Derrick Bang: Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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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?

Finally, what to make of the recurring accusations by sidemen of Guaraldi's mercenary aesthetic tendencies? Longtime drummer Benny Barth: "I could see that Vince was leaning toward more pop-type music, because he could make more money doing that. I didn't have anything against it, but I played jazz." Later, bassist Fred Marshall: "I was having to play in a way I didn't want to, in a direction I didn't want to go. I got tired of it, musically, and this led to personal differences."

It's to Bang's credit that he amasses so much documentary evidence that these questions arise. It's unfortunate that he did not see fit, in this otherwise definitive biography, to provide answers. Few people, surely, have listened as closely as he has; few are better placed to complement the story of Guaraldi's life with the story of his music.
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