Derrick Bang: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Bang provides lesser-known details of Guaraldi's musical associations, including his only student, pianist Larry Vuckovich, trumpeter Conte Candoli, trombonist Frank Rosolino (who, by the way, provides the wordless adult "voices" in the Peanuts cartoons), vibraphonist Victor Feldman, vocalist Van Morrison (with whom Guaraldi toured), trumpeter Tom Harrell (featured in Guaraldi's later bands).

Bang's book is a reference work, the result of painstaking research in a multitude of media. For the casual reader, Bang's accumulation of facts can at times be too much, in fact. He provides backstory relentlessly. A random cross-section of examples: a detailed history of the storied Lighthouse club in Hermosa Beach, California, to set the stage for Guaraldi's brief appearance there in 1959; a complete list of al the animated Christmas specials (together with their corporate sponsors) that preceded A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965); the television shows against which the Peanuts special vied for an Emmy, including "heavyweight" Captain Kangaroo; a history of the Moog synthesizer, of marginal importance as an instrument to Guaraldi's musical development. A lot of this—the complete account of every repeat broadcast of every Peanuts special, the account of every cover ever recorded of Guaraldi's compositions—would be more efficiently presented in a series of tables in the book's appendix, to accompany the generous discographies already there.

These excesses can be excused in the name of their contribution to scholarship. More worrisome is the thinness of musical analysis herein.

Bang's book begins, in medias res and on the verge of its subject's fame, with a thrilling account of Guaraldi's performance with the Cal Tjader group a the first-ever Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958. (This passage has been excerpted at AAJ here.) But in spite this richly musical opening scene, Vince Guaraldi at the Piano largely pays little attention to the music itself. (One exception: Somewhat bizarrely, wherever Bang discusses Guaraldi as a sideman, he provides detailed cues, letting you know where to listen for the pianist.)

To be fair, there is some discussion of Guaraldi's music herein—usually by critic Ralph Gleason, whose insightful liner notes and newspaper reviews are generously excerpted. A few samples:
You look at his hands. Stubby, thick, tough little mitts, and you think of the cliché of artists' hands. Vince is always pulling splinters from his fingers, driven in when he claws at the wooden baseboard, behind the keys. His fingernails are perpetually split and ragged from hitting that wood.

He is not ridden by an unconscionable demon to prove something; he just loves music and loves playing and swinging. This uncomplicated approach allows him to poke fun at himself..., which is refreshing; it enables him to play simple, emotionally pure piano, as on the ballads, and to get pixieish, funky and hard-swinging, as on [his] originals and some of the standards.

What Vince has got in his playing is feeling. This is a quality that money can't buy, practice cannot make perfect and technique tends to defeat rather than enhance. Vince sings when he plays. I don't mean he grunts or hums or even makes a noise at all. I mean his fingers sing, the music sings, and he writhes and twists on the piano stool like a balancing act in the circus.

But nowhere is there a sustained analysis of Guaraldi the musician. As such, several questions are raised but not answered. What did Guaraldi take from the boogie-woogie pianists he loved as a novice musician—Pete Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis? ("I'm just a reformed boogie woogie pianist," he told Ralph Gleason early in his career.)

What led Guaraldi so deeply into Latin music? Bang (like more than a few critics) is broadly dismissive of Cal Tjader's Latin jazz ("monotonous," "better suited to frantic dance moves," "something primal, to excite the body, rather than melodic, to engage the mind," "little more than an interminable conga exercise"). This is a mistake. Tjader's experiments helped lay the groundwork for most of the Latin jazz that followed, and clearly resonated with Guaraldi. What did Guaraldi take from the Afro-Cuban music to his successful Brazilian adaptations?

Guaraldi's sidemen are scrupulously listed, but their musical characteristics are not. What, for example, happened to the pianist's group sound when he switched from long time drummer Colin Bailey to Jerry Granelli?



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