Vince Guaraldi's music will forever stand as the sound of Charlie Brown. While other composers wrote quality music for Charlie Brown TV specials after his death, he is the true original. His jazz riffs that are part of the Peanuts musical oeuvre are instantly recognizable. His musical talent was a gift to the American public.
Known as Charlie Brown's piano player in the music industry, Vince Guaraldi also had the moniker Dr. Funk. His early piano playing inspirations were the boogie-woogie pianists. He then developed a taste for the more laid-back styles of jazz pianists like Bill Evans.
In fact, Vince Guaraldi was a talented and proficient jazz pianist himself. His desire was to write memorable standards. He felt this was more important than just penning hits.
Guaraldi was born on July 17, 1928 in San Francisco, Calif. He grew up and went to high school there. He then graduated from San Francisco State College. He began performing as a pianist while in college. He played musical gigs, such as weddings and high school shindigs, among other events.
He developed as a musician and eventually made it into the recording studio. His first recorded work was a 1953 album put out by the Cal Tjader Trio. In 1955 he put together his own trio and did more studio work that year. In 1956, Vince Guaraldi toured with the legendary Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd.
The year 1963 was one of great recognition for the composer and pianist. He earned a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition. His song "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" was the winner that year in this category. This was a laid back, congenial song. It was a contrast to much of the music on the airwaves at the time and resonated with listeners.
That year, and the following, saw Vince Guaraldi record many more albums. Then, on the horizon was a major compositional work for the musician. He composed a modern jazz piece for the choral Episcopal Eucharist. This was for the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
He spent 18 months creating, and with his trio and a 68-member choir, constructed an exemplary work. This music received a live performance on May 21, 1965. The recorded album version was a success both critically and with the public.
Vince Guaraldi composed the music for the first Peanuts television special in 1964. The Peanuts franchise was the brainchild of cartoonist Charles Schulz. Today, fans of the cartoon know Guaraldi's music immediately upon hearing. The music is a manifestation of the personality of the piano player. He had a penchant for funny hats, extravagant moustaches and varied hairstyles. His persona was evident in this unique music.
This first Peanuts television special never did sell to the networks. No one in the general American viewing public has ever seen this program. However, it did lead to the making of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." This program originally aired in December of 1965.
This television special led to subsequent Charlie Brown music work for Vince Guaraldi. The signature theme we recognize today and other compositions became part of numerous Peanuts TV specials. Fifteen Charlie Brown programs contained the composer's original music. Some of these songs include "Peppermint Patty," "Linus and Lucy," "Red Baron" and "Great Pumpkin Waltz."
Vince Guaraldi died from a heart attack on February 6, 1976. He died at 47 while waiting in between performances in his room in Menlo Park, Calif. He was performing at a nightclub there, forever at the piano giving musical enjoyment to others. That afternoon he completed his recording work for the most recent Charlie Brown television special.
Audiences today have the gift of Vince Guaraldi's music as a reminder of his talents. He was, and still is, through recordings, the sound of Charlie Brown. Whenever you hear those catchy songs from the cartoon specials, think of the man gently playing in the background.
Duane Shinn is the author of a free newsletter on piano chords & chord progressions available at "Piano Players"