I had the chance to speak with author Derrick Bang by telephone to discuss his new book Vince Guaraldi at the Piano. Bang, who has authored several books on Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts, turns his focus in this new book to the man behind the music of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. But as Bang tells us, his new book shares with us that Vince Guaraldi was more than just “the Peanuts guy.”
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A Guaraldi nut before a Peanuts nut
I asked Derrick Bang if his inspiration for this book initially came from his fascination from the Peanuts. Bang told me that he remembers being parked in front of the television set on the evening of Dec. 19, 1965 (the first time A Charlie Brown Christmas was televised). He said that while he can’t say that he was immediately a Peanuts fan, he could say with assurance that after the show he did become a Guaraldi fan. During the next several years Bang made a point of visiting the local record store, becoming aware of Guarladi’s previous works such as Cast Your Fate to the Wind.
Guaraldi more than just a Charlie Brown soundtrack
Bang discussed some of the important works that Vince Guaraldi recorded outside of his work for Peanuts. Guaraldi toured twice with Woody Herman in the 1950’s; and, as Bang told me, that was no small thing. Additionally in the 1950’s, Guaraldi spent time in a variety of small groups and combos, including one fronted by Cal Tjader.
“What fans noticed when listening to Guaraldi perform with Tjader’s groups was the fact that during his keyboard solos, Guaraldi had the enviable talent to take a piano improv and turn it into its own little melody.”
Talent like that led Guaraldi to be able to go off on his own and lead his own groups, which led to recordings such as Cast Your Fate to the Wind, and the resulting Grammy win.
Cast Your Fate to the Wind leads to next big assignments
Television producer Lee Mendelson wanted to produce a documentary special in 1963 on Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown, and knew that he wanted a jazz musical background for this debut show. Bang explains that both Cal Tjader and Dave Brubeck were initially asked to do the music, but both declined, stating they were too busy.
“Years later, they (Brubeck and Tjader) both admitted that they regretted claiming that they were too busy for this assignment.”
Bang says that later Mendelson tells the story of driving across the Golden Gate Bride and Cast Your Fate to the Wind came on the radio, and his mind was made up on who he wanted to the do music for the Peanuts special.
Bang says similarly in 1964 Reverend Charles Gompertz had been assigned the task of putting together a musical performance to celebrate the Year of Grace that was coming up in tandem with the upcoming consecration and Year of Celebration experienced by the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
“Gompertz insists looking back that he had no idea what he was going to do, so he did what he would normally do when faced with that sort of crisis: He took a soothing bath, and he remembers sitting in the bath, listening to the radio, and Cast Your Fate to the Wind came on the radio. It was the same thing (as with Mendelson). He said ‘that’s it!'”
Gompertz contacted Guaraldi and asked him to “write music for God.” Bang says that Guaraldi responded with “Bach, Beethoven … why not me?” Guaraldi composed, rehearsed, and debut the Grace Cathedral Mass on May 21, 1965.
The transformation from “boogie-woogie” influence to the Guaraldi we know now
I had heard that Guaraldi was influenced early by boogie-woogie piano playing, a sharp contrast to the style of playing most are familiar with.
I asked Bang if he know how the transformation from one style to the other happened. Bang said that while he was heavily recruited to perform boogie-woogie piano in high school for parties because he could liven things up, Guaraldi made a habit of soaking up all different styles of music as he heard it.
Performing with Cal Tjader as his band explored Afro-Cuban styles allowed Guaraldi to branch out, and as Bang explains it, the music to the film Black Orpheus changed Guaraldi’s life.
Being a “cartoon musician” never bothered Guaraldi
I asked Bang if Guaraldi’s work for animated features ever overshadowed his other work and if being known as a musician who made music for cartoons bothered Guaraldi at all. Bang said that Lee Mendelson’s quick answer to this was:
“If it had bothered him, he would have gone out on the road and further expanded his horizons.”
Bang suggests that by being affiliated with the Peanuts “machine”, it gave Guaraldi the financial stability to not have to go out on the road. This gave Guaraldi the opportunity to experiment more with music (hanging out with rock bands and playing on early first generation electric keyboards).
That financial freedom also allowed him to continue playing in Northern California jazz clubs during the late ’60s decline of jazz. Bang suggests that he did this not only as a “holy cause” to help keep these clubs open, but because he loved it.
“There are a lot of performers who achieve a certain level of fame, and from that point on, all of their work is done in the studio cutting albums rather than touring or performing locally. He (Guaraldi) loved it. It seemed to be as important as breathing.”
Guaraldi credited with the success of multiple Peanuts specials
I asked Bang how different the Peanuts shows would have been with a different musician creating the music for them.
Bang said that Mendelson credits Guaraldi as the reason for their being more than one animated special. He said that largely due to the fact that everyone (Schulz, Guaraldi, animator Bill Melendez, and Mendelson as the director) were left alone to work their own individual magic, which helped make it a success.
Following Guaraldi’s death in 1976, Bang says the specials simply weren’t the same, despite courageous efforts from those who tried to compose for them.
Derrick Bang, the author of several books on Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts, has written film, television, Internet, and general entertainment commentary for local newspapers since 1974. He also supplies regular columns and features to The Davis Enterprise. Bang lives in Davis, California.
His new book, Vince Guaraldi at the Piano (McFarland), is now in stores and can be purchased by clicking here.