San Francisco, California — 1965
It’s dark and the children’s choral recording sessions at Fantasy Studios in Berkley have run late into the night, again.
Across neighborhoods in and around San Francisco, dinners have gotten cold, left unattended by a herd of bustling parents. Some are covered in aluminum foil and placed in the refrigerator to be reheated later in the oven; some are discarded. A handful of fathers have gone to bed, anticipating the day’s early arrival and requiring a full night of uninterrupted sleep. But mothers are growing anxious and irritated, some downright furious at the lack of concern for their children’s welfare. Children, too, after all, need an uninterrupted night’s sleep at a routine bedtime to establish a schedule. Otherwise, the next day — a school day, no less — starts off on the wrong foot.
The plan seemed simple in hindsight; record a seasoned group children singing two songs for a television special on CBS to air this December. One song, a traditional carol familiar to anyone who has stayed awake through an entire Yuletide service, the other song a newly written piece of music with an easy melody and simple lyrics, so simple a child should be able to memorize them with no effort. On paper, it’s perfect in it’s simplicity.
But the children of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California are not perfect. And choir director Barry Mineah is unflagging in his pursuit of spot-on renditions of the songs, while Vince Guaraldi, our man behind the keys, and Lee Mendelson, our man with the money, disagree with Mineah. They wanted “kids who sounded like kids.” And now the adults are fighting. And now it’s getting dark. And everyone’s cup of good cheer has long been emptied, if it was ever full. Because it’s not Christmas yet, Charlie Brown. Christmas is still a few months away. It’s only September in California, 1965.
For me, the music of Vince Guaraldi is Christmastime, because as long as there is Christmas there will be A Charlie Brown Christmas and there will always be jazz. Because Vince Guaraldi’s songs are the sound of our childhood, the sound of nostalgia made real.
Wynton Marsalis once observed that the only jazz he ever heard growing up was on television during the annual broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Through the proliferation of a televised Christmas special and related soundtrack, Guaraldi brought jazz — authentic, accessible, American jazz — into the homes of millions of Americans that had never been exposed to it previously.
Since its initial broadcast on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas (ACBC) has been part of our American consciousness. ACBC holds the same draw for audiences — new ones every year — as it once did. And it will likely continue to do so as long as there is Christmas.
We know that about 15 million people watched ACBC on its original airdate, nearly half of the available television viewing audience at the time. And we can guesstimate that ACBC has sold somewhere between 4 million and 10 million copies, total.1We do know that the soundtrack has shipped almost 3.5 million copies since 1991 — a certified triple platinum release — and a number that points to its success in the era of Nielsen Soundscan music sales. But it is also a number that does not account for the time prior to 1991 when Soundscan results were not tallied. Additionally, ACBC has peaked as high as No. 6 on Billboard’s Top Pop Catalog Albums and continues to chart every year on Billboard’s Christmas Album sales list.
But who cares about numbers? Lies, damn lies and statistics. Numbers act as placeholders for the intangible and they distance us from the childlike notion of enjoyment that music brings. Numbers are an adult version of the popularity war we experienced in junior high, a data-driven analysis that distracts from the pleasures of Guaraldi’s music. It seems that our adult brains just can’t agree to cohabitate with our childlike desires.
For many, jazz is “adult” music; containing difficult structures, sounds, and themes for listeners to unpack and that requiring an understanding of theories beyond our common languages. If album sales are considered to be a worthwhile indicator of popularity, then jazz falls somewhere on the musical spectrum between classical and niche genres like horrorcore, acid jazz, and pagan ambient.
The best-selling jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’ timeless Kind of Blue, released in 1959, is an immediately accessible entry point for jazz novices. Like ACBC it is certified nearly four times platinum, but it is still approximately one and a half million units shy of total worldwide album sales for 90s pop WTFers, LFO whose debut album, LFO or Lyte Funky Ones contained the 1999 hit “Summer Girls,” with these unforgettable lines:
New Kids On the Block had a bunch of hits / Chinese food makes me sick
When you take a sip/ you buzz like a hornet/ Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets.In a nod to the literal forced rhyme Shakespeare often employed, the final word “sonnets” is pronounced “sornets.” See what they did there?
By the numbers, LFO has outsold Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
Numbers cannot quantify our experiences or chart levels of enjoyment. (Believe me we’ve tried.) Numbers cannot quantify the unquantifiable, the intangible cultural reach and impact of the music we hear. The music of ACBC, along with the animation, the script, and the deep manifestation of the individual elements that the show synthesized, are immeasurable — especially with respect to the most American of art forms, jazz.
Nielsen ratings and advertising sales can’t measure the effect of ACBC on its viewing audience and the impressions left on them. Who heard “Linus and Lucy” for the first time on television and hummed it into a permanent earworm? Who listened to “Christmas Time is Here” and felt a wash of melancholia for the first time in their lives? What child sat by a dim lamp with a gaudy Christmas tree close by and heard “Skating,” but never knew what the activity entailed, much less where you would take part in it? What family sat in a cold, small apartment without any gifts and no Christmas tree and felt some sense of warmth from hearing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sung slightly out-of-tune by children?
As a born cynic, I’ll grant you that these images are indebted to the promise of Christmas, the idea of Christmas nostalgia, and the false hope that somehow goodwill is more abundant in the first twenty-five days of December than throughout the rest of the year. But Guaraldi’s playful compositions and fluid song structures, alternatively written in service to the melody but also free from it, have the sound of unencumbered possibility which is perhaps the truest spirit of Christmas.
Vince Guaraldi, Miles Davis, and LFO, despite their artistic differences, trade in the same currency of a shared experience through music. No matter how diluted, profound, or (un)appealing, we look for association through listening experiences but share much more than just communal enjoyment. We share memories. We harbor collective spaces in our brains that only we can access and only music helps us locate. As children, our brains are developmentally fertile, ready to absorb and process any and all of life’s “adult” complexities (such as jazz). It’s the stage in our lives where our receptors are wide open, and self-doubt is barely a concept, let alone a reality. This is essentially Charlie Brown’s struggle throughout the 23-minute show: reconciling childhood with adulthood and creating a peaceful coexistence with the two. His is an insurmountable task and also it is made twice as hard when you must reconcile child and adult feelings that the Christmas season brings.
I worry I’ve already taken away a portion of our childlike wonder by overanalyzing the most pure and sincere form of holiday entertainment. In the same way that Jonas, from Lois Lowry’s The Giver, discovers that his memories disappear once they are handed off to others, I discover that the more I rationalize, the more I lose. But to be able to freely share the experience of music is what always draws us back together. Because Guaraldi’s music deserves more than just a cold analysis, it deserves our enjoyment.
And that is how we should listen and enjoy ACBC. Not by shunning memory or removing it from the equation of memory, but by allowing it to color the lens through which we view our past Christmas experiences. Then we can examine the pieces we find together; the collective pieces of our childhood Christmases.
1 The methods used to arrive at total album sales have shifted since 1965 and don’t account for cultural trends, new musical formats, and individual copies sold.