Three Cheers for the Peanuts Christmas Music

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When my kids were young, I didn't force them to play T-ball or try dance class or even go to school regularly. One thing I insisted upon was them sitting with me at holiday time to watch the Peanuts specials I eagerly awaited each year as a boy.

I know they found Charlie Brown's blockheadedness boring. My daughter asked why she had to miss Lizzie Maguire to watch Snoopy when we had the Peanuts specials on video and could watch them any time we wanted.

"Because, this is how you watch TV," I explained. "You wait all year for a special you've seen 20 times before to run again and watch it a 21st time."

At the time I didn't know it, but those specials helped develop my appreciation for music. Scored by late jazz great Vince Guaraldi, the music is now as iconic as the Peanuts characters themselves. But don't take my word for it. I asked some of our town's musicians to weigh in on a handful of Guaraldi's best holiday-themed selections.

Jazz guitarist/producer Chris Cortez, Justin Nava from thelastplaceyoulook, pianist/composer Paul English and the merry gentlemen of Blaggards took the time to share their thoughts.

"Christmas Time Is Here" Last year Chris Cortez teamed with the always-busy Houston jazz vocalist Tianna Hall for Noel, a collection of holiday favorites released on Blue Bamboo Music. "Christmas Time is Here" is featured as a medley and appears by way of a neat interlude of sorts, on "A Child Is Born," as arranged by Mark Piszczek. Cortez noticed the tempos were similar when performed as jazz waltzes, so one sort of melds into the other on the track, which begins with his acoustic guitar and Hall's vocal before giving way to full orchestration.

"That moment always gives me chills," Cortez says, "because nothing about the introduction suggests it's going to become this larger life force."

"Little Birdie" thelastplaceyoulook celebrated another successful Holiday Bash at Warehouse Live last weekend, their fifth. Last year the (Santa) bearded ones were happy to discuss the legacy of "Little Birdie," featured in the Peanuts Thanksgiving special.

"Now that I'm a grownup and we can use the interwebs, I now see what Vince Guaraldi looks like and I enjoy listening to this song, picturing Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec singing this in an ugly Xmas sweater," lead singer Nava says.

He was a little more philosophical with his take on "Christmas Time Is Here," saying it's "the [song] that makes you almost think these are sweet little children instead of metaphors for adult flaws."

"Skating" Blaggards bassist Chad Smalley says he's loved Guaraldi's holiday music since he was a kid, adding that A Charlie Brown Christmas is some of his favorite Christmas music.

"It's just one of those records that feels like home," he says before turning me over to bandmate Mike McAloon, who studied jazz at the University of North Texas.

"'Skating' is another amazing piece of jazz. Jerry Granelli's brushes keeping the upbeat waltz going and Vince Guaraldi's cascading piano riff," says McAloon, as only a drummer could. "Again, they switch to a bebop small-combo sound for the piano solo. [Bassist] Puzzy [Firth] walks in threes and Jerry switches to the ride syncopating hits between the gaps in Vince's solo. It's a decidedly short track but it captures the action of ice skating so perfectly I can't think of anything else to do while listening to it."

Skate on over to the next page.

"Linus and Lucy" Guaraldi was already a successful jazz artist before Lee Mendelson, the producer of the Peanuts TV specials, asked him to score for the televised cartoons. He set the musical tone for nearly 20 Peanuts specials and movies. Of all the songs, "Linus and Lucy," is arguably the best-loved and certainly the best-known. I'll step aside and let the experts tell you why.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas was decidedly ahead of its time and the decision to use a jazz trio for the soundtrack was a genius decision, keeping with the characters' moody personas," says McAloon. "Vince's piano on the track is very strong, holding the ostinato riff underneath the simple harmonized melody that opens the piece."

"It is a good improvisational vehicle, but the familiar melody appeals to everyone, even people who say they don't like jazz," adds Cortez, who has performed a guitar version of the song for more than 30 years. "It's a perfect example of great crossover songwriting, which is a common thread I find in all Guaraldi compositions. He was certainly a jazz musician, but his music reached out to a much wider audience, and in that sense he was a great ambassador for jazz music, bringing in new fans."

"I defy you to not try and dance like a Peanuts character to this song," Nava says. "I was always partial to the dude with the orange shirt who was slumped over and trying to get in with one of the twins who looked way too happy."

"Thanksgiving Theme" I admit, this is my favorite, probably because I favor the Thanksgiving special. When Snoopy and Chuck are going Guy Fieri in the kitchen with Thanksgiving jelly beans and toast? That's classic American TV comedy. I asked Paul English, one of Houston's most accomplished musicians, why we all love this music. Even people who've never seen the Peanuts specials and don't have that frame of reference are fans.

"They are simple songs. They are melodic. They are unencumbered by elaborate, self-indulgent harmonics that too many jazz artists use to over-perfume their versions of nice, simple songs," says English, tabbing "Christmas Time Is Here" as a personal favorite.

"Truthfully, Vince and his trio are not great musicians and these are not great recordings from a musical or technical perspective," he continues. "But that isn't the point, I think. They are nice personable songs, played in a very cool, laid-back simple way -- much like the characters themselves.

"The cartoons aren't Hanna-Barbera or Warner Bros. or Looney Tunes," English says. "No coyote getting hammered by a roadrunner, no Elmer Fudd blowing his face off with a shotgun, no anvils dropping on Yosemite Sam and no slapstick stunts by ducks, mice, penguins or bears. These characters are just children, doing cute, lovable, endearing children things. As such, Charles Schulz and the producers of the animated Peanuts presentation found their perfect soundtrack in the understated jazz of the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

"Thanks for the great memories, Vince."

This article originally appeared December 13, 2013.

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