Creating iconic music for a pre-existing property that has garnered legions of fans in another medium can be a daunting challenge for any composer. After all, how do you create an unforgettable sound for a story that has become beloved without the need for sound in the first place?
It’s a process that has been done countless times for all forms of film and television adaptations, and few are as iconic and imbued with such richness of tone and emotion as that of jazz musician Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for the Peanuts television specials, based on the comic strip series by Charles Schultz.
Filled with numerous unforgettable piano jazz tracks and working in perfect harmony with the melancholy plight of lead character Charlie Brown and his colorful cast of friends, Guaraldi’s jazz soundtracks are not only inextricable from the world of Peanuts, but have had a lasting impact on the world of jazz. For many fans and musicians alike, Guaraldi’s Peanuts scores got them hooked on the genre. And even for those who have not invested their time and passion into jazz, the musical world of Charlie Brown is evocative, catchy, and endlessly charming. It’s as if Guaraldi’s simple yet stylish compositions are cut whole cloth from the world of childhood memories and stitched together with the sweet, relatable melancholy of Charlie Brown’s many struggles.
A Jazzy Approach to Animation
In 1965, Guaraldi had recently found his first major hit with the jazz single “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” off of his album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (which is a wonderful album that any fan of the artist’s work on Peanuts will surely love). The success exposed producer Lee Mendelson, who was then currently working on creating A Charlie Brown Christmas, to Guaraldi’s work. Soon after, Mendelson offered the jazz musician the job of composing the score to a documentary about Charles Schulz and the upcoming television special. In the coming weeks, Guaraldi created the Christmas special’s iconic soundtrack, including the perennial hit “Linus and Lucy,” which was recorded by The Vince Guaraldi trio, featuring drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall.
Guaraldi would go on to compose the scores for 17 Peanuts television specials and the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown before his untimely death in 1976 of heart failure at the age of 47. Guaraldi’s jazz sounds are an indelible feature of the Peanuts franchise, providing a quiet, artistic underpinning to the warmhearted adventures of Charlie Brown and company.
There’s a certain alchemy to why the classic Charlie Brown TV specials work today, an unexplainable magic as to why these small, subdued stories about an often depressed boy and his friends still work so well today. Their themes and charm are a large part of it, but Guaraldi’s music is a massive component in making these specials come alive and linger in the heart and mind.
Growing up in the San Francisco area, Guaraldi grew up in the Northern California jazz scene and became a skilled pianist who played both straight jazz and bossa nova, which can be heard directly in his Black Orpheus album and also as an influence in many of the rhythms found throughout his Peanuts work.
In both his more plaintive tracks and those that feel more celebratory, Guaraldi’s sense of swing and time feel impeccable. Jazz is meant to embrace improvisation and Guaraldi reportedly allowed for plenty of it when scoring the Charlie Brown specials. But he also knew how to keep listeners hooked. Creating something catchy and iconic without treading over the dialogue and emotions of characters is a tricky balance, especially for improvisational jazz scoring.
With his signature piano front and center in most of his work on the specials and the film, Guaraldi is most often backed by simple drums and bass, leading to a very sparse yet always full-sounding score. But there’s something incredibly special about the way Guaraldi’s music blends with the dialogue of Charlie and his friends.
Most fans of the Peanuts specials know that real children were used to voice each of the characters, with many of them having to be fed each line of dialogue as they spoke it in the recording studio. The result is a very sweet, almost staccato rhythm to the way many of the characters speak their lines. It’s unmistakably Peanuts, with its signature sound recognizable almost instantly and having been homaged countless times over the decades. When combined with Guaraldi’s swinging piano jazz, the resulting sonic blend is something that warms the hearts of any fan instantaneously.
The Sweet Melancholy of Jazz
As a whole, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a rather melancholy story centering on Charlie’s search for meaning and worth in the holiday season. So it’s fitting that a large portion of Guaraldi’s score is tinged with sadness. Most notably, “Christmastime is Here” feels like a lament, with both its vocal version and recurring instrumental interpretation giving voice to the sadness that so many feel throughout the season. But what’s crucial is that Guaraldi’s melancholy isn’t overwrought and forced. Rather, it’s minor and subtle, which makes it far more impactful than any score trying to beat its listeners over the head with emotions.
That’s not to say that there aren’t upbeat tracks in the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, there are plenty. Guaraldi’s interpretation of “O Tannenbaum” has a ton of swinging style to it and “Skating” is brimming with cascading energy. These add layers and stylish beauty to the simple visuals of the Christmas special. In later specials and A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Guaraldi would supply many more upbeat and swinging jazz pieces, such as the twirling “Thanksgiving Theme,” the spooky “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” and the staccato “Charlie Brown Theme.” These all add variety to Guaraldi’s large body of work for the Peanuts specials, including some later output that dipped deeper into bossa nova style and even a Guaraldi vocal-led track with “Little Birdie,” a lesser known but well-loved song for Woodstock. (Read more about “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” here)
But no conversation concerning Guaraldi’s work can be complete without praise given to “Linus and Lucy,” the theme that not only started his work for Schultz’s animated specials, but has defined the sound of Peanuts permanently. With its base refrain, instantly recognizable piano hook, and propulsive joyous sounds, Guaraldi firmly rooted the music of Peanuts in the jazz genre. No matter what may happen in the years to come, Charlie Brown and his friends will be forever linked to this infectious and joy-inducing piece of instrumental jazz.
And that’s the mark of true musical genius – creating something that feels as if it has always existed in the hearts of listeners, yet never feels worn out. That’s the essence of Vince Guaraldi and the music of the Peanuts.
Love Guaraldi’s work and want to dive deeper or are learning about his music for the first time? Here are some of my favorite tracks created by him from both the Charlie Brown specials and beyond that encapsulate what made Guaraldi’s jazz output so special.
Have a favorite track? Let me know in the comments below!