Friday, October 18, 2019

The Eagle has landed

As promoted in an earlier post, Vince Guaraldi was one of three recipients of this year’s National Music Council (NMC) American Eagle Awards, which were presented July 18 as a highlight of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) summer activities in Nashville, Tennessee. Guaraldi was honored alongside famed funk musician George Clinton, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

I’d been invited by NMC Director David Sanders to give a brief tribute to Guaraldi, but — alas — family responsibilities precluded my participation. But Vince nonetheless was fêted well by famed solo pianist George Winston, also a longtime Guaraldi fan; and Andy Thomas, director and co-producer of the 2009 documentary, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi.

I recently had an opportunity to enjoy the ceremony via a recording, and therefore can offer a full report on the portion that concerns Guaraldi.

David Sanders and Gary Ingle
The event began with a short presentation by Sanders and NMC President Gary Ingle, who briefly explained the Council’s mission statement. “We believe that every student in our nation should have an education in music and the arts,” they emphasize, adding that “All creators should be fairly compensated for their work.” Both statements prompted vigorous applause.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was honored first, in a segment introduced by Grammy Award-winning Nashville singer-songwriter Liz Rose. The segment concluded with a vibrant performance by young musicians, after which the podium was taken by NMC board member Charlie Sanders, outside counsel for the Songwriters Guild of America.

He noted that the NMC board has been increasingly troubled by the fact that, for the most part, the American Eagle Award hasn’t been granted posthumously to “giants in our community who were denied the gift of long life.

“Tonight,” he continued, “we’re here to try to correct that record a little bit, by singling out one creator whose contributions are of such magnitude — as a songwriter, composer and artist, and as an influencer on behalf of American music — that his career cries out for recognition. And the fact that it hasn’t been recognized, to this point, by the number of people who have truly benefited from his work, is not fair.

“And we’re going to correct that.

“There’s no place on the planet that the music of Vince Guaraldi has not reached. It would be easier for me to ask, Who hasn’t been affected by the music of Peanuts and Charlie Brown, than those who have. Successive generations of children, in the tens of millions, have been introduced to American jazz as a result of his genius; and equally importantly, by the joy and warmth of his incredibly distinctive artistic touch, and the touch that WWII veteran Charles Schulz and the entire Peanuts team brought to their craft and their art.

“Vince Guaraldi left us prematurely, in 1976. But his music not only remains; its legion of devotees, young and old, continues to grow year by year. 

“But please: Don’t take my word for it. It’s my absolute privilege and honor to introduce one of our great music instrumentalists and composers. He has inspired fans and musicians alike with his singular solo acoustic piano touch for more than 40 years, while selling an astonishing 15 million records as a solo pianist. His impressionistic style of what he calls ‘folk piano’ came to define the famous Windham Hill sound. He’s one of the great fans and interpreters of Vince Guaraldi’s music.

“Please join me in welcoming Montana’s own George Winston.”

Winston, cheerfully laid back as always, thanked Sanders and sat at the exquisite grand piano.

“Thank you very much, and good evening,” he began. “It’s great to be here, at this wonderful event.

“I met Vince Guaraldi in 1971; I played intermission piano for him. It was common back then, at small venues and jazz clubs, for a main act to play, and then during intermission a pianist would play. I talked to Vince during one intermission, and he was very encouraging. He said that’s how he started, in the early 1950s in San Francisco, at the hungry i and the Purple Onion.

“He was playing some new stuff, and I asked if he minded if I played some of his older songs; he said no, go right ahead. It was a pleasure to have met him, and to get to know the Guaraldi family; I knew his Mom, and his wife Shirley, and his daughter Dia and son David. Shirley Guaraldi gave me all the family tapes to hear, which was an unbelievable privilege; I learned so much from those tapes. Then we transferred them, and got them to his son David; he put out a lot of music from those recordings, on the D&D label: the label Vince started in 1968, named for David and Dia.

“I love Vince’s piano playing, and I love his compositions. I play way more of his songs than by any other composer. 

“I first heard him in 1962, with ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind.’ That’s how a lot of people outside of the San Francisco Bay Area first heard Vince Guaraldi. And then in December 1965, I was a fan of animation, and I saw in the TV Guide that there was going to be a cartoon of the Peanuts characters, A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I thought, wow, I’ve got to see that.

“A lot of us remember where we were, the first time we heard ‘Linus and Lucy’ in that special, during the dance segment. I wasn’t playing yet then, and I wasn’t particularly into piano; I was more into organ. But Vince’s piano just drove me crazy. And I went to the record store the next day — just to go to the record store — and there was the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, up on the wall. And I looked at it, and thought, Oh, Vince Guaraldi, the ‘Cast Your Fate’ guy. The TV episode credits had run by so fast, I hadn’t seen it was Vince Guaraldi. So I got the album, and found ‘Linus and Lucy,’ and played it about 100 times on my record player.

“Later, when I started doing albums, that Charlie Brown Christmas album was a real model for me, in terms of doing albums with themes. That Charlie Brown Christmas album is like one long song with 11 parts. Then I got all the rest of Vince Guaraldi’s albums, and I’d always keep a tape recorder handy, during the latest Peanuts TV episode; that’s all you could do back then, was put a cassette recorder up to the TV. And I studied those 16 episodes. And then, when I got the family tapes from Shirley, that was amazing.

“Vince always had one aspect of his piano playing that really stood out to me: He always had something great and interesting in the left hand. So I’ll do a medley here of ‘Linus and Lucy’ with ‘Christmas Time Is Here.’ ”

Those who’ve enjoyed Winston’s two cover albums know that he takes a delectably different direction to the two bridges in “Linus and Lucy,” and he was particularly inventive on the NAMM stage. That iconic tune was followed by a gentle, achingly sweet handling of “Christmas Time Is Here,” after which Winston returned to the microphone.

