A Charlie Brown Christmas: A Full Serving of Peanuts!
By David DeRocco
When it comes to the music of Christmas, you could probably identify traditional classics by the likes of Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante, and most likely the modern offerings of Paul McCartney, Mariah Carey and even Band Aid. But despite having created one of the most iconic holiday soundtracks of the 20th century, Vince Guaraldi is a name you may be hard pressed to connect to his work.
Niagara’s own Peter Shea Trio is going to do their best to remind you of Guaraldi’s contribution to the annual Christmas playlist when they hit the stage at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre December 20th to perform THE MUSIC OF A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. As a potential new tradition in the making, THE MUSIC OF A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS will take audiences on a nostalgic exploration of one most beloved holiday albums ever, featuring songs created by Guaraldi – an American jazz pianist – for the TV special of the same name. While that special first aired in 1965, Shea says it has timeless appeal for multiple reasons.
“I think the appeal is because it has spanned so many generations, it’s a favourite of both young and old,” said Shea, who will be joined on stage by fellow musicians Clark Johnston, Terry Clarke, special guest guitarist James Bryan (Philosopher Kings) and a cast of local youth performers. “It’s been around such a long time. It’s one of those Christmas traditions that has left an indelible impression. There’s something special about that music, it’s like lightning in a bottle. I don’t think (Guaraldi) ever topped it.”
The story behind the pairing of Peanut’s creator Charles Shultz with the musical artistry of Guaraldi adds additional holiday gravitas. While searching for music to accompany a planned Peanuts television documentary, Lee Mendelson (the producer of the special) heard a single version of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" by Guaraldi's trio on the radio while traveling in a taxicab. Mendelson contacted Ralph J. Gleason, jazz columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and was put in touch with Guaraldi. He proposed that Guaraldi score the upcoming Peanuts Christmas special, and Guaraldi enthusiastically took the job, performing a version of what became "Linus and Lucy" over the phone two weeks later. The soundtrack was recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and Guaraldi went on to compose scores for seventeen Peanuts television specials along with the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown.
The performance made its debut at the FirstOntario PAC last year, but Shea says there are some additions to this year’s program that will enhance the audience enjoyment.
“Last year we focused on performing the whole album live accompanied by a children’s choir,” said Shea, who along with wife Juliet Dunn are the driving force behind the TD Niagara Jazz Festival. “We have all that again this year but also a tiny bit of narrative, just little spoken vignettes that will give a bit of story line about Christmas and the importance of family. We also have people roller blading to reflect the skating scene in the movie and different things with kids just to add another element to the live show.”
While the evening is named after the beloved Shultz character, Shea says it’s Guaraldi’s jazz-inspired soundtrack that continues to attract fans.
“Charlie Brown would not be the same without the music. That’s the magic of Charlie Brown. It’s the only cartoon to my knowledge that’s entirely underscored with jazz. Guaraldi actually did more than just the Christmas album. He was a pioneer in bringing the bossa nova movement to North America. He was doing that long before he met Charles Shultz.”
The Music of Charlie Brown is a co-presentation of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival. The family-friendly event will feature free post-show cookies and hot chocolate, along with trombone lessons to teach patrons how to create the “voices” of adults and teachers used in Charlie Brown cartoons.