Like most so-called overnight successes, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi — who forever described himself as “a reformed boogie-woogie piano player” — worked hard for his big break.
The man eventually dubbed “Dr. Funk” by his compatriots was born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928; he graduated from Lincoln High School and then San Francisco State College. Guaraldi began performing while in college, haunting sessions at the Black Hawk and Jackson’s Nook, sometimes with the Chubby Jackson/Bill Harris band, other times in combos with Sonny Criss and Bill Harris. He played weddings, high school concerts, and countless other small-potatoes gigs.
His first serious booking came at the Black Hawk, when he worked as an intermission pianist … filling in for the legendary Art Tatum. “It was more than scary”, Guaraldi later recalled. “I came close to giving up the instrument, and I wouldn’t have been the first after working with Tatum”. Guaraldi’s first recorded work can be heard on “Vibratharpe”, a 1953 release by the Cal Tjader Trio. Guaraldi then avoided studios for the next few years, preferring to further hone his talents in the often unforgiving atmosphere of San Francisco’s beatnik club scene. In 1955 he put together his own trio — longtime friend Eddie Duran on guitar, Dean Reilly on bass — and tackled North Beach’s bohemian hungry i club. He also returned to studio work that year, making his recorded debut as group leader, although with different personnel: John Markham (drums), Eugene Wright (bass) and Jerry Dodgion (alto sax). What soon came to be recognized as the “Guaraldi sound”, however, resulted from several recording sessions with his hungry i buddies. The original Vince Guaraldi Trio, with Duran and Reilly, can be heard on two releases: “The Vince Guaraldi Trio” (1956) and “A Flower is a Lonesome Thing” (1957)
The late 50s were a busy time. Aside from studio sessions with Conte Candoli (two albums), Frank Rosolino (one album), and Cal Tjader (at least ten albums), Guaraldi toured in 1956 with Woody Herman’s third “Thundering Herd”, replacing Nat Pierce on piano for one season. Not too much later, just after midnight during 1958’s first annual Monterey Jazz Festival, some 6,000 rabid but by now quite tired jazz fans came to their feet when The Cal Tjader Quintet blew them away.
Thanks in no small part to the “sound of surprise” from the feisty Guaraldi,
whose extended blues riffs literally had the crowd screaming
for more, Tjader’s quintet received an enthusiastic standing
.National prominence was just around the corner. Inspired by the 1959 French/Portuguese film “Black Orpheus”, Guaraldi hit the studio
with a new trio — Monte Budwig on bass, Colin Bailey on drums
— and recorded his own interpretations of Antonio Carlos
Jobim’s haunting soundtrack music. The 1962 album was
called “Jazz Impression of Black Orpheus”, and “Samba de
Orpheus” was the first selection released as a single.
Combing the album for a suitable B-side number, Guaraldi’s
producers finally ghettoized a modest original composition
titled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”.
Fortunately, some enterprising Sacramento, California DJs turned the single over…
…and the rest is history.
“Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became a Gold Record winner and earned the 1963 Grammy as Best Instrumental Jazz Composition. It was constantly demanded during Guaraldi’s club engagements, and suddenly jazz fans couldn’t get enough of him. He responded with several albums during 1963 and ’64, perhaps the most important of which was “Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete, and Friends”, with Fred Marshall (bass), Jerry Granelli (drums) and Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. That marked the first of several collaborations with Sete, a musical collaboration whose whole was greater than the sum of its already quite talented parts.
Guaraldi was also a recognized fixture on television, if only in the greater San Francisco region. He and jazz critic Ralph Gleason documented the success of”Cast Your Fate to the Wind” in the three-part “Anatomy of a Hit”, produced for San Francisco’s KQED; later, shortly after his first album with Sete, Guaraldi did a “Jazz Casual” TV show for the same network
The most prestigious task, however, was yet to come. Even before Duke Ellington played San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, that venerable institution’s Reverend Charles Gompertz selected Guaraldi to write a modern jazz setting for the choral Eucharist. The composer labored18 months with his trio and a 68-voice choir, and the result is an impressive blend of Latin influences, waltz tempos, and traditional jazz “supper music”. It was performed live on May 21, 1965, and the album became another popular and critical hit. Clearly, if Vince Guaraldi could write music for God, he could pen tunes for Charlie Brown.
The jazz pianist’s association with Charles Schulz’s creations actually had begun the year before, when Guaraldi was hired to score the first Peanuts television special, adocumentary called”A Boy Named Charlie Brown ” (not to be confused with the big- screen feature of the same title). The show brought together four remarkable talents: Schulz, writer/producer/director Lee Mendelson, artist Bill Melendez and Guaraldi.