“While the world is very familiar with the music of Vince Guaraldi, it’s very interesting that his music actually is better known than his name. I’ve played some of the lesser-known Peanuts pieces for a kid who’s 5 years old, and he’ll say ‘That’s Charlie Brown music.’ It’s quite unusual that a composer’s music is better known than his name. Sometimes I do workshops, and I’ll ask, What is probably the most loved song in the world? A lot of people don’t know the real title, or the composer, but I’ll play a couple notes, and people will say ‘The Peanuts theme’ or ‘The Charlie Brown theme.’

Winston paused, and glanced toward the stage wings.

“I’d like to invite a dear friend of mine up to help us make the presentation tonight. He has produced broadcast specials with renowned columnist Jack Anderson, amongst many others; he has worked on videos for Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash; he created the first original programming to appear on The History Channel, specials for Disney, and official 20th Century Fox biographies of Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Temple. He’s here tonight to share a bit of his wonderful documentary that he co-produced with Toby Gleason, son of the late journalist Ralph J. Gleason, who was a dear, close friend of Vince Guaraldi’s. The film is called The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, and I had the great pleasure of helping out with it. It premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and it received five Best Documentary Awards [from film festivals across the country], and was chosen by the Library of Congress to kick off the national celebration of jazz. 

“Please welcome Andy Thomas.”

Thomas, a jovial speaker, was all smiles as he approached the microphone.

“Vince Guaraldi is a musical spirit who beat the odds,” he began. “It’s surprising to think that some people thought he’d never make it on the piano. His hands were small, or at least small compared to a typical piano player. He couldn’t get the ‘reach.’ He had to create special fingerings that fit his hands. And oftentimes, he’d play bass runs with his fist, just rolling it over the keys.”

Winston briefly interrupted at that point, to explain that it took him years to figure out precisely what Vince was doing in parts of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” prompting a bemused grin from Thomas, and appreciative chuckles from the audience.

“Overcoming this challenge, with innovation and determination,” Thomas resumed, “he became a fresh, original voice in the American Songbook. And everybody knows what he did, whether it’s the crossover hit of ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ or his landmark re-working of centuries-old Plain Song [of the Missa Marialis] into the very first jazz Mass: an effort, by the way, that actually prompted death threats from those who didn’t appreciate his break with tradition. There were years at the hungry i, appearances at the Fillmore with the Grateful Dead — and check your record catalog; he’s featured in a group photo on the back of one of their albums — and, of course, his teaming with Charles Schulz, using Peanuts to introduce a whole new generation to jazz.

“And, arguably, redefining the American Christmas from Edwardian nostalgia to a vibrant modern holiday.

“But what really defines Vince Guaraldi, is how he accomplished so much, so quickly, during such a short life. He invented himself, through a chemistry of talent and tenacity, inspiration and hard work, and a willingness to embrace the joys, the rhythms, and the blues of life. These qualities also define much of the American character, which is why it’s so fitting that Vince is being celebrated with an American Eagle Music Award.

“A few years ago, my friend Toby asked me to help him clean out his family’s attic. It was full of minutia left behind by his father: a music journalist, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, and a close friend of Vince. 

“Now, I’m not known for helping people move, or cleaning out garages; it’s not my nature to volunteer for such things. But I just couldn’t get out of it. Happily, that’s where we uncovered some dusty old film cans that Ralph had shot with Vince in 1962, during a crucial moment in both their lives. Toby and I expanded on their film, and I’d like to show you a few moments of this treasure, which allows Vince to speak for himself. And if you look closely, perhaps you’ll discover — as we did — that serendipity might have been Vince’s secret sauce.”

Nine minutes’ worth of choice clips indeed brought Guaraldi back to life: noodling at a keyboard; describing his hopes and dreams; sitting at the piano alongside his trio, in the laughably unsophisticated Fantasy Records studio, with sheets of wood and cardboard serving to baffle sound, while laying down a take of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

As the clips concluded, Winston picked up the Eagle Award and read the inscription:

“Presented to Vince Guaraldi, in recognition of his enormous contribution to global music culture as a composer, recording artist, pianist, performer, teacher, and a beloved ambassador of American jazz to the youth and citizens of the world. The National Music Council presents the American Eagle Award to the Guaraldi family.

“I’d like to invite Dia Guaraldi to the stage.”

She joined George at the podium, clearly overwhelmed, and accepted the award.

Dia Guaraldi, George Winston and Andy Thomas
“I’m so grateful to be here,” she said, “and I don’t really know what to say, but thank you.” She glanced behind her, at the screen image of her late father at the keyboard. “I grew up with that,” she admitted, to a chuckle from the audience. “I heard that every day. And … I’m very emotional, so I just want to say thank you.”

Thomas guided her to the wings, and Winston returned to the piano.

“Another gift I got from Vince,” he said, by way of introduction, “on some of his earlier recordings, he was working with the late, great Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. I met Bola later, and was able to produce five recordings of his music. It’s just another example of the so many things I got from Vince, directly and indirectly.”

Winston then focused on the keyboard, and delivered a lyrical — even haunting — “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

As the final note faded, the ceremony’s focus shifted to George Clinton. In total, Guaraldi’s segment ran a respectable 40 minutes.

And oh, how I wish I’d been there.


Go behind the scenes with George Winston and some of the other celebrity guests, in this brief interview video.

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