While watching the 876th remake of the first Hallmark “original” Christmas film, I got to thinking about the two men responsible for the modern sound of the holiday season. The first one is obvious. When Irving Berlin sat down and penned White Christmas (somewhere between 1938 and 1941, nobody is really quite sure) he ushered in the flood of the secular Christmas song. While Santa Claus is Coming to Town was released years earlier in 1934, it was Berlin’s wartime ballad of longing, combined with the baritone of Bing Crosby, that propelled the genre to stratospheric heights.
The other would toil away in relative obscurity as a pianist in jazz clubs around his native San Francisco until he penned a modest hit called Cast Your Fate to the Wind which won the 1963 Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. Lee Mendelson, an independent television producer who was putting together a documentary on “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, heard Cast playing on a taxi cab radio. He liked what he heard and tracked the composer down through the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle and asked him to score his film.
That would begin a long collaboration. When Mendelson was approached to produce an animated Christmas special for Coca-Cola, he took the composer along for the ride. And so Vince Guaraldi, along with a bassist and a drummer, went into a recording studio to lay down the tracks for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
When the completed special was presented to the CBS brass in New York they were deeply disappointed. The two things that made them nervous was Linus’ Bible reading and Guaraldi’s jazz score. They were almost unanimous in their conclusion that it would air once and disappear forever. It was, of course, a gigantic hit. A Peabody, an Emmy, and eventually, the Grammy Hall of Fame for Vince.
Over the next 11 years, Guaraldi would score 17 more Peanuts specials and a feature film before his unexpected death at age 47 of an aortic aneurysm. Jazz legend George Winston recorded two albums of Guaraldi’s works as a tribute. “Some of Vince’s music is adult music for kids and kids’ music for adults,” he told NPR, “It’s just great music and great playing.”
Just three simple instruments, and some old German carols, would reshape the sound of the season. Now you hear it everywhere and in almost every holiday film. “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how lovely are thy branches…”
Just great music and great playing.