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Book Excerpts

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

By Published: May 8, 2012
Guaraldi comped chords in "Cubano Chant," then contributed little more than two redundant, single-note refrains for the early stages of "Tumbao." More than likely, listeners weren't paying attention to him anyway; everybody was mesmerized by Santamaria, who went absolutely nuts on the congas. Even Tjader barely got a mallet in edgewise.

When the quintet hit the final unison chord and broke, the crowd went absolutely berserk: cheers, a thunderous wave of applause and delighted shouts of approval. Clocks were pointing to 1 A.M., but the fans couldn't have been sleepy at this point; Tjader's combo had delivered a jolt of adrenalized sound far more invigorating than half a dozen cups of coffee.

"Vince completely broke up the crowd," acknowledged another attendee, commenting on this performance years later. "[Everybody] screamed for more until festival officials doused the stage lights. It was clearly the greatest ovation given any artist at the festival."

For Guaraldi, though—despite the ego-boosting roars of delight over his solos that night, and despite generous words in the subsequent reviews—the accolades must have felt like a Pyrrhic victory. He had, in the eyes and ears of 5,000 or so fans, just established him- self as a sensational sideman. Despite his comfort when playing with Tjader—the two eventually would make a dozen or so albums together—Guaraldi had higher ambitions. He wanted recognition for leading—and recording with—his own band. Indeed, he had already done this, having released two albums through Fantasy Records: The Vince Guaraldi Trio (September 1956) and A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing (October 1957). But despite encouraging reviews, both LPs had been financial stiffs; Fantasy had opted not to continue his recording contract.

In other words, Guaraldi already had failed—twice—to snatch the coveted brass ring of name-brand recognition. Being heralded for his support in Tjader's band, no matter how splendid, merely meant being consigned to the purgatory that most sidemen endured in those days, their names frequently left off album liner notes, and rarely—if ever—included in newspaper advertisements for club gigs.

Guaraldi was facing potential anonymity. Nor was that situation to change, during the next few years. But when it did change, things happened very, very quickly...

Learn more about Vince Guaraldi at the Piano. © 2012, Derrick Bang

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