Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A night to remember

Rarely have I enjoyed such a magical evening of music ... in many respects, a unique, absolutely never-to-be-repeated event.

But let me first explain how it came about:

My wife and I joined the Peanuts Collector Club back in 1991 or so; it was refreshing to encounter so many like-minded folks who understood our passion for collecting (among other things) plush Snoopy dolls and all the many books that have featured Charles M. Schulz's famous characters. Additionally — and no surprise — many club members also share my fondness for Vince Guaraldi's music.

The club holds conventions, spaced at one-, two- or three-year intervals, and often in early July; they're called Beaglefests, which always raises a skeptical smile when we tell casual acquaintances what we're doing over the long Independence Day weekend. 

"So, where are you going this weekend?" 

"Santa Rosa, for a Beaglefest convention."

Long pause.

"No, seriously ... where are you going this weekend?"

Lest you think such activities are entirely frivolous, dedicated solely to passionate discussions about how many siblings Snoopy has, the group long ago selected Canine Companions for Independence as its "club charity." During the past two decades, we've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for this wonderful service dog organization; if you're unfamiliar with them, by all means visit their Web site ... and, if you're lucky enough to live close to one of their campuses, stop by there, as well.

You're probably wondering what this has to do with Guaraldi. Bear with me; I'm getting to it.

My expanding Internet visibility among Guaraldi fans, in the mid-1990s, led to lively correspondences and even strong friendships; one such acquaintance is George Winston, who over the years became a valuable resource whenever I wished to discuss Guaraldi's musicality from a technical standpoint ... as in, for example, What is it about Guaraldi's approach, that gives all his keyboard work such a distinctive, Vince-like sound? George can answer that question, both verbally and musically, explaining the harmonic elements while demonstrating them on a piano. He also happens to be the world's biggest Guaraldi fan, which will come as no surprise to fans who've purchased one or both of Winston's solo piano tributes to Dr. Funk's work.

George has long known about the Peanuts Collector Club, and for years he suggested that it would be fun to surprise the members with an all-Guaraldi concert. No argument there, but George tours extensively, and he often was out of the country in early summer. The stars finally aligned in July of 2010, when I sneaked him into one of the smaller banquet rooms at the Doubletree Hotel in Rohnert Park, California, just down Highway 101 from Santa Rosa and its Charles M. Schulz Museum, Redwood Empire Ice-Skating Rink and Snoopy's Gift Shop & Gallery. Only five of us knew that George would be the entertainment following the Saturday evening banquet; to say that everybody else was bowled over would be an understatement. You need to understand that this was a small group of folks; although the club fielded a couple thousand members during its peak in the 1990s and early 21st century, we're a much more intimate — if still ferociously dedicated — gang these days. Securing a recording star of George's caliber — indeed, having him on hand for an entire evening, and into the wee hours of the morning, as he graciously remained to sign CDs — was quite a coup.

I earned considerable good will for having pulled that off, even though my efforts mostly were limited to coordinating with George's schedule (and helping move all his stuff into the aforementioned banquet room). Still, I had nothing against being thanked by so many enthusiastic, grateful club members.

The trouble with doing something like that, though, is that it raises expectations. As plans for this year's Beaglefest convention were being made — June 28 through July 1, once again at Rohnert Park's Doubletree Hotel — the Folks In Charge called me, saying, "Okay, what're you gonna surprise us with this time?"

"Not my problem," I wanted to say, reasoning that I'd never be able to pull that particular rabbit out of a hat again. But I slept on it for a few days, and then a tantalizing idea began to bubble into my brain. Maybe all I needed was a bigger hat...

Might it be possible? Would they be willing?

The "pre-production work" on my Guaraldi book involved dozens and dozens of interviews, many with the sidemen who once performed with Vince in Northern California's various jazz clubs, back in the day. Quite a few of these jazz cats are still alive and playing — when they can scare up gigs — and a good number of them still live in the greater San Francisco area. I began to make phone calls, gradually fleshing out a scheme to assemble a "Cadillac combo" featuring some of the guys who both played and recorded with Guaraldi. I wound up making three phone calls; there was no need to dial further.

Guitarist Eddie Duran, bassist Dean Reilly and drummer Colin Bailey all agreed to share a banquet hall stage at the Rohnert Park Doubletree Hotel on Saturday evening, June 30.

Color me stunned.

That left the obvious problem: Who could substitute for Guaraldi's talented fingers, on keyboard?

Well ... nobody, really, but one of the next best things is Jim Martinez, a Northern California-based pianist with a long-established fondness for Guaraldi, Peanuts and all things Schulzian. Indeed, as you can see from the album cover at left, Martinez even secured permission to use some classic Snoopy artwork on one of his many CDs. Martinez is a terrific jazz pianist, with impressive versatility; aside from his facility with straight-ahead jazz, he's quite well known for jazz worship music — often performed in churches — and musical tributes to Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton and Doris Day. The latter shows also feature his frequent vocal collaborator, Laura Didier; full details about Jim and his many musical projects are available at his Web site.

Jim and Laura have a side project, as well: rather unique purses made from re-purposed LP covers. This "moonlighting effort" prompted Jim and Laura to participate in the Beaglefest "Seller's Market," which took place earlier in the afternoon, on the day of the concert. Having wisely stocked their available styles with purses made from numerous Peanuts and Guaraldi LP covers, Jim and Laura shared their considerable charm with all Peanuts Collector Club members over the course of three hours, while selling quite a few of these specialty items. You can find out more by visiting Laura's Facebook page.

