March 2010 By Nat Hentoff
Vince Guaraldi: That Joyous Thing
Despite writing about jazz musicians for over 60 years, I am sometimes sharply reminded that I’ve essentially missed, or badly underestimated, a vital individualist. It happened again on Nov. 28 as I was listening to National Public Radio’s wide-ranging master interviewer, Scott Simon, on Weekend Edition. There was my old friend Doug Ramsey (Rifftides at www.dougramsey.com) playing the music and reminiscing about pianist-composer-leader Vince Guaraldi.
Ramsey had written the liner notes for the recently released two-disc set, The Definitive Vince Guaraldi (Fantasy), put together and produced by Nick Phillips (Concord Music Group’s vice president of jazz and catalog A&R). When another friend, Norman Lear (producer of All in the Family and other popular TV shows), bought Concord years ago, I urged him to realize he was now guardian of the treasures in the Fantasy catalog. With Phillips involved, I am reassured.
I had casually heard Guaraldi with Cal Tjader and on some of his other gigs (Woody Herman and the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas), but never paid enough attention. Hearing him on NPR startled me because when music really gets all the way inside of me, my eyes tear up, and they did. I rushed to get the CD.
Alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who’s on the first track, “Calling Dr. Funk,” put into words what had moved me out of my chair: “He had that joyous thing and he made everybody else feel good too.” On NPR, Ramsey said that Guaraldi “was known as Dr. Funk because he played with such an earthy feeling.” And, on the recording, from “Jitterbug Waltz” to the previously unreleased “Blues for Peanuts” (like me, he was a Peanuts fan), there was not only the life force of jazz, but also the life thrust of fully knowing the answer to Duke Ellington’s timeless question: “What Am I Here For?”
I often repeat what Duke told me when I was a teenager, getting deeper and deeper into this music: “A musician’s sound is his soul.” Guaraldi’s soul was often ablaze, as witnessed by Ramsey. “I watched one night as he bowed his head low over the keys and dug into a blues solo,” the writer remembered. “The intensity of swing increasing, his forehead almost touching the music rack, he worked his way up the keyboard in a series of ascending chromatic figures and played off the end of the bench and onto the floor. Guaraldi picked himself up, did not bother to dust himself off, slid into place and went back to work. He lost a couple of bars, but not the swing. ‘He’s done that before,’ Cal Tjader told me later.”
I had seen that total immersion before, and often, in a pianist of a different temperament, Bill Evans. His head coming very close to touching the piano keys, Bill Evans eventually was the piano. Bill, however, became an icon. But Vince Guaraldi, who died of a heart attack in 1976 at 47 between sets during a gig, has not become a legend. His original, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” did become a hit, and his Charlie Brown music brought him considerable success and royalties. But, as a voter for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, I don’t recall Guaraldi ever being on a list of possible nominees.
I’ve heard young jazz musicians complain about how record labels that also nourished new jazz focus far too much now on reissues. But those labels today are as economically challenged as print newspapers. That’s why the Fantasy catalog and the creatively searching Mosaic and Storyville (Denmark) labels are so necessary: They reveal how permanently contemporary the legends of this music are. But also, as with Guaraldi, these reissues bring the music of largely forgotten masters back to life, even after they’re gone.
And there are many singular jazz storytellers among us who ought to be better known. I have a special list of recordings I keep nearby for times when my day job gets me down—like now, as I document how closely Barack Obama (“Change you can believe in!”) is channeling Bush and Cheney, and going even further than they in putting our individual right to privacy on life support. That’s why I need jazz once in a while, to bring back “that joyous thing.”
To my list of enlivening recordings I’ve added Vince Guaraldi’s “Calling Dr. Funk,” and the more Jerry Dodgion makes me want to get up and dance (if I knew how), I realize I’ve not paid nearly enough attention to that alto saxophonist all these years.
I’d be interested in hearing from readers which jazzmen and jazzwomen—past and present—they feel are unsung. And tell us why those players are on their list.
Coleman Hawkins told me of musicians he’d heard in small cities around the country who’d never make it big because they stayed where they were. But there are other players who did travel and get some recognition that’s fading as the decades go by—and shouldn’t. I once told an impressive young trombonist about Jack Jenney. He’d never heard of him but then rejoiced in his new soulmate when he found some of Jenney’s recordings. There are a lot more “sounds of surprise” than we know.
Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.
Originally published in March 2010