Book review: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Vince Guaraldi was known as the “Italian leprechaun.” He was short, barely over five feet tall, and youthful looking; this was the reason for his signature mustache, to look older.

If you know the name Vince Guaraldi, it’s probably because you associate the pianist as the composer of the music for the Peanuts television specials, starting in the mid-1960s. However, Doctor Funk, one of his nicknames, codified in a song he wrote and performed a decade earlier, was a well-respected performer and composer in the Bay Area/Northern California jazz scene.

Derrick Bang notes in the preface of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano that he was a reluctant writer of Vince’s legacy, expecting that someone more personally knowledgeable of the performer would surely show up to pen his story. Finding none, he put together an almost encyclopedic recollection of the musician’s life, starting with the influence of his mother. He had two failed father figures in his life, and just as Freddy Lennon reached out to John after the Beatles were famous, Vince’s dad sought to re-enter Vince’s life after Peanuts; both John and Vince said an emphatic “NO.”

Vince was an important member of combos fronted by Cal Tjader and Woody Herman (the third “thundering herd”). He actually had a Top 40 hit with Cast Your Fate to the Wind [listen] (#22 in 1963), though you may know the song better from the cover version by Sounds Orchestral (#10 in 1965). His jazz mass was revolutionary for its time. Like too many musicians, though, he got the short end of a lot of business deals early on.

Vince was also known as the “Italian leprechaun.” He was short, barely over five feet tall, and youthful-looking; this was the reason for his signature mustache, to look older. He also could have quite a temper, especially as it applied to the music, but he seldom held a grudge.

This is an important book, which I’d like to have in my library, not so much to read, but to refer to, like many reference books published by McFarland Press. He crossed paths with an interesting group of folks, including comedian-social activist Dick Gregory, influential jazz critic Ralph Gleason, plus musicians from the Kingston Trio to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. It was Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete, though, who helped infuse the bossa nova influence that’s apparent in many of the Peanuts themes.

Some folks call this a biography, while at least one described it as more of an “expanded provenance.” It surely doesn’t always read like a bio, but the information’s all there. And the early chapters plus the ones after Vince’s sudden death in 1976, before his 48th birthday, allowed for a more reflective style.

Peanuts creator Charles Schultz died in 2000; 15 months later, he was posthumously given the Congressional Gold Medal. Peanuts TV writer/producer/director Lee Mendelson was expecting the Marine Corps Band to perform the national anthem. But when they played Linus and Lucy [listen] instead, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” And, oddly enough, that included me too. So even with this wealth of facts, there IS an interesting story narrative within as well.

Check out It’s Jazz, Charlie Brown: the Vince Guaraldi Story. Profile of jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Aired on WFIU / Indiana Public Radio’s “Night Lights” program on December 7, 2009. 59 minutes.

Guess who won FREE TICKETS to “It’s a Jazzy Christmas”, featuring the music of Vince Guaraldi, at the College of St. Rose’s Massry Center this afternoon?


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