It's impossible to think of the animatedPeanutstelevision show without also thinking of the music of Vince Guaraldi. His pensive bossa nova-inspired piano playing provides melancholy but sweet backdrop (and theme song) for Charlie Brown, a child protagonist with adult-sized portions of self-doubt.
By the mid-'60s, Guaraldi's signature laid-back musical style — combined with thick-framed glasses and a predominant mustache — had earned him near cult-of-personality status, according to biographer Derrick Bang. A San Francisco native, active member of the Bay Area jazz scene, and a sideman for Cal Tjader, Guaraldi earned a Grammy for best original jazz composition in 1963 for "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," which was ubiquitous on American radio that year. At gigs around that time, his record label handed out fake cardboard mustaches to people in the audience who were eager to wear them. He was known as "Dr. Funk" and "the Italian Leprechaun."
"His hands were too small to span an entire octave on the piano, so he couldn't play certain chords," Bang said. "His sound is so uniquely him. You hear a few bars and you know it's him playing."
"Cast Your Fate to the Wind" stood out from others songs on the radio and caught the attention of Lee Mendelson, a television producer working on an animated special based on the Peanuts comic strip created by Charles M. Schulz. Mendelson reached out to Guaraldi, and within two weeks the piano player had a piece for the producer to listen to. Guaraldi went on to provide the music for 17 Peanuts specials.
When it came time to unveil San Francisco's newly completed Grace Cathedral, it was decided that there would be a "jazz mass" performed, and Guaraldi, by then a Grammy-winning local hero and graduate of SF State, was tapped for the job. He spent 18 months working with a choir in San Rafael every Saturday to create a groundbreaking piece of work that remains largely overlooked by his fans. His performance of the jazz mass on May 21, 1965 a Grace Cathedral is considered the first time mainstream jazz was heard during an American church service. Guaraldi died at 47 in 1976.
In an effort to remind fans of this piece of jazz history, Sacramento-based pianist Jim Martinez and his quartet will lead a50th anniversary concert presentation of Guaraldi's Jazz Mass at 2 p.m. on Aug. 15 at Grace Cathedral. The Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church Choir, directed by John McDaniel, and several members of the original St. Paul's Church Choir who performed alongside Guaraldi and his trio in 1965 will perform alongside Martinez.
Guaraldi's journey to writing jazz music for a church service can be traced back to music composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa for the soundtrack toBlack Orpheus, a 1959 film by French director Marcel Camus set in a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval.Guaraldi loved the music and recorded his own arrangements of that album's main themes in 1962, right when "Girl From Ipanema" and other bossa nova music was getting big in the U.S., according to Bangs.
"Guaraldi was smooth, easy, and infectious," Bang said. "Guaraldi had the gift of knocking off an infectious little melody, you would swear you knew it hearing it the first time. And he wouldn't do anything the same way twice, because he didn't write or read music. He practiced his ass off and learned some basics, but by and large, he picked up his parts by feeling them or getting assistance from others."