No one expected these songs of off-key melancholy, imperfect singing and seasonal disappointment to succeed, but nearly 60 years on, the jazz pianist’s masterpiece endures
Vince Guaraldi’s career, or rather the legacy of his career, is a curious thing. His name is absent from the index of Ted Gioia’s authoritative The History of Jazz. Nor was it mentioned, even in passing, during the 19 hours of Ken Burns’ documentary series Jazz. When the great jazz critic Nat Hentoff belatedly wrote an essay about him in 2010 – 34 years after Guaraldi’s sudden death, aged 47 – it was in the context of rediscovering a lost figure, noting that Guaraldi had never been on the list of nominees for the Jazz Hall of Fame, and comparing him to the largely forgotten swing-era trombonist Jack Jenney.
Like Jenney, Guaraldi died young, and, like Jenney, he played with a succession of names more likely to crop up in jazz history books and documentaries than his own: in Guaraldi’s case, Stan Getz, Ben Webster and Woody Herman. But that is where the similarities end. Guaraldi’s early death notwithstanding, his career is hardly a case of what-ifs. He was an expansive, even boundary-breaking artist: around the time Miles Davis was attempting to widen his audience by sharing bills with Neil Young and appearing at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, Guaraldi was up on stage in San Francisco, jamming with Jerry Garcia; he also had a fair claim to be the artist who did the most to introduce young audiences to jazz during the 60s and 70s. He saw – and continues to see – vast commercial success: 1962’s Cast Your Fate to the Wind was, alongside Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, one of the few jazz hits of the era; 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time, alongside Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.
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