Peanuts and the Jazz Piano

I remember when the Charlie Brown Christmas Cartoon first came out; the music was not particularly interesting or inviting.   I was listening to rock music at the time; if it did not have guitars, it was not interesting for me. It was not until much later (mid 80’s) that my palate for music included the amazing simplicity and power of the jazz trio selected to accompany the Peanuts cartoons.

In the mid-’50s, as Miles Davis was forming his ideas, Vince Guaraldi was a young pianist in Cal Tjader’s band, a group that played both straight-ahead and Latin jazz. I read accounts from other musicians who heard Guaraldi playing with Cal Tjader in Seattle; they described Guaraldi as an intense piano player, completely immersed in his solos. Some reported he was so intense that he would fall off of his bench, get up like nothing happened, and go back to the solo. Vince was also well known in San Francisco for his work with Cal Tjader. Vince was respected as a solid pianist, song writer, and improvisational performer, but was not very well known except in regional jazz circles.

When I started paying attention to the Peanuts soundtrack, his moving syncopated bass pattern and light chords dominated the musical themes of the cartoon for me and cemented the light but sophisticated message in the cartoon. Through this cartoon, his music became widely known, thought his name was not usually connected to the Peanuts songs.

The bass lines that drove the Guaraldi songs were my introduction to Latin sounds. I spent a long time at the piano trying to replicate the rumbling left-hand bass movement that drew me to his music.  All through his songs, there was an economy of effort that drove his playing and improvising. He helped me to understand how the space between notes allocated time for listeners to process the phrase before he moved on to the next phrase.

I wonder if Guaraldi listened to Floyd Cramer, they had phrasing and swing adaptations that were in the same school of thought. In spite of the smooth chord changes, Guaraldi brings an earthy organic feeling to his music that drew me in. Some jazz experts were not complementary on Guaraldi’s decision to become involved with the cartoon but I am grateful he decided to pursue this opportunity. Without this subtle access to Latin Jazz music I may have never turned to other musicians such as Santana and Jessie Cook.

He is the most known jazz musician who people wouldn’t even be able to tell you his name. – Toby Gleason.