Friday, November 9, 2012

The Schulz Museum Guaraldi Extravaganza

I tend to be cautious with my anticipation, having found that modest expectations more often lead to pleasant surprises. This is particularly true of first-time events with plenty of variables, and such was the case with the collaborative show David Benoit and I designed for the Charles M. Schulz Museum last Saturday, November 3.

Questions abounded. Would we get enough people to fill the seats in the Museum's spacious Great Hall? Would we get too many people, leading to frustration and standing-room-only in the upper balcony? Would the acoustics be suitable for a solo pianist? Would David and I "banter" well, during the course of our back-and-forth format? And (always my most paranoid fear) would audience members chuckle in the right places ... and not laugh in the wrong places?

My wife Gayna and I arrived at the Museum shortly before noon, giving us plenty of time to enjoy a light lunch at the adjacent Warm Puppy CafĂ©. We then returned to the Museum, where Education Director Jessica Ruskin was overseeing last-minute arrangements (and believe me when I say that Jessica deserves oodles of credit for attending to all possible details). David and his family — wife Kei and daughter June — arrived shortly after 1 p.m. He and I went over a few final tweaks, having nailed down the music set list via e-mail during the previous few weeks. He had a few anecdotes to insert before or after specific songs; I adjusted my narrative accordingly. 

(Actually, he and I filled an enthusiastic half-hour trading stories about our childhoods, after discovering that he and I grew up in the same Southern California region, and that he and his family now live only a few miles from where I spent all my teenage years. Small world, indeed!)

David Benoit and his daughter, June, rehearsed their one shared number while Museum
visitors (unseen, upstairs and to the left) watched with curiosity and delight. These
proceedings also were observed by Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin,
center left, and a Museum docent.
We then entered the Great Hall, where a tuner had just finished prepping the gorgeous 9-foot grand piano; even David was impressed by the splendor of this ebony beast. He spent about half an hour running through chords and sections from the various songs, then pronounced himself satisfied with the instrument.

Museum visitors had the bonus of being able to watch all this unfold, since the Great Hall is readily visible from various vantage points. And even when the bulk of the hall was roped off, as the rows of chairs were set up, folks in the exhibit areas on both floors were able to see and hear everything we did.

That was pretty much it, for rehearsal ... and it's equally important to note that, aside from the 15 minutes or so I referenced in the paragraph above, David and I never rehearsed how we'd "pass the baton" between ourselves, as the show progressed. I figured spontaneity would be better than getting hung up on specific dialogue.


Patrons began to fill the seats at 3 p.m., an hour before showtime. As 4 o'clock approached, we all saw, to our delight and relief, that the audience was the perfect size. The roughly 250 ground-floor chairs were filled, along with the couple dozen more placed at the edge of the second-floor balcony, facing the action below. I was pleased to see several friendly Peanuts colleagues in the front rows; it's always nice to trade smiles with somebody familiar.

Things kicked off promptly at 4 p.m., with generous introductions by Jeannie Schulz and Museum director Karen Johnson. David and I were brought to the stage amid warm applause, and then the show began.

The format unfolded as a chronological narrative, with pauses that allowed David to perform each of the songs cited during seminal moments of Guaraldi's career. The first "chapter" therefore involved my longest bit of talking, as I introduced the childhood Vince, brought him through high school and his Korean War service, and then briefly (!) covered all his activities in the 1950s: his first stint with Cal Tjader, as a member of a trio; his 18 months at the hungry i, leading his own trio with Dean Reilly and Eddie Duran; his tour as a member of Woody Herman's big band; his return to Tjader, now as part of a quintet; the first two albums for Fantasy Records, under his own name; and side album projects with the likes of Gus Mancuso, Frank Rosolino and Conte Candoli.

The goal, in this opening segment, was to build to Guaraldi's early efforts at song composition: specifically the tune "Little David," written to honor the pianist's young son, and recorded with Candoli on the album Little Band, Big Jazz. Having regaled listeners with all these details, I then turned to Benoit and said, "Now we'll hear 'Little David' ... performed by big David."

That line occurred to me literally as the words were leaving my mouth. Good call, too, because it earned delighted smiles and warm laughter.

