Wed, Dec 11, 2013.
For many people, it's the only jazz they'll ever listen to in their lives. Not only listen to, but love. It has been a big part of Christmas for almost every family since 1965. All you have to do is hear a small bit of the music, and it instantly brings you that very important feeling, the Christmas spirit. I'm talking about one of the most important pieces of music of all time, the soundtrack to the animated TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Important? You bet. It was recently recognized by the Library of Congress in the U.S., now in its permanent collection, for cultural, historical or aesthetic significance, an honour given to only 25 recordings a year. We're talking about such artefacts as Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic debut, and Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts. That important.
The soundtrack was by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Guaraldi was no slouch, the pianist had won a Grammy Award in 1963 for jazz after all. But it was a case of the right player for the job. His own compositions matched the animated characters perfectly, giving them much of their personality. And his own style came shining through, especially on his covers of O Tannenbaum, What Child Is This, and The Christmas Song, versions you instantly recognize for his piano and arrangements. And of course, there's the Linus and Lucy theme, one of the most recognized songs of all time.
Half of all tv sets watched the original broadcast in 1965. And in those days before video recorders and DVD's, everyone waited anxiously for it to repeat the next year. And the next. And every year. I can remember it being one of the highlights of Christmas, that annual chance to see the half-hour special. And even though generations have now grown up owning their own copies, it still retains the same magic.
What this all has to do with East Coast music is the man behind the drum kit. The Guaraldi Trio featured a 24-year old drummer named Jerry Granelli. He played on most of the tracks on the disc, and after Guaraldi's piano, his contribution is key to the songs. Not so much in the beat, as is normal for drummers, but instead in the strokes. Brush strokes, as the songs feature his delicate brush work. That swish-swish was meant to evoke snow falling, and as you recall there's snow in all the outdoor scenes. That's another way the mood of the music was perfect for what we saw on TV.
Granelli has had a fascinating career. From San Francisco, he's played with jazz greats such as Mose Allison and Bill Evans, got involved in the rock scene with Sly Stone, played on We Five's huge hit You Were On My Mind, and stayed in the States until the 80's. A devoted Buddhist, he was told about Halifax's community, and moved there permanently. Since then, Granelli has recorded several albums, and become a teacher, inspiring countless East Coast players. He also co-founded the Atlantic Jazz Festival.
This past Sunday, it all came full circle for him, in his words. For the first time in 48 years, he played the music to A Charlie Brown Christmas again, at a special concert in Halifax. He's now the only surviving member of the crew that made that music. He said he felt a lot of warmth doing it, and after so many years and so many requests, it looks like he's willing to do it again next year too.
Fans of the music, and who isn't, may want to pick up a copy of the CD as well, and it's a good time for that. It's been reissued this year in a special edition, remastered for the first time, the music sweeter than ever. Plus, there are three extra cuts included, including Guaraldi's songs for the next Peanuts special, The Great Pumpkin Waltz, and Thanksgiving Theme. Plus, it comes with a fun little cardboard replica of Snoopy's doghouse you can put on the mantle, plus all the characters.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).