Thursday, August 30, 2012

Stern Grove, August 1966

One of Guaraldi's most enthusiastic performance quotes came after his trio shared the stage with Turk Murphy's Jazz Band, the Rudy Salvini Big Band and the John Handy Quintet, on August 7, 1966, at the outdoor Stern Grove amphitheater. The concert was something special: After many years as a primarily classical music entity, the Stern Grove Festival decided to mount its first "Jazz in Stern Grove" event. As I note in my book, "The concert was a smash success, with a reported attendance of 20,000 fans: the largest audience ever to invade the cool green amphitheater and surrounding steep hillside ringed by towering eucalyptus trees."

As a delighted Guaraldi later recalled, the audience was "...hanging from the trees. I mean, they were hanging from the trees!"

The event was covered in considerable detail by local newspapers, but they weren't the only media representatives on hand. Guaraldi fan Robert Kapkin was present in the audience; he recently got in touch to share some of his memories ... and a rather important piece of information. Take it away, Robert!


I was 17 years old and recently had become a fan of John Handy, later to become a teacher of mine at San Francisco State. I walked from my house, near the zoo, up Wawona Street to Stern Grove, to see my first live jazz performance. When I got there, the place was more crowded than I had ever seen it. Vince was correct, when he said people were sitting up in the trees. I could not find a place to sit, even up on the hill north of the stage. I worked my way down toward the stage and sat on the grass next to the benches, where people must have been waiting for hours ahead of time. The benches were to the right of me, and to the left was a huge television camera. In those days, they were monstrous. I remember on the side of the camera, it said "The Bell Telephone Hour, in Color." 

Monday, August 27, 2012

How the Library of Congress selects its artifacts

Most folks merely speculate idly; others are emboldened to ask the right question at the right moment.

This blog's May 23 entry discussed that day's breaking news, when the Library of Congress announced that the newest batch of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" recordings — slated for permanent preservation — would include Guaraldi's complete score for the 1965 TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The honor itself is a very, very big deal. But I never considered the implications of the logical follow-up question: What, precisely, would the Library of Congress be storing, in order to properly preserve Guaraldi's work in the state-of-the-art Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, in Culpeper, Virginia? 

(As a droll sidebar, I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering whether such facilities resemble the wonderful final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark ... or perhaps the titular setting of the TV series Warehouse 13. And if the Packard Campus doesn't look like that, I'd rather not be told.)

Thomas G. Dennehy thought to investigate such matters. He asked the right question.

Best of all, he received an enthusiastic response that allowed him to make a simple yet historic gesture, which has given him an anecdote that, for the rest of his life, will allow him to dominate idle party conversations.

In Thomas' own rather clever words, his long-carefully-stored original vinyl copy of Guaraldi's album has become "the Charlie Browniest" Peanuts LP in history. You can read all about it — and even see the letter from Library of Congress spokesman Cary O'Dell — at Thomas' blog. It's a charming tale, and Thomas tells it quite well.

I can't help a tiny streak of envy, of course ... because, really, why the heck didn't I think to do that?

Like Charlie Brown, all I can do is sigh.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Star Song" — A melody tender

I've long fancied myself a thorough, creative and persistent (stubborn?) researcher, and I became even better during the three years spent "in the tank" while accumulating information for my book, before I wrote a single word. Later, once the actual writing began, I'd often get distracted by a desire to chase down stray bits of data. Many were found; many others were not. Quite a few anecdotes and possible details had to be removed from the first draft, when absolute verification couldn't be obtained. But the pursuit continues, and I'm confident that some of those stories will — one day — wind up here, in a blog entry.

One of my more vexing chases concerned Guaraldi's original composition, "Star Song," which he debuted on the album Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete and Friends. In my book, as the tune is discussed, I call it "...a charming little ballad with an intriguing backstory: The pianist composed the melody to the words of a poem that was sent to him by William Siden, a Pacific Gas & Electric employee."

You probably know where this is going.