At which point, Benoit hunched over the keys and went to town: a definite sign of the great music to come, which enchanted the clearly pleased audience. When he finished and smiled at the well-deserved applause, I resumed Guaraldi's story, this time building to how he had been captivated by the bossa nova rhythms in the film Black Orpheus, which motivated him to record a demo of his arrangements of the film's four primary themes; I once again passed the baton to David, who played "Manha de Carnival."

And that's how it went: my narrative and David's music, as we moved through the course of Guaraldi's career. The full music set list was as follows:

• "Little David"
• "Manha de Carnival"
• "Cast Your Fate to the Wind"
• "Linus and Lucy"
• "Fur Elise"
• "Theme to Grace"
• "Skating"
• "Air Music"
• "The Great Pumpkin Waltz"
• "Red Baron"
• "Pebble Beach"
• "Alma-Ville"

Highlights included "Theme to Grace," when David was joined by his daughter, June, whose viola "covered" the choral portions of that tune; she earned the loudest applause of the day for her efforts, and deservedly so. Bop-hued jazz fans undoubtedly had the most fun with "Air Music," which David positively roared through (giving the total lie to people who believe that he never strays from so-called "smooth jazz").

A job well done, and a collaborative handshake: David and I are smiling broadly, and
the audience is on its feet. June Benoit, at left, stands in front of Museum Director
Karen Johnson.
As the final chords of "Alma-Ville" faded throughout the hall, Karen once again took the stage to lead another round of applause ... and also to encourage June back to her father's side, in order to bask in her own glory. The applause built, and people began to stand; I shot David a glance, and he smiled and nodded. We had anticipated the possibility of an encore, which I felt offered the perfect opportunity for him to play one of his own Peanuts compositions: "Wild Kids," which he wrote back in 1988 for an episode of the animated TV miniseries, This Is America, Charlie Brown. His finger-snapping delivery on that final tune was almost the equal of his rip-snortin' blast through "Air Music."

That concluded the performance, but not the afternoon; David and I were ushered to a table in the foyer, where we chatted with folks as they brought up CDs and books to be autographed. He did far better than I, in that respect, and signed roughly three CDs for every book I signed. (But I guess that makes sense, as my book cost about three times the price of his albums!)

Best moment during the signing: the gentleman who brought up his wife's California "SNOOPY C" license plate, and had us both sign that with an indelible Sharpie. Now I'm no longer able to say that I've never signed a license plate...

From left, your faithful blogger, David Willat and David Benoit
Second-best moment during the signing: spending time again with David Willat, who as a child was a member of the chorus that accompanied Guaraldi's music during both the Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and now is a lieutenant with the Santa Rosa Junior College Police Department. A really, really nice guy.

By now it was well after 6 o'clock. Both David and I had received enthusiastic comments from scores of attendees, all of whom insisted that we should turn our show into a franchise, and take it on the road. David and I looked at each other, and of course I'll have to take my cue from him. I can say this much: We both had a great time, and I know that I'd sure love to do it again. So how 'bout it, partner-for-a-day? Can we make this work again?

Meanwhile, I continue to bask in the glow of a truly delightful day, during which everything exceeded expectations and went swimmingly.

(Ah ... well, not quite everything, and full disclosure demands that I 'fess up. I was horrified to be told, by several folks, that when I mentioned director/producer Lee Mendelson's debut TV project — the one he made before A Boy Named Charlie Brown — I apparently suffered a brain seizure and cited baseball great Joe DiMaggio, rather than local [San Francisco] baseball great Willie Mays. I must confess, that cast something of a temporary pall on my joyous mood ... particularly after the 10th or 11th person called me on the mistake. [Boy, you can't put anything over a rabid Peanuts/Guaraldi fan!] Fortunately, I've since come to terms with the gaffe. Why let fleeting dementia interfere with what was otherwise a perfect day?)


1 comment:

  1. Ah, serendipity! Sounds like a perfect and joyous afternoon. Thanks for sharing your recollections, even if they provoke envy in those of us unable to attend. (If schulzmuseum.org only had a live video feed!)

    Actually, the idea of making it a repeat performance event is an excellent one. Any chance you two could make it out to the Kennedy Center? :-)

    ReplyDelete

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