The Miracle That Is "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
If you look outside while reading this, the odds are that it's sunny and mild. You might see green and red lights and tinseled pine trees glowing through windows. But the only winter coat you need is a windbreaker, and the only snow is artificial. You don't need to be a transplant or even Christian to know that L.A. doesn't do Christmas weather.
I've lived here my entire life and never even seen a caroler, unless you count the white turbaned weirdo who roller-skates down the Venice Boardwalk with an electric guitar and electric beard.
The chief way to differentiate between season's greetings and beach season is the music. Walk through a mall or scan your radio dial and you'll be flooded by holiday songs more obsolete than fruitcake quips. Most stick to similar themes: Snow is pretty, messiahs make for adorable babies, someone's mom is Frenching a fat man in a red suit. I can't stomach 99.9 percent of them.
There are exceptions: Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," James Brown's Funky Christmas, Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis" and the Yuletide rap staple nouveau A Dipset Xmas -- featuring Jim Jones and the Byrd Gang's "Ballin' on Xmas." But the only one that I've ever really loved is the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Remastered and reissued last month by Concord Music Group of Beverly Hills, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been ubiquitous since initially airing on a 1965 CBS special featuring Charles Schulz's Peanuts gang. This year, the Library of Congress inducted it alongside 24 other records that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." Even the notoriously caustic rap crew Odd Future sampled "Christmas Is Coming" on Mellowhype and Frank Ocean's "Hell."
Every December it reinduces nostalgia for when you believed in the viability of levitating reindeer. Yet it's more than that. I grew up Semitic in Southern California, but when A Charlie Brown Christmas comes on, it implants false memories of white Christmases spent gorging on spiced ham, sipping eggnog, unwrapping fantastic gifts and basking in beatific harmony with family and friends.
When you write that scene on paper, it sounds hokey. It's similarly saccharine on-screen. But removed from its animated trappings, A Charlie Brown Christmas strips you from mundane surroundings, sneering ironies and crass commercialization. It reminds you of the time when what mattered most was watching cartoons and what was under the tree, menorah or Festivus pole.
And it almost didn't happen. The special's producer, Lee Mendelson, discovered the San Francisco pianist Guaraldi only after randomly hearing his "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" while riding in a taxi on the Golden Gate Bridge.
CBS initially disliked the animated special and the music, famously telling Mendelson that jazz didn't fit.
Guaraldi was a slightly built man with black plastic specs, a Von Kaiser mustache and legitimate chops. He came up under legendary Latin jazzman Cal Tjader and played keys alongside percussion kings Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. He even won a Grammy before soundtracking the Peanuts specials. Yet his legacy hinges on these aural companions to the melancholy foibles of Charlie Brown -- especially his Christmastime odes.
It's not about the originality of the songs. After all, these are largely reinterpretations of traditional fare: "O Tannenbaum," "What Child Is This," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." But Guaraldi modernized them in a timeless and transportive fashion, imbuing the standards with alternately sad and rollicking piano lines, and soft drum fills that mimicked falling snow. It's the rare holiday record that transcends religion, race and weather. After all, everyone knows what it's like to remember.
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