'A Charlie Brown Christmas' And All That Jazz

Nov 30, 2016

Schroeder plays "Jingle Bells" for Lucy in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
Credit Courtesy CBS Television

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is the best Christmas TV special for many reasons: Linus quoting the Bible. The strong anti-commercialism theme. And the great jazz music by pianist Vince Guaraldi.

That's my favorite part, the music. I'm listening to it now as I write this.

Guaraldi wasn't a popular choice for "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which airs for the 51st year Thursday (8 p.m., Channel 9, ABC), even though he won a 1963 Grammy for "Cast Your Fate To The Wind." 

Credit post-gazette.com

CBS executives didn't like anything about the 1965 cartoon. They thought it was "a little flat, a little slow” and he had “the music mixed up… (with) jazz and Beethoven.”  They said the first "Peanuts" TV special in 1965 would be the last and only one, as I wrote last year in "10 Things To Know About ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Guaraldi, who died too young at age 47 in 1967, composed music for the first 10 years of "Peanuts" TV specials, starting with "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

In 1963, producer Lee Mendelson asked Guaraldi to do music for a documentary on cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, which two years later turned into "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Mendelson had heard "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" on a car radio in the San Francisco area.

Guaraldi grew up in San Francisco with guitar-playing friend Eddie Duran. After a stint in the Korean War, Guaraldi and Duran played clubs around San Francisco until 1956, when Guaraldi joined Woody Herman's Thundering Herd big band. 

1956 Vince Guaraldi Trio album cover
Credit Fantasy Records

On a break from Herman's tour, Guaraldi, bass player Dean Reilly and Duran recorded their first album, simply called "The Vince Guaraldi Trio," in 1956. "Down Beat" columnist Ralph J. Gleason wrote these liner notes:

"Vince is more than an interesting pianist. He is not ridden by an unconscionable demon to prove something; he just loves music and loves playing and swinging. This uncomplicated approach allows him to poke fun at himself ('I'm just a reformed boogie-woogie pianist'.)"

Guaraldi's first tune for the "Peanuts" special was “Linus and Lucy,” now a jazz standard.

For the opening number, Guaraldi “brought in a beautiful opening song” without any lyrics, Mendelson wrote in his book, “A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making Of A Tradition” (HarperCollins, 2000).  So Mendelson scribbled some words on the back of an envelope in about 15 minutes for a song called "Christmas Time Is Here.” I smile every time I hear that song sung by someone while shopping in a store or on the radio.

As I've written many times before, CBS executives hated "A Charlie Brown Christmas" for all the reasons we love it, and thought Charlie Brown would be one and done on TV in 1965. Then came a glowing review from "Time" magazine, and huge ratings (No. 2 for the week behind "Bonanza").

Time's Richard called it “a special that really is special," and said that " 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is one children's special that bears repeating."

Repeating for 51 years!

I watch it every year. Love that music.

ABC also repeats "A Charlie Brown Christmas" 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 22. It's listed in my 14-page printable 2016 Holiday Program Guide so you don't miss any of your favorites on TV or radio.

Credit ABC Television