Derrick Bang: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano
Most affecting is the portrait Bang paints of San Francisco and environs, beginning with Guaraldi's roots in the Italian North Beach neighborhood, through lovingly detailed descriptions of the region's night clubs: the Blackhawk, Fack's, the hungry i, Jimbo's Bop City, where the super stars of jazz gathered after hours for legendary jam sessions; the Trident in Marin County, Berkeley's Trois Couleurs. There is the heady early-1960s mix of jazz, politically-engaged folk music and innovative stand-up comedy that was a hallmark of the San Francisco scene. The leading figures of the scene, musicians, journalists, broadcasters, impresarios, are all here: Cal Tjader, Dave Brubeck, Dick Gregory, Armando Peraza, Jimmy Lyons, Ralph Gleason, Phil Elwood. A young Bill Cosby spends a month living on a houseboat in Sausalito while doing an extended gig at the hungry i in San Francisco.
When the Summer of Love ushered in new musical scene in San Francisco, Guaraldi did not retreat: he shared sidemen with Sly and the Family Stone, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joy of Cooking and experimented with electronic keyboards, not always happily. He enjoyed an off-and-on collaboration with the Grateful Dead's guitarist Jerry Garcia (and is in the crowd pictured on the reverse of the Dead's Aoxomoxoa (Warner Bros., 1969) album cover).
Bang's chorus of witnesses insinuate, in fact, that it was Guaraldi's attachment to San Francisco and his aversion to touring that prevented him from achieving greater fame. Guaraldi himself says several times in these pages that he was happy working year-round in the Bay Area. Was his parochialism a problem? Not for his commercial success, surely; but perhaps for his artistic development.
A particularly delightful sequence in the book details how "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" became a hit record, revealing the importance of a Sacramento disc jockey and the prodding of a trade magazine. Fantasy Records would rename the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962), from which the single was taken, to Cast Your Fate To The Wind (without, however, removing the cover photo from the Brazilian movie cited in the original title). In fact, telling the story of the hit is more complicated than it seems, because it also includes the story of Anatomy of a Hit, a three-part television documentary made by jazz writer and journalist Ralph Gleason to tell the same story, often by means of stiffly "reenacted" scenes by the principals. The entire improbable tale provides a fascinating look inside the music industry of the time.
Even more detailed, though less riveting, is the account of Guaraldi's music for the long series of Peanuts television specials, featuring the cartoon characters created by (Northern Californian) Charles Schulz. Writer/director/producer Lee Mendelson, surely seeking the urbane but non-confrontational groove of the early-1960s San Francisco scene, approached Dave Brubeck, who, too busy to do the gig, referred him to Tjader, who led him in turn to Guaraldi. "Linus and Lucy" (a fine example of Guaraldi's surreptitious bossa nova sound) and "Christmas Time Is Here," among other piano-trio performances, would go on to be among the most recognizable jazz tunes ever. The programs' commercial success allowed Guaraldi a comfortable lifestyle and freed him from the unpleasant task of touring much. Bang details the surprising confusion regarding who actually plays on the best-known of the Peanuts records, with no fewer than three trios all claiming to have been featured.
There are less momentous details, many of them delightful. Guaraldi's uncleshis mother's brotherswere both successful bandleaders whose example inspired their diminutive nephew. Uncle "Muzzy" Marcellino, in fact, became a virtuoso whistler: you may have heard his work in the theme music to Lassie TV show and in the hit version of the theme to the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Drummer Jerry Granelli, meanwhile, drops this bombshell:
Most people don't know this, but Miles Davis loved Vince; he even wanted Vince to come work with him. But Vince refused, saying "Naaah ... I already got a band, man." ... Anyway, Miles was down at Shelly's Manne-Hole, and he'd come in every night, and just sit there. He loved Vince's tune "Star Song." So Miles would have a drink and say, "Play that song, man." Every night! And it freaked me out, because it was Miles, man! I remember one night, Vince got hung up, talking to Miles before the set. And Miles finally looked up and said, "Hey, I didn't come here to talk to you, motherfucker; I came to hear you play. So go play."This suggests that Guaraldi might belong to that set of commercially successful but once critically under-appreciated musicians championed by the erstwhile Prince of Darkness: Shirley Horn, Ahmad Jamal, Sly and the Family Stone among them.