“Christmas Time is Here”
Composed by Vince Guaraldi.
Recorded in 1965 by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for Fantasy Records in San Francisco, California.
Vince Guaraldi, piano; Fred Marshall, bass; Jerry Granelli, drums.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have recounted how I came to the music of the jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.(1) His music has always been something I have enjoyed. It falls into two categories: music not associated with the Charles Schultz Peanuts franchise; and music associated with the Charles Schultz Peanuts franchise. From a musical standpoint, there is no difference between these two categories. But in the minds of John and Jane Q. Public, the music associated with Peanuts represents something in their past lives, no matter if they are eighty-five or twenty-five years old. The music not associated with Peanuts represents nothing in their past lives; it just sounds like the music from Peanuts.
Recently, I was in a doctor’s office. This particular doctor was once a musician. He understands music on a level that is far higher and more complex than I do. He also likes to envelop his patients in a Zen-like atmosphere of quiet piano music as they await his attention. As I was sitting in his waiting room, Vince Guaraldi’s recording of “Christmas Time is Here” began playing.(2) About halfway through that recorded performance, I was shown to a treatment room by a lovely woman who is probably twenty-five years old. As we walked from the waiting room to the treatment room, we could still hear Guaraldi’s music. I asked her: “Do you like this music”? “Yes” she answered. “It’s the Peanuts music.” “Why do you like it”? I asked. “Because I watched those Peanuts TV shows about a hundred times when I was a kid.” My doctor, who is pushing seventy, soon entered the treatment room, which also has a high-quality speaker in it. “Christmas Time is Here” was still playing. “Do you know the title of the song that is playing”? I asked him. “No” he said. “But it’s from the Charlie Brown TV show, and it’s a popular Christmas song.” “Do you like it”? “Yes.” “Why”? “Because I watched those Peanuts TV shows over the years, and it reminds me of shall we say earlier events in my life.” I then began discussing Vince Guaraldi with him.
I have thought about the role television plays in American life on many occasions since the 1960s. I have discussed television with various people over a period of decades. Although the opinions I have heard range widely, one issue is agreed upon by all: that television, because of its pervasiveness in American life, is and has for a long time been a major arbiter of American thought and culture. Experience has taught me that if something, no matter how sublime or absurd, is on television, and for whatever reason, it is popular, soon it will begin to percolate into the fabric of American culture. (Above left: Vince Guaraldi: His music is recognized by millions yet few people know who he was.)
Vince Guaraldi’s recording of “Christmas Time is Here,” which is a part of his Fantasy LP entitled A Charlie Brown Christmas, was recorded in the spring and summer of 1965. That album was something of a sequel to the earlier Guaraldi LP A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which was recorded in October of 1964 and released in December of that year. Those two records, plus the ongoing success (which continues today) of the various Peanuts television productions, all of which included music by Vince Guaraldi, sealed his musical identity with mainstream media audiences: he was forever after the relatively unknown composer of “the Peanuts music.” But though the general public did not connect jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi with the Peanuts franchise, the copyright laws of the United States, as they then existed, did. Consequently, Guaraldi became that rarest of rare animals, a financially independent, indeed wealthy, jazz musician.
Although Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas has been available commercially since the mid-1960s, the music on the original Guaraldi LP, because of the power of television, was associated in the public mind as “Christmas music,” and was heard almost exclusively when A Charlie Brown Christmas was replayed on television. People who knew and liked Vince Guaraldi’s music acquired the LP and later the CD containing that music simply because they liked his music. But from the 1960s until the 1990s, songs from that album, and especially “Christmas Time is Here,” were certainly not a part of the traditional Christmas song favorites that we hear in the weeks leading up to Christmas each year, despite the ongoing popularity of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
As much as television influences American culture, when it comes to music, very few compositions enter the mainstream as a result of a single performance or recording, even if that performance is repeated many times on television. Musicians themselves have to take up that composition, play it, and record it for it to continue to seep into the consciousness of the general public. This process, if it happens at all, often takes years, indeed, decades.(3) So it was with “Christmas Time is Here.” It appears that the first musician to cover “Christmas Time is Here,” was “…jazz guitarist Ron Eschete, who included the tune on his 1982 Yuletide album Christmas Impressions.” Jazz pianist David Benoit followed when he featured the tune on his 1983 album Christmastime. After that, nothing much happened for awhile.(4)
Then in the late 1980s, recordings of “Christmas Time is Here” by mainstream pop singers Patti Austin and Debby Boone appeared. They were followed in the early 1990s by recordings by veteran jazz singers Mel Torme’ and Rosemary Clooney. The Stone Temple Pilots recorded a version in 1994. Jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard followed in 1995, then Vincent Lars and George Winston recorded their versions. Around the year 2000, the dam broke. Dozens of interpretations of “Christmas Time is Here” were recorded by artists in many different idioms of popular music and jazz.(5) By 2010, the song was well ensconced among the traditional holiday songs we hear every year in the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The introduction for “Christmas Time is Here” is a clever concoction of Jerry Granelli’s gently brushed snare drum, Fred Marshall’s fluttering bass and Guaraldi’s floating broken chords. The main melody of the song is both lovely and memorable. Guaraldi plays it with much warmth. The tempo, which is insinuatingly slow, allows the music to waft like fluffy white clouds in a blue sky. Guaraldi’s full chorus of jazz reminds the listener that he was a musician whose improvisations were as glowing as the melodies that seemed to pour out of him.
The finale returns the music to the subtly employed devices of the introduction, and drifts off.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Here is a link to a summary of Vince Guaraldi’s early life and career. https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/04/08/cast-your-fate-to-the-wind-1962-vince-guaraldi/
(2) The unabridged version of Vince Guaraldi’s recording of “Christmas Time is Here” runs to more than six minutes. The version I have presented here has been shortened. For those who want to hear the entire recorded performance of the tune, it can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isxwDHe1
(3) Recently, I was in Manhattan and I had the opportunity to hear a marvelous set of music at Birdland. A jazz quartet was led there by the great tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Peplowski. The other musicians were: Martin Wind (bass); Glenn Zaleski (piano); and Willie Jones III (drums). The program Ken put together was called Hidden Treasures: Ken’s American Songbook. One of the hidden treasures Ken played was Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here.” He and his sidemen played it beautifully. That performance was a part of my inspiration to create this post. Thanks Ken!
(4) Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, by Derrick Bing (2012), 316-317.
Here are links to other music that will warm your holidays: