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How Vince Guaraldi Saved Christmas

by Alex Dezen (writer), Living out my exile in Sherman Oaks, December 28, 2007

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In the words of Erma Bombeck, the American author and humorist, “There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.”

There is something so mesmerizing about the work jazz composer and pianist, Vince Guaraldi did with his Trio in the late1960’s—as the assembled musical force behind that odd, pudgy, and inexplicably balding child, Charlie Brown—whose elegance remains scarcely challenged. The crowning jewel of the Peanuts commissioned work: ‘Christmastime Is Here’, a mellow, heartbreakingly graceful, three-piece composition with a wispy, falsetto children’s choir, from the soundtrack album, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s the one you’re bound to hear at least a dozen times this holiday, partially obscured by the din of cash registers and hysterical shoppers assailing pubescent clerks at Barnes and Noble when they’ve sold out of Josh Groban’s Christmas record yet again.

But if you take a moment to listen—luxury only children can really afford—Guaraldi is saying something, and it is a beautiful, sadly-sweet contrast to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s incendiary mess, ‘A Mad Russian's Christmas’.

In a single pass of Guaraldi’s verse, you will find the most satisfyingly melancholic musical expression of the season—the true essence of what Christmas really means to those who, when driving past the local pub on Christmas Eve, slow down just enough to glance through the windows and consider stopping in for a drink. And as those angelic voices sing the words “Christmastime is here / Happiness and cheer,” over Guaraldi’s somber, meditative accompaniment, you can’t help feel that aching nostalgia for the Christmases of old, before the canceled flights, shitty bonuses, and air mattresses that always deflate in the middle of the night.

With so much oversaturated joyfulness, Groban-ness, and seemingly cocaine-fueled holiday cheer, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s offering may be the perfect antidote.

By the time this incarnation of Guaraldi’s Trio (Monty Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums) stepped into the studio to record the famous soundtrack, he already had a Grammy under his belt from 1963 for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition, ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’, from the album, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus—inspired by the Marcel Camus film, Black Orpheus. Guaraldi’s ambitious and often catchy compositions from the early 1960’s earned the self-proclaimed “reformed boogie-woogie piano player” the kind of commercial success few jazz composers can ever attain. By the end of ’63, ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ was gold and Vince Guaraldi was becoming something of a celebrity.

Fast forward to ’65; Guaraldi’s ‘Linus and Lucy’ cements Charles Schulz’s cartoon creation into the American consciousness forever.

. . .

Aside from a religious obsession with Cops, holiday programs were the only shows my family watched together. They acted like a kind of tranquilizer, maintaining the anticipatory excitement of Christmas while providing reprieve from the unrelenting sluggishness of the days leading up to it with glorious, animated distractions. After all, before you have to wait five hours stranded between connecting flights in the Dallas airport Friday’s with a bottle of Bushmills spread out over a dozen, seven dollar, one once servings, Christmas is the most exciting time of the year.

It was Christmas of 2006 when I got the musical card in the mail from my mother that rekindled my love for Guaraldi and took me back to the immaculate ignorance of youth.

Without fail, my mother manages to me send a card for every holiday of the year, including Valentines Day, which, when compounded with her half-sober protest at my wedding that she was “my first love,” my wife considers both strange and adorable. When I opened the bright red envelope, a tiny speaker, hidden behind an image of Charlie Brown and Linus standing beside the shabby Christmas tree of Peanuts legend, started playing ‘Christmastime Is Here’, and my heart heaved a sentimental pang.

It was early morning Christmas Day, 1980-something, before the sun had even risen. Santa had come and gone, leaving a pile of wrapped mysteries under the tree, and neither my mother nor I could sleep. We sat up eating what few cookies Santa left us, and watched the Amityville Horror. I could hardly keep still with all those presents radiating from the other room. Every other day of the year was a cruel prelude to this one. I could wait no longer. I begged my mother to let me open my presents.

“If you open all your presents now, there’ll be nothing to open when your sister gets up,” she said, foolishly trying to rationalize her position to a restless child with images of Nintendo Entertainment Systems and Cobra Command Centers dancing his head. “You’ll be sorry in the morning.”

She was right.

Later, as I watched my sister open her gifts, my mother and father exchange theirs, I slipped off into the TV room and watched the last few minutes of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I sat there, alone, defeated by my own hasty adolescent conquest, trying to savor what was left of Christmas. Soon, our beloved tree, once adorned so meticulously with popcorn garland, plastic icicles, and faded, red glass ornaments would join the rest, abandoned at the end of every driveway in America like some kind of leprous pet. Christmas was gone and would not return for another year. It may as well never return again.

When Guaraldi’s solemn song began that Christmas morning twenty years ago, suddenly all of my insignificant sorrow and lovesick, juvenile longing had cohesion, a source, a song. An instant musical kinship had been formed. This was my song, my own personal Christmas soundtrack, and it held me like a warm flannel sheet against the cold, inevitable future.

There is little speculation as to the transcendent power of music. It continues to dominate if not dictate taste, at times often diminishing our culture in insidious ways. But there are other times when music speaks to us directly and personally, soothing like a sonic balm, temporarily drowning out the deafening clatter both within and without.

I guess for some people that voice is Josh Groban’s.

But you can be sure Vince Guaraldi is looking on from some lofty perch, issuing winks through those perfect, simple verses, calling on all weary holiday travelers, underappreciated employees, and in-laws sleeping in converted basements on dilapidated mattresses, to remember what it felt like to be a child during Christmas.

In the words of Erma Bombeck, the American author and humorist, “There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.” It’s true. Sadly, we grow up. But, to use an old cliché, we’ll always have the memory of youth.

Vince Guaraldi’s gift is a simple song, a beautiful musical moment in a medley of spoiled-brat symphonies and Grinch-like bemoaning. If you can, stop and listen to it. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.



About the Writer

Alex Dezen is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on How Vince Guaraldi Saved Christmas

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By D. E. Carson on December 28, 2007 at 08:45 pm
A very sweet and touching sentiment. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only person in this world with a happy memory of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and an appreciation for Vince Guraldi's seasonal tune. Good Job. -DEC
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By 'Mean' Mike Duffau on January 02, 2008 at 04:57 pm
wow, i thought i was the only one that digs Vince Guaraldi's charlie brown christmas. that album always brings me back to my childhood. i listen to it all the time. keep punchin' champ!
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