Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano by Derrick Bang

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"When I met him, he immediately liked the feeling I had, even though I wasn't experienced. So I would go to his house for lessons, whenever he was available: once a week or so. We would listen to music, and then talk about it, and then he'd show me things: harmonies of tunes, and changes.

"A lesson would take place at the keyboard: He would improvise and play single lines, like bebop lines. I would listen, and then I would ask about chords and stuff. Vince didn't have a system of different exercises; he just did it by playing for me.

"The other part of a lesson — the important part — was listening to records by the great players: Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Art Tatum and Lester Young ... always the masters. We'd listen and then talk about the music. One time he played an album by Los Angeles bebop pianist Hampton Hawes, and Vince said, 'You and I have this feeling, and a lot of players don't get it.'
-Larry Vuckovich, Vince Guaraldi’s former student and Jazz pianist [Emphasis mine]

"Vince was a very positive player. I don't know if that can be analyzed. The rhythmic component obviously is part of it, and the fact that he created melodies that tended to be sunny, not neutral or morose. But also, you can sense a musician's personality and attitude when they're playing,and anybody who hears most of Vince's music will sense a positive quality. He was a good, solid musician. Anybody who listens to his music 50 years from now will appreciate it for the same things we appreciate it for today. He wanted to be a success, in a very profound way, and to be remembered for the happy quality of his music. He succeeded."
- Doug Ramsey, Jazz author, essayist and blogger

"I enjoyed everything we ever played; it felt great every night. I dug Vince's playing; he was a swinging piano player, and he made it feel really good. I could hear a little Bud Powell influence, and a little Red Garland influence, but Vince had his own style. If somebody put one of his records on, I could always tell it was Vince. He had a distinct style, that's for sure; it was the way he'd do the phrasing and the chord changes on his solos. He was very rhythmic, and he swung so hard.
- Colin Bailey, Jazz drummer

In the span of a few months, two of my favorite Jazz musicians who have been gone from the Jazz scene for many years suddenly “reappeared” in my life.

Both were based in San Francisco, CA but each developed national recognition through their concerts club appearances and recordings. Some of their earliest success in the music came while working together.

The first to make their “presence” felt again was vibraphonist, percussionist and bandleader, Cal Tjader, in S. Duncan Reid’s excellent biography: Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz. Duncan’s work is published by McFarland and Company. Here’s a link to my review of the book.

And now, along comes Derrick Bang’s Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, also published by McFarland. Order information about Derrick’s book can be located via this link.

A professional writer and editor for many years, Derrick has specialized in writing about the work of Charles Schultz, the late cartoonist who created the Peanuts strip.

In talking with Derrick by phone, I gathered that like many others, he was adversely affected by the employment meltdown that followed the Great Recession of 2008. I closed my consultancy as a consequence of it and retired.  

But thank goodness for Jazz fans everywhere that Derrick didn’t retire from writing.  Instead, he used the “free time” to pour his considerable talents as a writer into producing one of the best researched and well-written biography of a Jazz musician that I have ever read.  And all this excellence in service of a Jazz musician whose professional career actually spans little more than two decades [Vince Guaraldi died on February 6, 1976 at the age of 48].

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano takes the reader through the formative years of Vince’s career with Cal Tjader, Woody Herman and the Lighthouse All-Stars, the many manifestations of Vince’s own trios with his early success thanks to the hit recording of his original composition, Cast Your Fate to the Wind and the writing and staging of his Jazz Mass at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, and though to the banner years associated with the original music that Guaraldi composed for many of the TV specials based on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips centered around the forlorn Charlie Brown.

In many ways, the work can be seen as essentially a two part treatise on Vince’s professional career: [1] BC = Before Charlie Brown and [2] AC = After Charlie Brown.

Prior to the detailed documentation that Derrick’s biography provides about every aspect of Vince’s career, this dualistic “before and after Peanuts” view was the impression many of us had about Guaraldi’s accomplishments in music.

But after reading the Prologue, 15 Chapters, Epilogue and three [3] Appendices which contain remembrances of Vince by the musicians who worked with him, a discography and a filmography, the reader comes away with a fuller appreciation of a very complicated and complete musician who expressed his art in a style that was simple, direct, and yet, at the same time, powerfully rhythmic and emotionally charged.

Because of his small statute, relatively quiet and easy-going demeanor and physical limitations [he had small hands and was a poor reader of music], Vince was easy to overlook or take for granted.

But as Derrick’s book irrefutably proves, Vince was a force of nature and one to ultimately be reckoned with in whatever the musical circumstance.