I moved Heaven and Earth to find that poem, with absolutely no luck. I did track down a few other poems by Siden, which had been published in the late 1950s in various women's magazines — McCall's and the like — but no trace of anything called "Star Song." I finally had to concede defeat, with considerable reluctance.

Like I said, I'm a savvy researcher ... but I cheerfully tip my hat to others who are just as good, if not better. Indeed, I'm deeply grateful to them.

One such fellow is Doug Anderson, whom I have yet to meet in person, but who has become a treasured correspondent, valued contributor and — without question — good friend. He first got in touch via e-mail, like numerous other Guaraldi fans with whom I have exchanged notes over the years. Unlike most such folks, though, this bond deepened quickly; Doug's interest clearly wasn't casual. Once he found out that I was working on a book, he immediately offered to help in any way possible. His research skills proved beneficial on many occasions, to say the least; he helped locate numerous things that had eluded me, and he well deserves the acknowledgment he received in the book.

Like me, as well, he recognizes that some searches never end ... until they're successful.

I'll turn the rest of this post over to Doug:


With a lilting melody that lingers in the memory, "Star Song" is one of Vince Guaraldi's most charming compositions. Although it didn't see action as a commercial hit, the song was a signature Guaraldi tune in the early 1960s, and a favorite of no less than jazz great Miles Davis.  (See page 118 of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano for drummer Jerry Granelli’s recollections about the Prince of Darkness being a fan.)

The song, which made its first commercial appearance on the 1964 LP Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete and Friends, was credited to "Guaraldi-Siden," the only such entry in the Guaraldi corpus.

The Siden of that pairing was William "Bill" Siden, who described himself as "a public relations man for Pacific Gas & Electric."  In addition to his PG&E gig, he was active in the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and a founding member of the Steering Committee for San Francisco Beautification. Siden was a committed participant in the greening of San Francisco, and he promoted tree-planting in developing areas throughout California, as a community development consultant. He also was described in the early '60s as a "Bay Area writer with a growing national reputation," and he co-authored a book on the art of writing business letters.

He was, as well, a poet.  And it was in that role that Bill Siden sent Vince Guaraldi the verse that inspired “Star Song.”

In the liner notes to Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete and Friends, Guaraldi explained: "I got the melody from the lyrics.... I didn't change anything. I wrote music right to what he had there in the poem, and it fit all the way down."  San Francisco Chronicle jazz columnist Ralph Gleason also emphasized the lyric-driven composition in his liner notes for the song's second appearance, on The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi, describing it as "another Vince original, a hauntingly beautiful melody which he wrote to fit the words!"

But, while Guaraldi and Gleason both credit the words with catalyzing the song, the words themselves were nowhere to be found: They didn't appear in any liner notes, and a vocal version of the song never was recorded.  As recently as early 2012, Guaraldi biographer (and blog host) Derrick Bang lamented that "Siden's poem, alas, has been lost in the mists of time."

But what was lost has been found.

After persistent archival digging and a number of dead-ends, I finally located Siden's original poem in a 1963 manuscript.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present William Siden's lyrics for Vince Guaraldi's "Star Song" (punctuated as in the original):


Oh, sing me the star-song,
The wonderful star-song
The stars sang the moment we met.

We knew that 'twas for us
The stars sang in chorus
A song we would never forget--

A melody tender,
And filled with such splendor
That time has not faded the glow:

The stars still burn brightly
And sing for us nightly
The star-song they sang long ago.

While shorter and perhaps more generic than I had expected, the poem is a very cool find.  The lyrics do indeed fall easily into place over Vince's lovely melody line, and they constitute the equivalent of a single verse that is repeated at the beginning and end of the song, bookending a delightful stretch of improvisation.

Vince Guaraldi and Bola Sete perform "Star Song" while featured on
an episode of Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual series, made for
KQED-TV Channel 9 in San Francisco.

