Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Many happy returns

Had he lived, Vince Guaraldi would have turned 84 today. Not an unreasonable age, in this 21st century era.

For an artist, I suppose nothing would be worse than failing to achieve fame in one's lifetime ... and then achieving it after death. Guaraldi was luckier than some; he made the most of the 15 minutes of fame that was his due reward after paying his own dues. He got his hit song, as good friend and former San Francisco Chronicle music columnist Ralph Gleason observed, while narrating his 1963 documentary Anatomy of a Hit, which traced the rise of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." And Guaraldi knew precisely what to do with that fame; through a combination of talent, bravado and the luck that God grants us every so often, he parlayed that Grammy Award-winning song into immortality in both the religious and secular realms, with his ground-breaking Grace Cathedral Mass and the lively melodies that characterized his scores for the Peanuts animated TV specials.

Although Guaraldi's life was cut short, that day in early 1976, he had made excellent use of his time in this mortal realm. He knew — while performing as house musician at Butterfield's, during the final years of his life — that people came to hear him play, because they loved his stuff. Fans knew that he would entertain and captivate them, as he had for the previous two decades and change.

Even so, I lament the fact — in addition to his loss, at so young an age — that he isn't around today, here and now, to register and take pride, to be thrilled, by the degree to which his music lives on. The name "Guaraldi" may not slide easily off the mainstream tongue, but mainstream ears know his music; one need only cue up any arrangement of "Linus and Lucy" or, during the holiday season, "Christmas Time Is Here." During the past decade in particular, Guaraldi's star has risen anew, and his work is being discovered by fresh generations, and re-discovered by fans who remember him from the day. So yes, it could be true that Guaraldi's fame — and the degree to which we celebrate him today — are larger than when he actually walked this Earth, and so we can further mourn that he isn't here, to witness that.

Even so, I like to think that somewhere, somehow, he knows anyway. Pausing, as he performs in some celestial combo comprising the greatest jazz cats who ever lived, to twirl that impossible mustache, flash that pixie grin and then settle back to the serious work, his undersized hands a blur on the keyboard.

I was delighted, on this day of Guaraldi's birth, to give a radio interview with Alan Rock at WUCF, 89.9 FM, in Orlando, Florida. Alan kept me on the air for an entire hour, alternating lively conversation with half a dozen tracks from various Guaraldi recordings. It felt right to be celebrating Guaraldi's work in such a fashion, on this day.

A few hours later — also by way of celebrating Guaraldi's birthday — WJSU in Jackson, Mississippi, aired a nicely edited piece from an interview I had with Larissa Hale a few weeks earlier. This piece has been posted at WJSU; scroll down to the "Take 5" button, and look for my name.

Actually, I've had a busy 48 hours. Aside from the WUCF interview, conducted by phone, I spent 90 minutes yesterday at KCSM Jazz 91, in San Mateo, California, chatting with DJ and longtime jazz fan — and Guaraldi follower — Alisa Clancy. The WUCF interview may be posted on that station's web site soon; I'll share that information as soon as I find out. The KCSM piece will be included in a much larger "all-Guaraldi morning" on Friday, September 7, as part of KCSM's pledge drive. Alisa has interviewed, and plans to interview, a broad range of folks: Eddie Duran, Dean Reilly, Colin Bailey, Larry Vuckovich and Lee Mendelson, possibly others. You definitely won't want to miss that tribute.

I also learned that my book got a nice shout-out from jazz writer and historian Doug Ramsey, on his Rifftides blog. And the second portion of my three-part interview on WGLT is available now at their web site

Looking forward, I've been added to the St. Helena (California) Public Library calendar; I'll be giving a reading and audio/visual presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 13. This will be very much like the program I delivered to a full house at the Charles M. Schulz Museum theater, on June 29, in Santa Rosa, California. Keep an eye on the St. Helena Public Library web site calendar, for updates.

So believe me, Vince, I've been workin' hard to spread the word ever further.

Happy returns, indeed. Listening to Guaraldi's music can brighten any day, and make it that much happier.

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