Irrespective of the musical setting, Vince Guaraldi prevailed.

I had the opportunity the observe this quality about Vince first-hand after he joined the Lighthouse Cafe All-Stars [LHAS] in late summer of 1959.

During that time, I frequented the Hermosa Beach, CA club on a weekly basis and when Vince first arrived, the long-standing quintet featuring Frank Rosolino on trombone, Bob Cooper on tenor sax, Victor Feldman on piano and vibes and Stan Levey on drums was in the process of disbanding.

They had been together for almost three years and their breakup left something of a void in the routine of the regular patrons of this beach haunt.

Over the years, bassist Howard Rumsey, who also served as the Musical Director of the LHAS [in other words, it was Howard’s gig] had put together an impressive book of complicated and intriguing compositions written by the likes of Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, Sonny Clark, Bob Cooper, Bill Holman, and Victor Feldman, among many other West Coast Jazz notables, all of whom had passed through the band at one time or another.

It was a complicated book as the West Coast style of Jazz tended to be an arranger’s music which placed a heavy premium on a musician’s ability to read music.

Enter Vince Guaraldi, a notoriously poor reader, who pretty much had a deep-set, look of confusion on his face during his first month or so on the Lighthouse gig as he tried to find his way through this mirage of notes and chords.

No problem, for not only did the LHAS undergo a personel change - Conte Candoli returned on trumpet, Art Pepper came aboard on alto and Nick Martinis on drums completed the rhythm section changes along with Vince on piano - but the music this group performed change, too, to music that was largely influenced by … wait for it … Vince Guaraldi!

Did I mention that Vince prevailed?

Instead of the finger-poppin’, complicated arrangements that previously made-up the LHAS “book”, the tunes became more simple melodies played at medium tempos, many of which were blues-inflected when they weren’t composed as outright 12-bar or 16-bar blues by Vince or Vince in conjunction with Conte Candoli or tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper [who rejoined the band due to Pepper’s frequent absences].

You can hear this format on Little Band, Big Jazz [Crown LP-5162; Fresh Sound CD FSR1629].  Although the record is under the nominal leadership of trumpeter Conte Candoli and he is listed as the composer of four of the six tunes on the album and co-composer on the remaining two with Vince, I heard this music come together at the Lighthouse over a six-month period of time prior to its recording in February, 1960 and there is little doubt in my mind that Vince was responsible for all of it!

It’s just too Vince-sounding and Conte was not known for his interest in writing original compositions. Of the 40 tunes on four of Conte’s signature LP’s from this period in his career - Powerhouse Trumpet, The Conte Candoli Quartet on Mode, Mucho Color and West Coasting - Conte only wrote three original compositions, two of which are based on mambo’s riffs and one is an adaptation of Dizzy Gillespie’s Groovin’ High.

From the detailed information provided by Derrick throughout his book, the reader learns that Vince performed with just about everybody of significance on the West Coast Jazz scene from about 1950-1965. The list is staggering.

But what Derrick also makes clear in his book is that Vince was most comfortable when he was performing his own music, especially in the classic piano-bass-drums Jazz trio setting that he preferred and continued with throughout his career despite numerous changes in bassists and drummers.

Like many self-taught musicians, Vince didn’t know what he couldn’t do. He didn’t know the “right way” or “the wrong way” or that “you can’t do that” or “that’s not the legitimate way to get that sound” or whatever.

Vince heard it in his head and felt it in his heart and somehow got it out of his hands.

Whatever the technical limitations about his musicianship, Vince was driven to bring out his own style in his music.  In this sense, as Derrick underscores time and again, Vince was a true original and this is why his music has stood the test of time.

Derrick frames his biography of Vince with his own insights and those of the people and musicians associated with Vince whom he interviewed and both of these help to bring out key characteristics of Guaraldi’s personality and style.

- “Vince had “the urge,.’the desire to really make something of himself in the music business. He was persistent, and he had the chops.” [Tom Hart, saxophonist, p. 22]

- “Vince had a unique style, unlike any other: pure Jazz. His sense of rhythm was flawless. He was always fun to play with, too, because he knew how to back up a soloist.” [Hart, p. 23]

- In the beginning, Vince was so excited in his playing, it was like trying to hold back a colt or a stallion. … He had a tendency to play too much behind me sometimes [but] eventually he became aware of the fact that you don’t play every tune like a bebop express running 120 miles an hour.” [Cal Tjader, p. 25]

“He fingers [the piano] all wrong when he makes runs and plays chords. All wrong that is, from the standpoint of efficiency and ‘piano technique.’ … But  I've noticed over the years in Jazz that almost all the good ones do it all wrong, because it is the sound that matters - and the sound with Vince, is beautiful and moving.” [Ralph Gleason, columnist, p. 37]

“He was known as Dr. Funk … because he played with such an earthy feeling.” [Doug Ramsey, Jazz historian, p. 43]

“One time he played an album by Los Angeles bebop pianist Hampton Hawes, and Vince said: ‘You and I have this feeling, and a lot of other players don’t get it.’” [Larry Vuckovich, Vince’s student and Jazz pianist, p. 44].

