I’ve admitted, to my embarrassment, just how jazz-illiterate I am. Yes, I had Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew since the late-1980s, and I knew of the crooners that skirted that jazz/standards/pop division from the ’30s to the ’50s. I recognized Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” long before I knew it was called “Take Five,” but if you started battering me around the ears with Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, or John Coltrane I’d have to collapse in confusion. There is a whole history of music a lot of people don’t know exists, rather than just not having an appreciation for.
Yet we’ve always had “Charlie Brown music.” In a cultural time period where “iconic” is slang for “anything you may have previously heard of,” the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s compositions for Charles Schulz’ varied cartoon specials based on his comic strip Peanuts is, in truth, iconic. Why, even the voice of the gang’s teacher Miss Othmar is a plunger-muted horn. Many reports over the years have been clear about this, that it was Schulz’ direct preference to have the jazz soundtracks, to the immediate chagrin of then-network partner CBS who felt it was too abstract and high falutin’. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) was fought over on numerous fronts, and Schulz obstinately stood ground on his key points. You take the show as we deliver it, or you don’t get it. CBS got it and, amazingly, so have audiences for about a half-century.
But before A Charlie Brown Christmas was a CBS documentary on the Peanuts phenomenon called A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1963), also soundtracked by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. In fact, most of the pieces we know best as the character themes (including that which we short-handedly call their theme in total, “Linus and Lucy”) originated with the special. No one around that time would know it though, as the documentary never aired. (The Charles M. Schulz museum sells a DVD of the program today.) Fantasy Records released the soundtrack as Jazz Improvisations of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, I assume as a tie-in to the show before word came down that the show would never show.
There would later be an animated movie also titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but the new re-release from Fantasy Records is not that, but actually the Jazz Impressions release. That causes us to circle back to my first point. We hardly see the music as jazz now, but have gravitated to it because of the forever lingering affinity to Schulz’s world. It’s the same with Carl Stalling, who slyly recrafted symphonic and operatic work as the foundation for his Looney Tunes soundtracks, and did so to such a profound degree, we know those compositions first as Bugs Bunny music rather than Beethoven, or Mozart, or any number of composers Stalling gleefully nicked. I don’t know how many people fell into a lifelong love of classical music through Stalling. I suspect far fewer than historians want to believe. The same holds true for Guaraldi, who didn’t really create a gateway to jazz as much as invent his own genre of “Charlie Brown music.”
But don’t be misled. This really is jazz music, and as if that point needed highlighting and underlining, a bonus track on this disc is an extended riff on the standard “Fly Me To The Moon” whereby the trio takes off and goes into jazz fantasia for nearly ten minutes. It’s a marvel of improvisation as well as unity, as one player steps up and the rest recede, then the next takes his turn, and then there is reorganization by the close. There is nothing that dissimilar to it than from Schroeder’s theme, or any of the other tracks. It’s a jazz album. Yet it also has that direct heritage to holiday specials and the idiosyncratic characters the music identifies.
Should you buy the CD? I’m biased, having been the biggest Peanuts fan for the most of my life. So much of what’s on this disc have been on other releases, and you come to realize just how little Guaraldi actually produced for the series of specials. So much carries over from one show to the next, and from one release to the next. Even so, this disc has transportative powers that bring some of us immediately back to childhood, and I couldn’t dissuade anyone from that if I tried. This is also uniquely calming music — not boring, but definitely something that is meant for a relaxed listen. So even if you have indulged in buying product from this line before, you’d likely appreciate this release as well.
You don’t really have to be a jazz aficionado to get into it. It probably helps, but the creative team in the ’60s that were pioneering that thing we know as the animated special were forming things that were nicely inextricable from each other, and in the most pleasant way, Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a crucial component.