A self-described “reformed boogie-woogie piano player,” Vince Guaraldi was one of America’s best-selling jazz artists when he died suddenly in 1976, at the age of 47. He had achieved goals fellow jazz musicians only dream of, and his music continues to delight and inspire new generations.
Guaraldi’s Cast Your Fate to the Wind is one of the biggest selling jazz records to cross over to the pop charts, right up there with Take Five and Breezin’. It earned Guaraldi a Grammy Award, and has been recorded by dozens of musicians in instrumental and vocal versions. He followed that with even wider success as the composer-performer of the soundtrack music to the popular “Peanuts” cartoon television specials.
A native San Franciscan, Vince Guaraldi was born July 17, 1928, and died there from a heart attack on February 6, 1976. In between, he blazed a low-key but impressive career trail in which the accolades, awards, and financial success came to him strictly on the strength of his music.
One of his most loyal fans, pianist George Winston, who recorded a tribute album of Guaraldi tunes, explains his uniqueness: “His music is part of our culture and we know it even if we don’t know Vince. He had three bags: the Latin, the ‘Peanuts,’ and the impressionistic ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ stuff. And those three bags are all his.”
In his formative “boogie-woogie” years Guaraldi attended San Francisco State College, spent time in the military, lived briefly in Los Angeles, then returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. With a few exceptions, Guaraldi’s recordings can be found on the Fantasy label, beginning with his stint as the pianist in the original 1950-51 Cal Tjader Trio, which played straight-ahead jazz, bebop, and Afro-Cuban tunes.
In 1953, Guaraldi worked with the Bill Harris-Chubby Jackson Band, Georgie Auld, and Sonny Criss. He toured and recorded with Woody Herman’s big band in 1956-57 and again in ’59. During the same period, he recorded with Tjader and issued his first two albums as a leader, trio sessions with guitarist Eddie Duran and bassist Dean Reilly (available on CD as Vince Guaraldi Trio and A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing).
A teaming of saxophonist Stan Getz with the Tjader group in 1957 (available as Stan Getz with Cal Tjader) was followed by Tjader all-star dates in which Guaraldi sparred with such Latin greats as Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. According to one reviewer, Guaraldi (playing in Tjader’s band) received the biggest audience ova-tion at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958.
Guaraldi was already well-known in the jazz world and leading his trio with drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig when, smitten by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá’s soundtrack music in the film Black Orpheus, he went into the studio in 1962 to do his own samba/bossa album, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. One side was filled with his arrangements of music from the film, the other with jazz and pop pieces, including his composition, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”
“Samba de Orpheus” was issued as a single and sent to radio stations. The B-side was “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” chosen because it was the only other tune on the album short enough to fit on the 45. A couple of Sacramento disc jockeys are credited with discovering the B-side and playing it, and soon it was on pop radio stations around the country. Its fluke success spawned the television documentary, Anatomy of a Hit, which in turn led the young El Cerrito rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival to discover and sign with Fantasy Records.
Fred Marshall, Guaraldi’s bassist circa 1962-65, points out something obvious on all of the pianist’s recordings: “When Vince took solos, he didn’t just play the [chord] changes like so many people I’ve worked with. His solos were always melodies. You could make so many tunes just from his solos.”
It must also be noted that Guaraldi possessed a deeply droll sense of humor, evident from his joking onstage to his visual presentation with that walrus moustache, to such stunts as posing for the cover photo of The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi by standing on a wood box labeled “Brazilian Coffee” so that he would appear taller than the model hugging him.
In 1962, Guaraldi made a live recording (In Person) at Sausalito’s Trident Lounge with his trio, Colin Bailey and Fred Marshall. When Bailey left, he was replaced by Jerry Granelli, and “for the next three years it was me and Jerry,” Marshall recalls. “We went on the road with Dick Gregory, did a bunch of dates and recordings with Bola Sete, then the ‘Peanuts’ shows.” While Guaraldi didn’t discover Sete, he took the Brazilian guitarist on tour and recorded albums with him, thereby introducing Sete to his audience.
Television documentary producer Lee Mendelson was looking for a musician for the show he wanted to do on “Peanuts” comic strip creator Charles Schulz and, on the recommendation of San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason, called Guaraldi. While that documentary didn’t sell, the soundtrack album was a success (A Boy Named Charlie Brown), and the themes Guaraldi created were reworked for the animated holiday television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, an instant public favorite (the album’s been certified platinum for sales of one million units). Guaraldi did the music for 15 network “Peanuts” cartoon specials. In 1998, previously unissued soundtrack recordings were rescued from the Fantasy vault for a delightful new CD of Charlie Brown favorites, Holiday Hits.
George Winston wasn’t the only youngster who heard and loved Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” music. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis wrote in the liner notes of his Joe Cool’s Blues album (recorded with his father Ellis Marsalis): “When I was a boy the only time you would hear jazz on television was when Charlie Brown came to town.... I didn’t think of the comic strip on the page apart from the television cartoon and Vince Guaraldi’s music.”
Guaraldi’s concert of sacred music in 1965 at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, reissued as The Grace Cathedral Concert, displayed his fine-tuned ear for combining church choral arrangements with his jazz trio, and preceded Duke Ellington’s more famous Sacred Concert there by four months.
Guaraldi moved to Warner Bros. Records in the late Sixties and made three albums for that label. In 1971 he became an unofficial member of the Grateful Dead, jamming with them in Bay Area concerts while the group was between permanent keyboardists.
Guaraldi had just completed the soundtrack music for the 15th “Peanuts” television special at the time of his premature death. Holiday Hits, the first “new” Guaraldi/”Peanuts” music heard in over 20 years, is a welcome addition to the discography of this popular yet vastly underappreciated “reformed boogie-woogie” pianist.
(Photo Credits: Concord Music Group)