Sound Takes: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy Records)
Over the years I’ve been mildly harassed by jazz snobs, who have attempted to elevate my taste from the simpler gratifications of rock and roll to the more austere pleasures of “their” music. It’s a lost cause. I am not unappreciative of the deep soulfulness of Sidney Bechet or the debonair virtuosity of Django Reinhardt or the oceanic moodiness of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano improvisations. Apart from these masters and a bit of Dave Brubeck here or Mose Allison there, I am surely missing out (so I’m told) on a highly evolved musical form that I owe it to myself as a thinking, feeling human being to experience in all its complexity and richness. I don’t doubt it. Yet apart from the virtual certainty that no amount of effort could ever get me to like Chick Corea, why should I scant something I know I love (rock) for something I think I might like (jazz)? Furthermore, I don’t tell jazz snobs that they haven’t lived until they’ve heard Raw Power by the Stooges, so why not a little noblesse oblige? Besides, the rock and roll that these same well-meaning jazz lovers tend to approve of (Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, etc.) only increases my skepticism. Yep, a lot of complicated chords in there, but the music is pretty sterile.
Apparently, not all jazz aficionados share my exalted opinion of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), which may or may not be the greatest jazz album of all time but is certainly the Sgt. Pepper’s, maybe even the Saint Matthew Passion, of televised cartoon soundtracks. In their Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, Richard Cook and Brian Morton dismiss Guaraldi as “a harmless pop-jazz pianist,” “the lightest of the lightweights.” A few more phrases might suggest their tone: “about as hot-blooded as a game of dominos,” “relentless triviality of the material,” “mild unambitious variations,” and, most damning of all, “If this kind of music appeals…” Well, this kind of music does appeal, and if it makes you (or me) feel any better, Wynton Marsalis and some other heavyweights greatly admire Guaraldi too. I probably wouldn’t understand what Marsalis likes about A Charlie Brown Christmas, but I like the relaxed brushing of the snare drum, the creaking of the fretboard on the upright bass, the ripple-in-water effect of the spreading piano chords, all those things I never hear in rock ‘n roll. Despite the shocking absence of electric guitar solos, the music feels embracing, partly because the songs remain songs, not intimations of A Love Supreme and other things that I will never understand. “O Tannenbaum,” for instance, which leads off the album, is still “O Tannenbaum” even when Guaraldi breaks into a “mild unambitious variation” after a mock solemn introduction.
I think it takes a certain amount of courage to play a beloved, corny Christmas carol as a beloved, corny Christmas carol. Would Thelonious Monk have dared? Maybe. But what distinguishes Guaraldi from his superiors is his respect for the tried and true. If “O Tannenbaum” has worked for a few hundred years, maybe it’s worth kicking around the block a time or two. Make it new? Not always. There’s only so much that can be made new, and the effort to do so at any cost is as likely to result in arid experimentalism as it is in fresh discovery. (I need hardly speak of the opposite tendency, generally known as shlock.) Fortunately, Vince Guaraldi was one of those rare artists who worked best within the register of the already known, finding mystery within the ordinary. If John Coltrane found his maximal self-expression by composing in a difficult, path-breaking idiom, Vince Guaraldi found his by composing (or adapting) songs for a gang of cartoon children and their cartoon beagle. I sometimes think Guaraldi had the harder task.
I’m not going to talk about A Charlie Brown Christmas song by song, because I can’t. The art that conceals art, of which Guaraldi was a master, is always difficult to analyze. Much depends, no doubt, on how you feel about tinkling piano cascades evoking the sensation of falling snow. If such effects strike you as beneath the dignity of serious music, then you’re not going to like A Charlie Brown Christmas and least of all “Christmas Is Coming,” the song on which Guaraldi so beautifully and so shamelessly conjures no less than dancing snowflakes. Similarly, if you object to a chorus of children singing “rum-tum-tum,” then you’re not going to enjoy “My Little Drum” and you probably won’t find the slight hint of childish vocal strain in the higher notes quite so disarming as I do. It’s worth remarking, however, that the pianist who delivers the uninhibited boogie-woogie titled “Linus and Lucy”—namely, Schroeder—is the same pianist who earlier in the cartoon had knocked out a very classy rendition of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” both included on the soundtrack. In other words, Schroeder (or, strictly speaking, Vince Guaraldi) wasn’t too hung up on aesthetic decorum, and I don’t think we should be either.
Whether in the final analysis A Charlie Brown Christmas is anywhere near as good as I think it is hardly matters. There are lots of important and influential jazz records out there; maybe this isn’t one of them. I still don’t like a lot of things about jazz, especially the endless saxophone solos, frequently as pointless and indulgent as their rock and roll equivalents on guitar. Most of all I dislike the priestly solemnity of some of its gatekeepers. But at least A Charlie Brown Christmas gives me a sense of what all the fuss is about. My God, maybe the jazz snobs are right! It is a highly evolved musical form which we owe it to ourselves to experience, even in the unlikely form of a soundtrack album for a children’s cartoon show whose songs are played at Christmastime in every shopping mall and food court in America. Maybe not the least of Guaraldi’s achievements is that he composed a soundtrack almost as memorable as the disturbing story of the depressive ten-year-old with the round head and ethical aspirations too large for the world he so uncomfortably inhabits.