- “Guaraldi reading of Django [on The Vince Guaraldi Trio LP, 1956] marked the dawning of the classic ‘Guaraldi sound,’ demonstrating his ability to paint an impressive musical portrait with a deceptively simple arrangement of notes and chords.” [author, p. 50]

- "Vince is more than an interesting pianist. He is not ridden by an unconscionable demon to prove something; he just loves music and loves playing and swinging. This uncomplicated approach allows him to poke fun at himself (‘I’m just a reformed boogie woogie pianist'), which is refreshing; it enables him to play simple, emotionally pure piano, as on the ballads, and to get pixieish, funky and hard-swinging, as on [his] original and some of the standards." [Ralph J. Gleason, p. 56]

- "Guaraldi reveals himself as one of the most astonishingly lyrical pianists in the field: as delicately sensitive as John Lewis. Much the same can be said of Eddie Duran ... who emerges here as certainly the co-star of the album. The truth is that here is one of the really great lyric jazz combinations: great as the Brubeck-Desmond combination is great, in the sense that the whole is equal to twice as much as the sum of its parts." [C.H. Garrigues, columnist, p. 71]

- “Guaraldi looks like a pixie … but has the muscles of a giant.” [Russ Wilson, columnist, p. 85]

- “He swung his ass off; he reminded me of Red Garland. And working as the house rhythm section [Outside at the Inside, Palo Alto, CA] with Vince’s band was one of my favorite Jazz gigs of all time.” [Benny Barth, drummer]

- "What Vince has got in his playing is feeling. This is a quality that money can't buy, practice cannot make perfect and technique tends to defeat rather than enhance. Vince sings when he plays. I don't mean he grunts or hums or even makes a noise at all. I mean his fingers sing, the music sings, and he writhes and twists on the piano stool like a balancing act in the circus.” [Ralph, J. Gleason, p. 113]

- "It's easy to throw art — music — in front of the public, but then the artist has no control over how the work will be taken in. But I've always thought that Vince knew precisely how he wanted the public to 'hear' his music, and he performed it in such a way to maximize that response." [drummer Jerry Granelli, p. 134]

- “... [Theme to Grace] became vibrant proof of Guaraldi’s long-standing ability to weave a lovely new melody into an improv session.” [Reverend Charles Gompertz who worked closely with Vince to create the Jazz Mass that was performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in May, 1965, p. 155]

- “There was no logical progression with Vince, …. He was a very spontaneous person; he didn’t approach things in a linear, methodical, systematic kind of way. It was like getting caught up in a zeitgeist.” [Reverend Charles Gompertz, p. 149]

“In a sense, I met a saloon player ... and, during the time we knew each other, he I became a nationally and internationally known celebrity. I played a part in all that, which is humbling. It's an extraordinary story: how one person can have an idea that involves you, and then can pursue that idea, and help put together what needs to take place, to bring the idea to fruition, and then push it beyond that, into a whole different category of existence. It's a magical kind of thing." [Reverend Charles Gompertz, p. 157].

"Vince had this joyous drive, and remarkable melodic improvisation. You heard it in his tunes. He was a rare and wonderful combination of melody, power and jazz swing. His 'time feeling' was just wonderful; he was like a freight train. You just had to climb aboard, hold on and hope for the best.  It was really scintillating, playing for him." [Fritz Kasten, drummer, p. 227]

"It was always fun to play with Vince. He always had such a great feel, immediately; it was never like getting into the music gradually. It was just bap, we had it.” [Colin Bailey, drummer, p.249]

The second half of Derrick biography of Vince details the many manifestations of Vince’s music in the Peanuts television specials that are based on the characters created by cartoonist Charles Schulz.

Producer Lee Mendelson chose Vince for this career-changing endeavor. Why? Derrick offers this background on how it all came to pass.

“But how did Mendelson settle on Guaraldi?

Mendelson knew that he wanted a jazz score —"’I had always loved jazz, going back to Art Tatum’—but he needed a composer.

