How Charlie Brown made jazz cool again

There is the childhood memory of my siblings and I watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, and when it came to the scene in the auditorium where the kids are dancing, we would mimic those moves. There was Shermy walking in place, the twins go-go dance hopping in their white boots, Violet doing an aerobic-esque move with her arms and that little unnamed fella bobbing his head and shrugging his shoulders. We’d mimic them all, while the soundtrack of a happy melodic piano played along with the soft strokes of drum brushes and bass played that iconic little tune we all know and absolutely love.

Vince Guaraldi’s music was almost never used in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Think about it now, do you think there could be a better replacement?

In Ted Gioia’s The Birth (and Death) of the Cool (Speck Press), the story behind Guaraldi’s animated gig almost never happened.

“By the mid-Sixties, the sound of a jazz-big-band-playing cartoon soundtrack was widely accepted, even expected.” Gioia writes. CBS executives were a bit reluctant when producer Lee Mendelson wanted to have a soundtrack that oozed hip and cool jazz and wanted the Guaraldi Trio to supply that sound.

As Gioia writes:

“His music for Peanuts … sounded like what Hugh Hefner would be playing in the background while shaking martinis in his bathrobe. Few networks would have accepted this cooler-than-thou music for an adult drama, but to pair it with a high-profile show about youngsters for youngsters was to court disaster. . . . CBS was also unhappy with Mendelson’s use of children who lacked professional acting experience (some of them could not even read a script) for the voices and had doubts about much of the story line too. The pacing was too slow, the humor too subtle. A test viewing for the network execs was met with stony silence, although one of the animators, who had had a bit too much to drink, stood up and taunted them. “You guys are crazy,” he chided. “This is going to be around for a hundred years.”

Well, 51 years later and it continues to be a staple in holiday viewing with ABC airing the special about three times in December. Half of the televisions owned in 1965 were tuned in to the first airing and the popularity has not decreased at all. From Charlie Brown’s declared depression to Lucy to Linus’ “Lights, please?” moment that shares the true meaning of Christmas. If anything, it has become the perfect Christmas story to reel any jaded soul away from the stress and commercialism of the holiday.