Vince Guaraldi: A Jazz Pianist, Happy To Work For 'Peanuts' His best-known work — the music to A Charlie Brown Christmas — is currently airing across the country once again. But as a new anthology attests, Vince Guaraldi wrote and performed a lot more music that deserves attention, too.
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A Jazz Pianist, Happy To Work For 'Peanuts'

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A Jazz Pianist, Happy To Work For 'Peanuts'

A Jazz Pianist, Happy To Work For 'Peanuts'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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About this time of year, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is heard on radios and in shopping malls all across the country.


SIMON: Of course, Vince Guaraldi has wrote what is now considered a modern classic - also a lot more music that deserves attention too. There's a new CD, "The Definitive Vince Guaraldi," that brings it all together. Jazz writer Doug Ramsey did the liner notes for this new collection. He also has a blog called Rifftides. He joins us from the studios of New Northwest Broadcasters in Yakima, Washington. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON: It's a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.

SIMON: And first off, how did he get the gig, "Charlie Brown Christmas"?

SIMON: Well, a producer named Lee Mendelson had been planning on doing a documentary about Charlie Schultz, who wrote the Peanuts and did the Peanuts strip. He didn't know what to do for music with it. And he was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge one day and heard Vince Guaraldi's recording of "Cast Your Fates to the Wind," which was a modest hit in the early '60s.


SIMON: Mendelson said that's a great piece of music, so they worked out a deal.

SIMON: So he had this not as big a hit as Charlie Brown became, but he had this relatively minor hit that brought him to the attention of just the right person at just the right time.

SIMON: Well, as jazz hits go, it was a smash.

SIMON: Yeah.

SIMON: But in the overall pop scene it made its mark.


SIMON: He was the pianist in Cal Tjader's band. Cal was a vibraharpist and a leader and had a band that specialized both in Latin music and straight ahead jazz - this was in the mid-'50s. And I first heard him with Tjader at a club in Seattle, and I remember distinctly what happened that night.

Vince was a very intense piano player. He completely committed himself to his solos. He was playing an upward series of arpeggios and played himself right off the end of the piano bench onto the floor, got up as if nothing had happened and went back to work and finished the piece.

And later I talked to Tjader about that and he said, yeah, he's done that before.

(Soundbite of song, "Calling Dr. Funk")

SIMON: I want to ask you about a track that's on this compilation called "Calling Dr. Funk."

SIMON: Right. Well, that was from probably Vince's first session as a leader. It's a piece he wrote. And it was originally on a, I think it was a 10- inch LP called "Modern Sounds from San Francisco." Great piece of music.

SIMON: He was known as Dr. Funk?

SIMON: He was known as Dr. Funk because he played with such an earthy feeling.

(Soundbite of song, "Calling Dr. Funk")

SIMON: Vince became a very important part of the San Francisco jazz scene.

SIMON: He played at a club with Art Tatum, I gather.

SIMON: Yes, he did, and he said at that point: I very seriously considered giving up the piano.


SIMON: Well, playing with Art Tatum would make anybody consider giving up the piano.

SIMON: Yeah, millions of pianists have given up because of Tatum.

SIMON: Yeah. And without being sentimental about it, was he a markedly better composer than he was a performer?

SIMON: Well, he had the knack in both instances of melody. He was a thoroughly grounded pianist harmonically but he wrote terrific melodies, both when he was putting them on paper and when he was making them up in his improvisations. And I think that was his great gift.


SIMON: He had a temper?

SIMON: Of course he had a temper - he was Sicilian.

SIMON: I wish you hadn't put it that way, you know? Now we'll get a lot of emails from people who will point out that historically Sicilians are no more hot-tempered than Norwegians. But go ahead.

SIMON: I see. I would like to hear that thesis defended. At any rate, yes, he did have a temper. And the most prominent incident of it that I recall was when he was working with his trio at the Hungry Eye, which was a prominent nightclub in San Francisco. And the other featured performer was Professor Irwin Corey, the comic.

SIMON: Yeah.

SIMON: And Corey...

SIMON: Sometimes called the alleged comic.

SIMON: The alleged comic. And Corey somehow took a dislike to Guaraldi's group and insisted that Enrico Banducci, who ran the club, fire them, which he did. And Vince not only got angry, he threatened to kill Corey. But eventually he settled down and rather than being sent to San Quentin went on with his career.

SIMON: Well, let's get this understood: he made no serious attempt to...

SIMON: He did not directly threaten Corey. He said to the guys in his band: I'm going to kill that blank.

SIMON: Hmm. Okay. Well, I believe Professor Corey might still be among us...

SIMON: He is.

SIMON: ...if I'm not mistaken.


SIMON: And he was only 47 when he died in 1976.


SIMON: What happened?

SIMON: Well, he died of a heart attack. Far too young. I don't know whether there had been preceding heart attacks or warning signals, but all of the sudden he was gone. And he died between sets at a club. He was still playing trio gigs, not because he had to by that time - because he had had great financial success because of the Charlie Brown pieces - but he loved to play, he loved to play for people.

So he was playing at a club, took a break, and died. It may not be the worst way to go.

SIMON: To listen to this CD is just a real pleasure. You realize how much good music he was involved in.

SIMON: He was. He was an unfailingly positive player, as he was basically in life, despite his threat to kill Irwin Corey. And I think that comes through in his music. He enjoyed life. He wanted in a very profound way to be a success and to be remembered for the happy quality of his music, and I think he succeeded.

SIMON: Mr. Ramsey, thanks so much.

SIMON: Thank you very much for asking me.

SIMON: Doug Ramsey, he wrote the liner notes to the new CD compilation, "The Definitive Vince Guaraldi." Mr. Ramsey also has a blog called Rifftides at He joined us from New Northwest Broadcasters in Yakima, Washington.

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