How The Charlie Brown Christmas Special Got Jazz And Came Alive

Charles Schulz, TV producer Lee Mendelson, and the syncopated sounds of Vince Guaraldi continue to make Christmas special

“We’re living in times where so much is done to manipulate us. And things last for, what, a news cycle? A few minutes? This [album] is something that’s lasted 50 years. And not only lasted, but grown … I think there’s just a humanness”

— Jerry Granelli, drummer with the Vince Guaraldi Trio on The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.



Are you having a Charlie Brown Christmas? The corporate, oven-ready Christmas packaged by big brands and worn by ‘influencers’ can leave you feeling hollow. But consumerism isn’t all bad. Had we not supported Charles Schulz (November 26, 1922 – February 12, 2000) and his cast of characters in Peanuts by buying his books and comic strips, he might have given up and not given us the 1965 Christmas classic: ‘The Charlie Brown Christmas Special’.

Charles Schulz, TV producer Lee Mendelson, and the syncopated sounds of Vince Guaraldi (July 17, 1928 – February 6, 1976) have kept us watching the greatest film – and listening, too; the Charlie Brown soundtrack is a joy. The sweeping jazz and those bluesy versions of ‘O Tannenbaum’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ are magic.

Umberto Eco, the Italian writer, loved Peanuts for its “steady flow of variations, following a rhythm found in certain primitive epics”:

“Thus you could never grasp the poetic power of Schulz’s work by reading only one or two or ten episodes: you must thoroughly understand the characters and the situations, for the grace, tenderness, and laughter are born only from the infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns, and from fidelity to the fundamental inspirations. They demand from the reader a continuous act of empathy, a participation in the inner warmth that pervades the events.”

And what better music to play along with those shifting patterns than jazz?



As Josh Jones writes, the choice of jazz for a primetime children’s Christmas special was “inspired and edgy”. Guaraldi and his trio – pianist Guaraldi, bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli – had been asked to work on a documentary about Shultz called ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’.

Mendelson had heard San Francisco-born Guaraldi’s ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ on the radio as he drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. “It was melodic and open,” he thought, “and came in like a breeze off the bay. And it struck me that this might be the kind of music I was looking for.” And Mendelson thought the music would be just right for a TV special sponsored by Coca Cola.



As Granelli remembers it, Coke weren’t pleased. “[A] little kid was going to come out and say what Christmas was all about, which wasn’t about shopping. And then the jazz music, which was improvised,” he said. But the music got the nod – Coca-Cola and CBS, who “had no choice but to air it,” writes Liz Pelly at Rolling Stone, “they had already advertised it in TV Guide.”

”The whole soundtrack was laid down in three hours in the studio. That’s just the way jazz records were recorded,” recalls Granelli. Although he was concerned that the show would cause him to be pigeonholed and left the project with “some residual bad feelings over his paltry credit and royalties”. He later “spent decades avoiding any nostalgia trip to the land of Linus and Lucy,” Nate Chinen writes at WBGO. “But within the last decade” before his death in July 2021, “he leaned into Peanuts, recognizing the joy that Guaraldi’s soundtrack imparted, especially around the holidays.”

“I think the music made the show successful because it made it adult-like and child-like,” Mendelson recalled to Jazzwise in 2015, “and we wanted the show to appeal to all ages. Now of course the music has become famous world-wide. I can’t go to any country where the piano player in the hotel doesn’t know the music.”



‘Christmastime is Here’ was originally an instrumental (above), but at the last moment, Mendelson had the idea to “put some words to this.” Unable to find a lyricist in time, he penned those words himself. “We rushed it to the choir that Vince Guaraldi had been working with in San Francisco. And he recorded it, and we got it into the show about a week before it went on the air.” Guaraldi “probably would have loved to recycle much of the music from the never-aired documentary,” writes Bang, but the Christmas special called for a slightly different tone, so he wrote two additional compositions, including the bouncy “Skating,” below, “a lyrical jazz waltz highlighted by sparkling keyboard runs that sounded precisely like children ice-skating joyously on a frozen pond.”



In the vides above, from 2014, Granelli plays ‘Linus and Lucy with Chris Gestrin on Piano and Simon Fisk on bass.

“Jazz is just a reflection of life,” Granelli told CBC Radio in 2020. “Life is improvised, life is uncertain. It’s not solid. It’s not permanent. The art I choose disappears after it’s played, it goes off into the ether. I love that.”

The movie was a huge hit – still is. Guaraldi went on to compose music for 16 Peanuts movies, including the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

So here is is the, the soundtrack to a Charlie Brown Christmas. Lay back and let the melodious breeze wash over you

Merry Christmas!



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