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Derrick Bang: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Vince Guaraldi at the Piano
Derrick Bang
390 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7864-5902-5
McFarland Books
2012

Based on Derrick Bang's encyclopedic biography of pianist Vince Guaraldi, you can draw two perhaps surprising conclusions about the subject's contribution to jazz.

First, Guaraldi arguably hipped more listeners to this musical form than anyone else since the heyday of the big bands. He did so by means of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," three minutes of piano-trio jazz that reached #22 on the Billboard hit-singles chart in February 1963; more decisively, Guaraldi provided the musical accompaniment to a long string of widely-viewed Peanuts television specials, first broadcast in 1965. Bang cites the testimony of New Age pianist George Winston and jazz pianists David Benoit and Cyrus Chestnut in this regard: all attest to the importance of Guaraldi's music in their dawning appreciation of jazz. And it's clear that these two musical exercises helped instill a taste for jazz in the listening habits of millions of young people.

Second, and less obviously, Guaraldi pioneered in the mainstreaming of modern Latin jazz, both into non-Latin jazz, and, thanks to his music's incredible popularity, into the tastes of his many listeners. Bang recounts Guaraldi's reasonably well-known encounters with Latin jazz. He was a key player in vibraphonist and percussionist Cal Tjader's group, which developed an excellent school of post-Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban jazz, heard on classic albums such as Más Ritmo Caliente (Fantasy, 1958). Guaraldi would go on to form a productive partnership with Brazilian bossa nova guitarist Bola Sete, beginning in 1962. What's less apparent at first blush is that Guaraldi's much better-known non-Latin jazz was also Latin jazz, hiding in plain sight: "The Peanuts background scores aren't merely jazz, but more precisely Guaraldi's highly enjoyable blend of jazz and bossa nova," as Bang succinctly puts it.

Guaraldi didn't revolutionize the music's structure (Charlie Parker), nor nurture generations of talented sidemen (Miles Davis), nor develop a staggering improvisational vocabulary (Sonny Rollins), nor compile a songbook of astonishing breadth and joy (Thelonious Monk), much less do all of these things at once (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington). His contribution was different in degree and in kind from that of those more widely- acknowledged jazz masters. The paradox that Bang's book explores is that Guaraldi's best- known music may be as widely-known as that produced by these jazz titans.

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano is not a gossip-laden tell-all celebrity biography (although Bang allows himself to wonder whether Guaraldi's decision to be photographed embracing his long-time girlfriend Gretchen Glanzer on the cover of The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi (Fantasy, 1964) might have set the stage for the breakup of his marriage). Instead, the objective of the book is to document Guaraldi's dense career as a musician.

As such, that career is exhaustively reconstructed: early gigs with all kinds of bands around the San Francisco Bay Area; his joining Woody Herman's "Third Herd" in 1955, whose grueling touring schedule seems to have left the pianist with a permanent distaste for the road; his association with fellow San Franciscan Cal Tjader's quintet in 1956, a laboratory for the development of Latin jazz; early records for Fantasy Records (which treated its artists and their music cavalierly), including "Cast Your Fate To The Wind"; his long-standing collaboration with Bola Sete; the composition and preparation for a Jazz Mass at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, preceding (and in fact, according to Bang, inspiring) Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts in a similar vein; the astonishingly successful Peanuts music; his later, ill-starred attempts to innovate with electric keyboards and free jazz in a group he called the Electric Umbrella; his death, aged 47, in between sets at a Menlo Park supper club called Butterfield's in February 1976.

Along the way, the reader is treated to the occasional brilliant set piece, recurring theme, surprising tidbit.

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