If television executives had their way back in 1965, the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas never would have featured pianist Vince Guaraldi’s now-iconic tinkling cocktail jazz. In the new book The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, published by Speck Press, cultural critic Ted Gioia tells the tale of how Guaraldi got the gig–and in retrospect it’s amazing that he did.
“By the mid-Sixties,” Gioia writes, “the sound of a jazz-big-band-playing cartoon soundtrack was widely accepted, even expected.” But CBS executives bristled when producer Lee Mendelson wanted to build the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas around Guaraldi’s understated hipster jazz trio. As Gioia explains,
His music for Peanuts … sounded like what Hugh Hefner would be playing in the background while shaking martinis in his bathrobe. Few networks would have accepted this cooler-than-thou music for an adult drama, but to pair it with a high-profile show about youngsters for youngsters was to court disaster. . . . CBS was also unhappy with Mendelson’s use of children who lacked professional acting experience (some of them could not even read a script) for the voices and had doubts about much of the story line too. The pacing was too slow, the humor too subtle. A test viewing for the network execs was met with stony silence, although one of the animators, who had had a bit too much to drink, stood up and taunted them. “You guys are crazy,” he chided. “This is going to be around for a hundred years.”
Of course, the drunk guy was on to something: Nearly half the televisions in America were tuned into the first broadcast, and after 45 years the show’s popularity hasn’t waned a bit. The soundtrack has defined and in some ways eclipsed the program itself, appearing every season among the top 10 best-selling holiday CDs and becoming one of the biggest-selling jazz releases ever.
Guaraldi, for his part, got to see only the beginning of this success: He died of a heart attack in 1976, at age 47. But his music lives on. A new two-disc compilation, The Definitive Vince Guaraldi, was just released by the Fantasy label, and it reveals him as a keenly talented jazz pianist and bandleader in his own right. And sometime in the next few weeks, the Charlie Brown Christmas theme song will appear in your head just as surely as visions of sugarplums.