Vince Guaraldi - Biography

By Nick Castro


Vince Guaraldi may have been most famous for playing piano on the Charlie Brown and Peanuts cartoons but he has also had an illustrious jazz career outside of that claim. Guaraldi was born in San Francisco in 1928.He attended both Lincoln High School and San Francisco State College before joining the army during the Korean War. He began playing with many late night local sessions and society gigs to build his skills when he got an opportunity to ply intermissions for jazz legend Art Tatum at the famed Black Hawk club. Guarladi was quoted as saying that Tatum's genius and skill almost inspired Guaraldi to quit the piano altogether. Luckily he persisted and soon got a chance to record for the Cal Tjader Trio. With Tjader he recorded songs like "Lullaby of the Leaves", "Chopsticks Mambo" and "Vibra-Tharpe". After this recording, Guaraldi took a break from the studio and concentrated of developing his sound within the beatnik clubs of San Francisco's hip North Beach district. He formed a trio with musicians Eddie Duran on guitar and Dean Reilly on bass.


When Guaraldi was to return to the studio it would be as a leader instead of sideman. He put together a new band which consisted of players Jerry Dodgion on saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass and John Markham on drums. Guaraldi did, however, make two records with his North Beach trio. He released the albums Vince Guaraldi Trio (1956 - Fantasy), which featured a Guaraldi composition "Fenwyck's Farfel" along with songs by composers such as George Gershwin and Billy Strayhorn, and the album A Flower is a Lovesome Thing (1957 - Fantasy), which featured the Guaraldi song "Like a Mighty Rose". These album are classic examples of smooth and light west coast jazz scene of the time. They were very straight ahead with a steady swing to them.


During the 50's Guaraldi also had no shortage of other people's sessions, which were requesting him, He played with artists like Tjader, whom he recorded 10 albums with, Frank Rosolino, Conte Candoli and Woody Herman. Guaraldi also made a famous appearance at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival, which was the first to be held, with the Tjader band, who took the stage very late at night when the crowd was getting quite tired. The Tjader set, with Guaraldi on piano, revitalized the crowd, which is estimated to have been around 6,000. The Tjader quintet received a standing ovation. Tjader began to bring new players on board to round out his latin jazz sound, including Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria on congas and timbales as well and Paul Horn, who would later use his saxophones to gain a career in the burgeoning world jazz scene of the 60's.


In 1962 Guaraldi recorded, what is considered by many, to be his finest work. He collaborated with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey to cover Brazilian compositions by writers such as Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim as well as a tune by Henry Mancici, on the album Jazz Impression of Black Orpheus (1962 - Fantasy). Guaraldi also contributed the song "Cast Your Fate to the Wind". This record managed to break the lines of jazz and appeal to a much broader audience. The brazilian bossa nova was sweeping the nation and Guaraldi was at the forefront. The first side of this record were covers from the soundtrack of the film Black Orpheus. Guaraldi's record label released the single "Samba de Orpheus" but it was the b-side of that record that DJs would come to love and play, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind", the Guaraldi composition, which would win him a Grammy Award. Two years later the song would be covered by the Sounds Orchestral, who had a top ten hit with the tune.  That song became a staple of his live shows throughout his career.  Guaraldi was catapulted to the front of the growing latin jazz scene.


Guaraldi;s next major album would be his groundbreaking Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete & Friends (1963 - Fantasy), which featured the rhythm section of Jerry Granelli on drums and Fred Marshall on bass. The standout track on the album is Guaraldi's own "Star Song" but the group also does an amazing bossa nova version of Horace Silver's "Moon Rays". Sete was already a well respected Brazilian jazz, bossa nova and classical guitarist at the time. Guaraldi would continue to redord with Sete after this recording because the two had such a great chemistry together. They had only played once before recording their initial session but they sounded like old friends.


Guaraldi would have a regal and prestigious opportunity presented to him in the year 1964. He was asked by Reverend Charles Gompertz of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to compose music for the choral Eucharist. Guaraldi spent the next year and a half working with his group and a 68 person choir to meld the sounds of church music and latin jazz. They recorded a live album which would be a huge hit, Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral (1965 - Fantasy).


Guaraldi would then meet Charles Schulz, who was looking for someone to play the music for his new animated version of the Peanuts cartoon strip. Though the initial show was never picked up by the network, they did end up striking gold with the A Charlie Brown Christman TV Special. Guaraldi's name became synonymous with the Charlie Brown specials and this would push him even further into fame. Guaraldi continued to work with the future peanuts specials as they would not be the same without him. Once Guaraldi did leave the shows, his future replacements were never able to attain the catchy themes Guaraldi was able to effortlessly create. New age pianist George Winston would often cover the "Linus and Lucy" theme that Guaraldi wrote. Guaradi's "Christmas Time is Here" is still a Christmas standard. In total, Guaraldi would record music for 15 different Peanuts specials.


Tragedy struck the jazz worl when Guaraldi had a sudden heart attack at age 47. He died in 1976 in Menlo Park, California. He had just finished his last soundtrack for the peanuts show, It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown, that afternoon.










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