We’re living in times where so much is done to manipulate us. And things last for, what, a news cycle? A few minutes? This [album] is something that’s lasted 50 years. And not only lasted, but grown … I think there’s just a humanness. — Jerry Granelli
As the Christmas season winds down, so too do marketing blitzes and consumerist frenzies that make it hard to see the holiday as anything but a year-end cash grab. But even the most cynical among us might admit to being moved each year by one Christmas classic, no matter our religious beliefs, capitalist sympathies, or lack thereof: that classic, of course, is The Charlie Brown Christmas Special. The talents of Charles Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and the Vince Guaraldi Trio combined to make a show not only bigger than its parts, but even more enduring, perhaps, than the juggernaut of Christmas commerce.
The choice of jazz for a primetime children’s Christmas special was inspired and edgy in 1965, though Guaraldi and his band weren’t originally booked for the holidays but for a never-completed documentary about Shultz that sparked the interest of corporate sponsor Coca-Cola. Mendelson realized the potential of the loose, breezy West Coast jazz of pianist Guaraldi, bassist Fred Marshall, and drummer Jerry Granelli for the newly-commissioned special, and the band imported much from their original music, improvising two new compositions and playing bluesy versions of “O Tannenbaum” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
As Granelli remembers it, Coke execs weren’t pleased. “[A] little kid was going to come out and say what Christmas was all about, which wasn’t about shopping. And then the jazz music, which was improvised,” did not jive with the suits. Nonetheless the show aired, to the great delight of children and grown-ups everywhere for the past half century or so. Granelli himself feared pigeonholing and left the project with “some residual bad feelings over his paltry credit and royalties.” He later “spent decades avoiding any nostalgia trip to the land of Linus and Lucy,” Nate Chinen writes at WBGO. “But within the last decade” before his death in July 2021, “he leaned into Peanuts, recognizing the joy that Guaraldi’s soundtrack imparted, especially around the holidays.”
In the videos above, you can see Granelli play “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating” with his trio, with Chris Gestrin on Piano and Simon Fisk on bass, in 2014. Mentored by Dave Brubeck’s drummer, Joe Morello, Granelli toured the States in his early 20s, then joined the Vince Guaraldi Trio on returning to his home in the Bay Area. He “quickly found his footing, becoming an essential pat of the Guaraldi sound,” writes Chinen. Guaraldi’s original themes like “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating” “benefit immeasurably from Granelli’s whisper-soft brushwork.” The Trio went on to record with Brazilian bossa nova guitarist Bola Sete, and the drummer made his mark on the music world in other contexts, co-founding and teaching at the Creative Music Program of Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder Colorado in the 1970s.
“Jazz is just a reflection of life,” Granelli told CBC Radio in 2020. “Life is improvised, life is uncertain. It’s not solid. It’s not permanent. The art I choose disappears after it’s played, it goes off into the ether. I love that.” That may be so, but Granelli’s contribution to the art of The Charlie Brown Christmas Special — music recorded in a 3-hour session when he was only 24 years old — has now outlasted him, the last member of the Vince Guaraldi Trio to pass away. May he skate on in peace, wherever he is now.