By Derrick Bang
Like most so-called overnight successes, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi—who forever described himself as "a reformed boogie-woogie piano player"—worked hard for his big break.
The man eventually dubbed "Dr. Funk" by his compatriots was born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928; he graduated from Lincoln High School and then San Francisco State College. Guaraldi began performing while in college, haunting sessions at the Black Hawk and Jackson's Nook, sometimes with the Chubby Jackson / Bill Harris band, other times in combos with Sonny Criss and Bill Harris. He played weddings, high school concerts, and countless other small-potatoes gigs.
His first serious booking came at the Black Hawk, when he worked as an intermission pianist ... filling in for the legendary Art Tatum. "It was more than scary", Guaraldi later recalled. "I came close to giving up the instrument, and I wouldn't have been the first after working with Tatum". Guaraldi's first recorded work can be heard on "Vibratharpe", a 1953 release by the Cal Tjader. Guaraldi then avoided studios for the next few years, preferring to further hone his talents in the often unforgiving atmosphere of San Francisco's beatnik club scene. In 1955 he put together his own trio — longtime friend Eddie Duran on guitar, Dean Reilly on bass — and tackled North Beach's bohemian hungry i club. He also returned to studio work that year, making his recorded debut as group leader, although with different personnel: John Markham (drums), Eugene Wright (bass) and Jerry Dodgion (alto sax). What soon came to be recognized as the "Guaraldi sound", however, resulted from several recording sessions with his hungry i buddies. The original Vince Guaraldi Trio, with Duran and Reilly, can be heard on two releases: "The Vince Guaraldi Trio" (1956) and "A Flower is a Lonesome Thing" (1957)