Eddie, Dean and Colin arrived at the hotel at about 4 p.m.; I greeted them and helped transport their gear — quite a lot, in Colin's case — to the banquet room. (I should mention, at this point, that such maneuvering was done as clandestinely as possible; as had been the case with George Winston's appearance, two years earlier, only I and about four other people knew about this performance.) Jim and Laura joined them, once everybody was set up, and they ran through a few numbers on the charts that Jim had mailed the other three instrumentalists earlier that same week.

They rehearsed for about half an hour. Maybe not even that much. Didn't seem to need more.

Is that jazz magic, or what?

All the musicians had been invited to join that evening's formal dinner; my wife and I sat with Eddie, Dean, Colin and their companions, while Jim and Laura braved a table laden with club members, elsewhere in the room. By this point, perceptive observers knew that something was up; who were all these unknown faces? 

The meal concluded with presentations by a few guest speakers; all the musicians sneaked out at this point, and I expected that they'd use the next hour for more rehearsing. But no; as I discovered, each time I poked my head in the door, they were swapping stories about who had played with whom, and when. I almost hated to break up the lively conversation, as the appointed time approached.

As the dinner events concluded, folks began lining up outside the closed, smaller banquet room where the musicians had taken their places. At roughly 9 p.m., I opened the doors; people filed in and took their seats. They were presented with a classic quartet tableau: piano, guitar, bass and drums, the latter three positions held by veteran gentlemen whose very presence suggested great promise. I saw phones and minicams suddenly appear in a dozen hands, probably more.

I had the honor of introducing what would come next, and I've rarely been so gut-bustingly radiant about anything. I kept the opening remarks short, and then said the words that prompted a building crescendo of applause:

"I never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would be in a position to say the words that I'm about to say.

"On my far left, on guitar, we have Eddie Duran.

"On my near left, on drums — and wisecracks — we have Colin Bailey.

"On my near right, on bass, we have Dean Reilly.

"These gentlemen are members of two of Vince Guaraldi's original trios.

"And on my far right, the guy you thought only sold purses: Jim Martinez.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to an experience that I am sure, as I stand here, will never happen again."

Following a quick count-off by Jim, the band launched into a bluesy, mid-tempo version of "Calling Dr. Funk," one of Guaraldi's first published original compositions, and a song that became one of his signature themes. Eddie took the first of his many sparkling solos that evening, his chin nestled so close to the body of his guitar, that he practically melded into the instrument. That certainly wouldn't have been a surprise, considering the degree to which he was "at one" with his instrument.

The concert lasted an effervescent 75 minutes; I'm reasonably certain the broad grin never left my face the entire time ... except when a particularly sterling solo — or group effort — prompted a spontaneous cheer. And believe me; I was far from alone, when it came to smiling, cheering and clapping.

Jim introduced and back-announced each song, and he generously threw solos to his companions whenever possible. He also brought Laura to the front of the room for the program's sole vocal, "Christmas Time Is Here." Unfortunately, we hadn't been able to scare up a standing microphone for her, so she turned this setback into an opportunity by leading the audience in a group sing-along. At first, the suggestion was met with scared silence; to their dismay, many of the audience members couldn't remember the lyrics! (And they call themselves Peanuts fans!) Fortunately, she rescued the moment by running through the words beforehand, and then everybody felt better about joining in. (Even so, the hushed recitation made it difficult for the four musicians to keep their contributions quiet enough, so that the song could be heard!)

The complete program proceeded as follows:

"Calling Dr. Funk"
"Pebble Beach"
"Cast Your Fate to the Wind"
"Linus and Lucy"
"Christmas Time Is Here"
"O Christmas Tree" (the famous Guaraldi arrangement, of course!)
"Christmas Is Coming"
"Theme to Grace"
"Samba de Orpheus"
"Blue Charlie Brown"
"Great Pumpkin Waltz"
"Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair)"
"Surfin' Snoopy" (also known as "Air Music")

Several of the songs are available to view and hear on YouTube; they're highlighted above with hot links.

Jim paused at one point, and asked if the band members wished to share any memories of working with Guaraldi; they smiled and recounted a few short anecdotes. Colin expressed the thought undoubtedly on everybody's mind, when he said, "It was great to play with Vince."

The music concluded all too quickly, but the guys hung around awhile longer, generously posing for photos and signing their pictures in copies of my book (which I, ah, thoughtfully brought along, in case anybody wanted to purchase any). Jim and Eddie sold some of their CDs, and a few more stories were swapped with the avid jazz fans among the assembled Peanuts Club members.

Then, sadly, it was time to bid them farewell. Dean took care of his own stuff — several people offered to help him carry that enormous bass, but he insisted he was fine — and Eddie was assisted by his longtime partner and sweetie, Madeline. Once Colin had his kit assembled and loaded on the hotel trolley, I pushed it out to the parking lot, and said a final good night to all concerned.

Truly a momentous evening.

(And you can learn more about Colin and Eddie at their respective web sites. Dean, alas, doesn't seem to have an Internet presence.)


Duggadugdug said...

What a great event and piece of musical history!

Thanks so much, Derrick, for sharing it via this wonderful post, and the linked performance videos, which are great.

Jim Martinez does a great job of capturing Vince's vibe and musical cadence, and it's heartwarming to see Eddie, Dean, and Colin still swinging so strong after all these years.

Unknown said...

An amazing event and moment. What a pleasure to have been there. Thanks, Derrick! Martinez did an amazing job "sitting in" for Vince... and the other three, it's difficult to know what to say besides "Wow!" Very inspiring.