Oh, Good Grief


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Gunther Schuller, it ain’t.

I think that many of us in the jazz community feel some resentment towards the success of crossover records like The In Crowd or the subject of today’s essay, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. We resent them for two reasons. First because, for people who don’t know much about jazz, they have come to represent the genre as a whole; ”Don’t listen to that,” we want to say, ”listen to Archie Shepp, or Bill Evans, or Duke Ellington!” The second reason, of course, is because they sound so good.

A bassist friend of mine, recently graduated from the New England Conservatory, proudly proclaims his love for the ”Skating,” the bouncy waltz from pianist Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s a great tune, but it takes a bit of courage to say that you admire Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown records. Jeez, Peanuts? Isn’t that, you know, selling out? Isn’t that the kind of jazz people who don’t listen to jazz listen to?

There’s no denying that Guaraldi was a man with an eye for riding the wave to success. He got it, with Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus and its hit single, ”Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” in 1963. The first Charlie Brown record, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was released in 1964 and was fully titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown to capitalize both on Guaraldi’s previous record and on similar concept albums from California jazzmen, such as Andre Previn’s records of Gigi and West Side Story or Shelly Manne’s Lil’ Abner and My Fair Lady.

Those records are a bit boring, though. They’re trying too hard to either enter into the spirit of the musical or to transform it into ”serious” material. And the musicians usually seem to have little connection to the tunes – understandable, since they may have loved one or two of the tunes, but when they ended up recorded all the songs they got stuck with some of the less memorable ones.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown is very different from most ”soundtrack” recordings for two reasons: Guaraldi composed the music himself, so the connection is definitely there; and little effort is made to represent the subject of a song in its melody. Take ”Freda (With The Naturally Curly Hair),” for example. If you’re stumped about how to rite a song about Freda, don’t worry – Vince didn’t really even try. Instead, we get a deep-in-the-pocket swing from Guaraldi, bassist Monte Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey.

The same goes for most of the tracks. ”Linus And Lucy” is the only one that seems soundtrack-like in any way, and it’s also the tune best known from the record. The rest – like the other tracks from The In Crowd – aren’t as crossover-ready.

That quality has helped A Boy Named Charlie Brown weather the years better than the discs of more lauded musicians like Manne or Previn. Guaraldi created a record inextricably linked to a TV special, while simultaneously distancing it from that TV special as much as he could – for all the specificity of his track names, the tunes are really just good jazz tunes.

So don’t resent the success of A Boy Named Charlie Brown – rather, be happy that Guaraldi managed to sneak an unadulterated jazz record onto people’s shelves, and sell out while maintaining his musical integrity.