The man at the keyboard

Vince Guaraldi—not just the beloved Charlie Brown composer

Created date

November 29th, 2017
The Vince Guaraldi Trio.

The Vince Guaraldi Trio.

When you hear the music of Vince Guaraldi, any number of thoughts, emotions, and reactions follow. You may experience a flood of memories from Christmases past; you’ll probably feel happy and playful; and you’ll almost certainly smile and snap your fingers.

As far as Jazz musicians go, Guaraldi was one of the most talented piano players of the twentieth century. His unforgettable melodic runs—now synonymous with the animated Charlie Brown classics—were distinct and recognizable, and his playing style, a thing to behold for a live audience.

Born in San Francisco, Calif., in 1928, Guaraldi had music in his blood. While formal training was never in the cards for him, his musical family had a marked influence on his development.

In particular, his uncle Maurice “Muzzy” Marcellino was a musician, vocalist, and renowned whistler, who was featured in the main theme of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Back & The Ugly (1966). 

Guaraldi immediately took to the piano, and according to his biographer Derrick Bang, he was quite popular for it.

“By the time Vince was in high school, he was well known for his piano playing among his peers,” says Bang, author of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano (McFarland, 2012). “If there happened to be a piano nearby, people would invariably ask him to play—and he always did so willingly.”

Bitten by the jazz bug

Guaraldi was at home at the keyboard, to put it mildly. And like most youngsters coming of age in the 1940s, he was into jazz.

Upon graduating from high school, Guaraldi served in the Army for two years during the Korean War. After his discharge, he dove headlong into the Jazz scene.

His first official recording session was in 1953 with vibraphonist Cal Tjader. The session amounted to a 10-inch LP entitled The Cal Tjader Trio (1954).

Despite his inability to read music, Guaraldi quickly had earned a reputation as a gifted pianist. Between 1955 and 1958, he had played in a series of groups that included musicians such as guitarist Eddie Duran, bassists Dean Reilly and Al McKibbon, and percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo.

“In the late 1950s, Guaraldi was ready to set out on his own,” says Bang. “His big break came with the release of his album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962).”

Inspired by the film Black Orpheus (1959), the album featured both his jazz interpretations of the picture’s music as well as original pieces. One of the latter, Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (1962) won the 1963 Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition.

It also put him on the path to musical immortality. 

The Peanuts connection

That same year, producer Lee Mendelson, who was then in the process of making a documentary about Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz, happened to hear “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while riding in a taxi cab.

Knowing he’d found the film’s composer, Mendelson contacted Guaraldi with the job offer. To his delight, the pianist accepted. 

In the coming years, Guaraldi kept up a strong relationship with the Peanuts producers. As new animated projects arose, so did the composing gigs.

He created perhaps his best-known work in 1965. The soundtrack to a holiday special of the same name, A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, is the quintessence of the jazz pianist’s beloved style.

Tracks such as “What Child Is This” merged timeless Christmas music like “Greensleeves” with the personalities of the Peanuts characters and Guaraldi’s unique playing style. The result was a jazz album laced with incredible melodic runs.

“Vince was very big on melodies,” notes Bang. “Even his improvisational riffs could be lifted out and used as melodies on their own—it was a key feature of his music.”

In fact, Guaraldi himself once seconded Bang’s observation: “I prefer a strong melody.…It stays with you,” he said. “I can’t think of an instance where anybody’s walking down the street whistling to chord changes.”

To be sure, he made millions of people want to whistle in his short life. Among his numerous musical legacies is the fact that Guaraldi’s work with Charlie Brown made jazz accessible to children who may not otherwise have heard it.

Put another way, in an age of rock ‘n’ roll, Guaraldi helped keep jazz alive. Contemporary jazz greats David Benoit and Wynton Marsalis have actually credited him with boosting their early interest in the genre. 

That’s why we hear Guaraldi’s tunes, at the very least, every December. Forty-one years after his untimely death, his music lives on.

Who is your favorite composer and why? Tell us in the comments section below.