died of a sudden heart attack in 1976, between sets at a Menlo Park nightclub. He had finished recording the soundtrack for "It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown" earlier that day.
Guaraldi's music for the "Charlie Brown" specials is fondly remembered by many viewers, including, it seems, a generation of then-budding jazz musicians, for three of them--George Winston, David Benoit, and Wynton Marsalis--have recorded their own collections of Charlie Brown numbers. Marsalis wrote in the liner notes of his album, Joe Cool's Blues, "When I was a boy, the only time you would hear jazz on television was when Charlie Brown came to town...."
Producer Lee Mendelson pays tribute to Guaraldi in the 1988 special, "This is America, Charlie Brown." Challenged to name his favorite song, he has Charlie Brown reply,
Well, there's one ... and I think it was written in the 1960s. I think it was some of that jazz Franklin was talking about. I believe the composer was a man by the name of Vince Guaraldi. And I think it was called "Linus and Lucy," by coincidence.He hums a few bars, which segue into Guaraldi's own rendition of the tune. As Derrick Bangs wrote in his terrific article, "He Worked for More than 'Peanuts'", it's a great "three-hanky moment."
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