Monday, May 7, 2012

A global welcome

Toby Gleason — son of former San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason, who in the 1960s became both Guaraldi's good friend and ad-hoc publicist — once perceptively referred to Vince Guaraldi as "the most famous jazz musician whose name nobody knows."

If fame is equated with artistic recognition, that statement speaks truth. People all over the world are familiar with Guaraldi's most frequently heard compositions for the early (1960s and '70s) Peanuts TV specials; many of the folks who don't know — or don't know how to pronounce — Guaraldi's name also mis-identify the most famous of those tunes. It's "Linus and Lucy," not "The Peanuts Theme."

But Guaraldi deserves recognition for much more than that, which led to my transition from avid fan to official biographer. My book, Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, was published last month by McFarland Press ... although, perhaps somewhat stubbornly, I've actually resisted the term "biography." I prefer to call this book a "career study," since it focuses primarily on Guaraldi's artistic output, and charts his life not by personal milestones, but by his many noteworthy musical accomplishments: his apprenticeship as a member of several Cal Tjader combos, and of big bands fronted by Woody Herman; his entry to Top 40 fame with "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," a song that might never have cracked the pop charts at all, absent the involvement of a radio DJ in Sacramento, California; his attraction to the emerging bossa nova sound of the late 1950s, and the perfect stylistic collaboration that resulted, a few years later, with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete; and — last, but certainly not least — Guaraldi's development and performance of the Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass, the first such jazz mass performed during a religious service in the United States. (We take such musical events for granted in the 21st century; in the mid-'60s, it was nothing short of revolutionary.)

The latter accomplishment alone is arguably more significant than the rich portfolio of tunes that put the swing in Charlie Brown's step, and yet when folks think "Grace Cathedral" and "jazz," they're more likely to remember Duke Ellington ... whose September 16 Sacred Music concert came months after Guaraldi paved the way, on May 21, 1965.

My book was prompted by a desire to grant Guaraldi better recognition for this, and many other artistic accomplishments. Projects of this nature, though, are an endless task like housework: There's always something else to be discovered in some tucked-away corner. My rapidly expanding word count, as I revised draft after draft, finally demanded closure at just shy of 400 pages (and I'm grateful to my McFarland editor, for tolerating a final draft that clocked in at 50,000 words longer than we originally discussed!). I do believe that the finished book stands well on its own, as a testament to Guaraldi's career ... but (of course!) there's always more information to be ferreted out, more former sidemen to contact and interview, more rumored recordings to seek.

This blog, then, will be the home of such an ongoing conversation. Dry, dusty facts can be found on a companion document — the Vince Guaraldi Timeline — where you can look up where he played when, and with whom. But this is the place for more convivial chatter, and I look forward to reading anecdotes and memories from folks who recall seeing Guaraldi perform. For that matter, I'm always curious to hear about your favorite Guaraldi tunes; he may not have lived his four score and ten, but he left us a rich catalogue of music ... both original compositions and "cover" arrangements of jazz standards and 1960s pop tunes. No matter what he played, though, he was always unmistakably Vince. You simply can't hear a Guaraldi performance without knowing it's him.

So ... let the conversation begin!

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