For Aaron, who shares my affection for Vince Guaraldi
Press play and “Skate” as you read
Some of the most celebrated, feel-good Christmas songs never mention the words “Jesus”, “presents”, “Santa Claus”, “love”, “winter”, or even “Christmas” . As a matter of fact, some of those songs don’t have words, but rather express a wintertime recreation so articulately you feel yourself engaged in the activity. The spirit it leaves you with comprises warmth, happiness, and gaiety…an easy linear move to Christmas euphoria.
I always sense that particular joy when I hear Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” We performed the exciting orchestral piece when I played clarinet in junior high band, and a passion for the song never left me. It cultivated my love of the symphony, rustic winter scenes, and the lithographs of Currier and Ives. The rhythms and perfectly timed tones of different instruments place my mind in a wooden and metal sleigh with two brown horses pulling me through the snowy woods. I am cozy and warm, nestled amongst family, on the way to a Christmas party. That’s how I imagine it.
While writing my last blog post about the aluminum Christmas tree and its nemesis—Charlie Brown’s Christmas TV show—I found myself listening more intently to the program’s musical soundtrack, A Charlie Brown Christmas, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The album’s songs are a combination of traditional pieces and some composed by Guaraldi.
All of these recordings from the originally released album have worked their way into the tapestry of popular American Christmas music. I frequently listen to the “Frank Sinatra & Bing Crosby (Holiday) Radio station through Pandora (yes, I listen year-round—Christmas makes me happy) and Guaraldi’s Peanuts tunes pop up frequently in the rotation. These recordings are purely American and thoroughly mid-century modern. Also, they’re a uniquely delightful blend of subtle bossa nova and definitive cool jazz.
Jazz music evolved rapidly in America in the twentieth century. The earliest form was Dixieland, which began around the turn of the century in New Orleans. Around 1910 those early musicians took their sound to Chicago and New York, with some of those performers in search of better employment. The style of music at that point was referred to as Chicago jazz or hot jazz.
The swing era of the 1940s put a fresh spin on popular music, ending the careers of many hot jazz musicians. This decade also gave rise to a jazz style with complex harmonies and rhythms known as Bebop. But the West Coast, already known for a more relaxed lifestyle, had its own musical ideas.
In California during the post war 1940s, jazz invented its own regional dialect. Known as West Coast jazz or cool jazz, this breed is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tones. In contrast to the heavy use of improvisation in hot jazz, cool jazz often employs formal arrangements and even fuses elements of classical music into its structure.
I have long been a fan of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, a group that grew out of the California cool jazz movement. “Take Five”, composed by the group’s alto saxophone player, Paul Desmond, is one of my favorite pieces of music. The score for A Charlie Brown Christmas always reminded me of Brubeck, and now I understand why—Vince Guaraldi and Brubeck were both composing at the same time in San Francisco.
Guaraldi was born in San Francisco in 1928. He would have remained only a minor contributor in the jazz world had it not been for his B-side composition, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The single became a grassroots hit and won a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. It also got the attention of Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson. He hired Guaraldi to score the first Peanuts television special, a documentary called, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.
Guaraldi composed and recorded the soundtrack, but the program never aired; Mendelson could never sell it. However, Coca Cola was intrigued about the idea of a Peanuts’ Christmas special, and Mendelson and Guaraldi once again collaborated, this time for a CBS special.
CBS viewed the final product—A Charlie Brown Christmas—before it was aired, but expressed their lack of enthusiasm. They even questioned the appeal of a jazzy/bossa nova soundtrack for a children’s Christmas special. But it was too late—the air date had already been published in TV Guide. Despite the doubts of CBS executives, the show was a smash hit. And so was its unique soundtrack, which eventually sold over three million copies.
“Skating” is one of those original compositions on the sound track. It’s purely instrumental. And it’s amazing to me that Vince Guaraldi was able to pull off with three instruments—a piano, bass, and drums—what Leroy Anderson did with an entire symphony for “Sleigh Ride.”
According to Derrick Bang in his Cuepoint blog post, “How Vince Guaraldi Made Charlie Brown Cool”, “‘Skating,’[is] a lyrical jazz waltz highlighted by sparkling keyboard runs that sounded precisely like children ice-skating joyously on a frozen pond.” Bang also quoted a newspaper columnist as saying, “The cascading notes to Guaraldi’s Vivaldi-like ‘Skating’ are the most vivid representation of falling snowflakes in music.”
I visualize Guaraldi at a grand piano, his dancing fingers floating above the keys, often keeping a bit of air between his fingertips and the slick ebony and ivory of the keys. The sound is light, defying gravity. It also matches the skater’s objectives perfectly—to make as little contact with the ice as possible.
When I was about twelve I received ice skates for Christmas. My resourceful, industrious, and creative father excavated about five inches of earth from the plot of land which had been our large vegetable garden the previous summer. After lining the shallow void with plastic sheeting, he filled it with water. Adding a little cold, Kansas, winter weather, I soon had a private skating rink.
I spent hours on the ice, breaking-in my new skates, surrounded with rustic nature and dancing to a continuous song in my head. I’m pretty sure, whatever it was, that upbeat, melodic, cascading tune resembled a Guaraldi waltz, undoubtedly replanted in my head year after year while snuggled up with my family in front of the TV, engaged in pre-Christmas euphoria.
Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Dec 2015.
Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Dec 2015.
Bang, Derrick. “How Vince Guaraldi Made Charlie Brown Cool”. Cuepoint. Medium.com. Web. 16 Dec 2014.