‘I first called Dave Brubeck, who's an old friend, but he was busy. He suggested I call Cal Tjader, with whom I went to high school, but he was busy. Years later, they both said they wished they hadn't been busy!’

The important part of the saga came next, and it'll sound familiar to those who remember, from the previous chapter, how the Rev. Charles Gompertz came to select Guaraldi for his high-reaching idea [the May, 1965 Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass].

‘I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge,’ Mendelson recalled, ‘and I had the jazz station on —KSFO —and it was a show hosted by Al 'Jazzbo' Collins. He'd play Vince's stuff a lot, and right then, he played [Vince’s] Cast Your Fate to the Wind. It was melodic and open,and came in like a breeze off the bay.  And it struck me that this might be the kind of music I was looking for.

‘I found out that Vince lived in San Francisco, so I got in touch with Max Weiss, at Fantasy Records, and we put the deal together.’

Mendelson and Guaraldi got together shortly thereafter.

‘We met at a restaurant called Original Joe's, in San Francisco,’ Mendelson continued. ‘He had a great smile and a great laugh, and we hit it off right away. I was struck by his very short, stubby fingers, and I remember wondering how he played the piano with hands like that.

‘He told me he loved the Peanuts strip, and that he never missed it.

‘I didn't have a lot of money at the time; my company was brand new, and didn't have huge budgets. It was a mutual trust thing, and we worked out an arrangement.’

If Mendelson had any doubts about Guaraldi's suitability for the assignment, they vanished after what happened next ... particularly because it happened so quickly.

‘About two weeks later, Vince called me on the phone,’ Mendelson continued. ‘He told me, “I gotta play something for you; it just came into my head.” I said, 'I don't want to hear it on the phone, because you don't hear the highs and lows; let me come down to the studio.' And he said, “I gotta play it for you, before I forget it, so at least you'll remember it.” So I said, 'Okay, fine; play it.'

"And that was the first time I ever heard Linus and Lucy.

‘It just blew me away. It was so right, and so perfect, for Charlie Brown and the other characters. Something deep inside me said, This is gonna make the whole thing work. Vince's music was the one missing ingredient that would make everything happen.’

Looking back on that electrifying moment, decades later, Mendelson insists that he knew —really knew— that Guaraldi had been the right choice.

‘I have no idea why, but I knew that song would affect my entire life. There was a sense, even before it was put to animation, that there was something very, very special about that music.

‘There's no doubt in my mind, that if we hadn't had that Guaraldi score, we wouldn't have had the franchise we later enjoyed.’” [p. 161]

Although, Vince’s association with the various iterations of the Peanuts television specials would ultimately provide him with a degree of financial security accorded to few Jazz musicians, he continued to work gigs for the remainder of his life.

Indeed, he died of a heart attack while working one - Butterfield’s - a club/restaurant located in Menlo Park, CA.  Vince was only forty-eight.

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano is a fascinating reading experience, not only because of the wealth of detailed information it contains about Vince Guaraldi and his music, but also because of the very skillful way in which it is written.

Derrick Bang writes clean and compelling prose. There is a clarity and a warmth to his style that are the hallmarks of all great writers.

What stands out about Derrick Bang’s writing is that while experiencing it, one quickly appreciates that one is in the presence of an artist.


  1. A great review of a great book, which I immensely enjoyed reading. I particularly appreciate your sharing your own personal insights and observations about Vince's tenure at the Lighthouse Café. Now I'm going to have to go listen to "Little Band, Big Jazz" with newly attuned ears... :-)

  2. I, despite living in the UK, ordered this book and had it sent from the US, as I have been a Vince Guaraldi fan since the days when he toured in the UK with Woody Herman's band.It also turned out later , when he became involved with Charles Schultz and Peanuts, that my path crossed with Guaraldi's both musically and ;professionally as I had developed the use of Peanuts material as part of my management and interpersonal skills training activities.
    Overall my view of the book was mixed. Th author had clearly put in a great deal of research exploring what Guaraldi did during his life, but I found it occasionally prone to errors and a bit weak because of the author's unfamiliarity with the jazz scene and the players.
    I was also, I guess, disappointed to discover, through the book, how so much of Guaraldi's talent was 'dissipated' and wasted due to substance abuse problems. He could have been so much more ....
    But thanks to Steve Cerra for making this review available and perhaps reviving interest in Guaraldi.

  3. Vince died on February 6, 1976 (not '78) at the age of 47 while on break during a gig at a club called Butterfield's in Menlo Park. "Eleanor Rigby" was the last tune he played.


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