To date, four different Guaraldi recordings of "Star Song" have seen commercial release:

·         The August 1963 studio recording with Bola Sete, contained on the Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete and Friends LP (later re-released on the Vince & Bola CD);

·         The version recorded with Bola Sete in the KQED-TV studio in the summer of 1963, and released in 2001 on the (sadly out-of-print) Jazz Casual: Paul Winter/Bola Sete and Vince Guaraldi CD;

·         The 1963 studio version recorded without Bola, but with an interesting-but-dated string arrangement, and released on The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi; and

·         A mid-‘60s version recorded with Bola Sete for The Navy Swings recruitment program, released on CD by Vince’s son David (and available at

All four versions are worth tracking down for their variant performances. Give any of them a listen and you, too, will find the stars still burning brightly, still singing nightly the same star-song that they sang long ago.

(Or, in the words of Miles Davis, “Play that song, man!”)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Very Best of Vince Guaraldi ... and a bit more

Concord released The Very Best of Vince Guaraldi yesterday, a lovely collection of 14 tracks that includes some familiar faces ("Cast Your Fate to the Wind," "Christmas Time Is Here") with a few tracks ("Django," "The Lady's in Love with You") that haven't popped up on earlier career retrospectives. I was privileged to write the new liner notes, which gave me a chance to relate — once again — how Guaraldi hoped that "Treat Street" would become his follow-up hit to "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." Didn't happen, of course, but that's all right; quite a few of his songs didn't crack the charts during his lifetime, but have become very familiar these days. Sometimes it just takes the rest of the world awhile, to catch up to the artistic geniuses in our midst.

Anyway, I received a nice little note from Vinny Marino today, a fellow who obtained an advance review copy of the CD from Concord. He wanted to know if I were aware of the fact that Todd Rundgren, ah, "borrowed" portions of "Treat Street" for his instrumental, "Breathless," which appeared on the famed rocker's Something/Anything album. Picture my eyebrows shooting up; no, I replied, this was news to me. I immediately hied me hence to YouTube, where I knew it would be easy to find Rundgren's tune. Gave it a quick listen, and shurenuff, distinctive quotes from Guaraldi's "Treat Street" can be heard, starting at about 3:03. Give it a listen, and verify with thine own ears.

That's what I love about life; you learn something new every day.

Aside from Curiosity's successful landing in Mars' massive Gale Crater, last week also brought some pleasant news of a more personal sort: Jeff Dayton-Johnson's lengthy, thoughtful and quite complimentary review of my book, which debuted July 31 at the indispensable allaboutjazz web site. Jeff raises a few concerns, notably my fixation on backstory and occasional brain-stuffing wealth of sidebar details, and what he terms a "thinness of musical analysis." To the first charge, I plead guilty; having so many wonderful facts at my fingertips, I was loathe to abandon any of them (and, in fairness, Jeff cuts me some slack on that count, in the interest of scholarship). To the second charge, I sidestep and offer two excuses: In the first place, I wasn't sure my various roles, in this book, included that of critical lobotomist. In the second place, I've always been wary — given my background as an English major — of the "fatuous analysis" syndrome, wherein some stuffy teacher professes to understand precisely what this poet intended here, and that essayist intended there. When it comes to art — music, in this case — I'm inclined to believe that such observations are best left to the individual listener.

Ironically, some efforts at musical commentary were present in the first draft, but then were cut for space because I was some 75,000 words over what had been contracted. (I only trimmed some 25,000; McFarland let me keep the other 50,000.) For what it's worth, and because nothing ever goes to waste, some of that commentary wound up in my online Guaraldi discography.

But I absolutely accept Jeff's points; he defends them well, and obviously knows whereof he speaks, with respect to so many other aspects of jazz in general, and Guaraldi's career in particular. I'm very grateful for the review, and I'm equally sure that it'll be the most scholarly commentary I'm likely to receive.

Meanwhile, I'm working out the details of an upcoming appearance — 7 p.m. Thursday, September 13 — at the St. Helena Public Library, in Northern California, when I'll next preach The Gospel According to Vince. Always a happy occasion.