With breezy, swinging panache, Vince Guaraldi pulled off something nearly impossible with his 1965 score to A Charlie Brown Christmas: he issued a record that instantly expanded the overstuffed Christmas canon. The formula was unusual, to say the least. The pianist's lightly swinging trio brought a fresh, sophisticated air to dreary holiday standards like "O Tannenbaum," captured several cute (if somewhat tuneless) kids' sing-alongs, and turned out a few nimble originals--"Skating," "Christmas Time Is Here," "Linus & Lucy"--that became standards in their own right.
Getting under the surface of A Charlie Brown Christmas requires a musical trip back to the genre-bending, transformational West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s. Guaraldi grew up in San Francisco and found himself returning to the city after serving in the Korean War. In college, he was fascinated by boogie-woogie piano players like Meade "Lux" Lewis, Albert Ammons and Jimmy Yancey, and eventually took an interest in straight-ahead jazz. He sat in at San Francisco clubs like the Blackhawk, and eventually landed a gig adding to the shimmering, Latin-influenced grooves of Cal Tjader.
Guaraldi's first major recordings were with Tjader's outfit in 1951, and he'd keep that association going throughout his career, eventually playing on about a dozen of the bandleader's records. Guaraldi cut his first solo sessions in 1955, and eventually shaped a career that ranged far beyond his dalliances with Charlie Brown and Snoopy. His melodic, grounded playing simultaneously imbibed Dave Brubeck's trained compositional sensibility and swinging elements of piano greats like Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. More than anything, he had a fierce ear for melody as both a composer and an improviser.
By 1965, he'd established a career as a jazz composer, veteran luminary of the definitive West Coast sound, musical director at some of San Francisco's most notorious nightclubs (and one of its biggest churches), and a composer for film and television. That resume reflects the fluid diversity of musical influences that informed A Charlie Brown Christmas, which we still return to nearly 50 years later, every holiday season. Here's where it came from.