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A great holiday song lives forever. Pop anthems like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” are burned into our brains and their tunes are on repeat during the most wonderful time of the year.

Unique among the Christmas hits is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” from the 1965 animated Christmas special starring Charles Schultz’s Peanuts band. The film soundtrack may be the most famous jazz score in history. Pianist Vince Guaraldi’s renditions of classics like “It’s Christmas Time” became the definitive versions, and tunes like “Linus and Lucy,” which the group performed on stage, have been reflected in pop culture ever since.

Schultz has close ties to the Bay Area. Although born in Minneapolis, he moved to Sebastopol in 1958 and then to Santa Rosa in 1969, where he lived until his death in 2000 (a museum and skating rink were built to commemorate his work). But the soundtrack to the Christmas special has uniquely San Francisco roots and, if not for a series of coincidences, may never have actually been heard by the public, let alone after 57 years at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart. A four-hour “super deluxe” version featuring material recently unearthed in the Fantasy Records vaults was released in October.

Jazz composer Vince Guaraldi plays the piano in 1962. Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas album is full of holiday hits.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Guaraldi was born in North Beach in 1928. After a brief stint at San Francisco State and a tour as an Army cook in Korea, he found himself on the SF jazz scene and was quickly signed by local Fantasy Records. While playing live in San Francisco, he picked up nicknames like “The Italian Leprechaun” (he’s 5 feet tall) and Dr. Funk: He and his trio gained some popularity with covers of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa’s 1962 album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, then had a bona fide hit with the B-side Cast Your Fate to the Wind.

And without Cast Your Fate to the Wind, there would be no Linus and Lucy. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” executive producer Lee Mendelsohn heard Guaraldi’s B-side hit when he was about to meet with Schultz to discuss a possible documentary project tentatively titled “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” Mendelssohn then commissioned Guaraldi for the soundtrack. The documentary was never televised because a distribution deal was not obtained, but the soundtrack was released as the Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown album in 1964.

When the opportunity arose to create an animated Christmas special the following year, Guaraldi was tasked with expanding the album with some holiday staples. It was a new way for everyone involved. Neither Schultz nor Mendelsohn had ever done an animated show before, and Guaraldi had never made a cartoon. While the grooving rhythms and soaring chords of jazz are now integral to Charlie Brown’s aesthetic, the stylistic choices at the time were a real risk.

Celebrating 50 years "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Executive producer Lee Mendelsohn appears at a press conference in Hollywood in 2015.  Mendelssohn discovered jazz composer Vince Guaraldi and commissioned him to provide the soundtrack for the holiday special.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, executive producer Lee Mendelsohn speaks at a 2015 press conference in Hollywood. Mendelssohn discovered jazz composer Vince Guaraldi and commissioned him for a special holiday soundtrack.

Image Group LA/Disney General Entertainment Con

“The executives weren’t fans of this jazz music,” Mendelsohn’s son Sean told SFGATE. “They specifically said. “This is not going to work.” And even Charles Schulz was skeptical. He said. “Classical music is more my thing.” Even the animators, when they were finished, said: “I don’t know, we just kind of ruined Christmas.”

“Then of course it became a huge classic. I think in retrospect it’s because they were doing new things and taking risks across the board,” Sean Mendelsohn said.

Those musical risks can be heard throughout the new deluxe edition of the soundtrack, which includes multiple renditions of each song, including banter from the musicians as they discuss artistic choices. While the recordings aren’t drastically different from the final cuts, there’s a certain magic to hearing the creation process.

The August 8, 1966 Sigmund Stern Grove Jazz Festival featuring Vince Guaraldi, the composer of the music soundtrack. "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

On August 8, 1966, Vince Guaraldi, the composer of the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, performed at the Sigmund Stern Grove Jazz Festival.

San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“It’s like listening to what it would have been like to sit through a concert in a jazz club in 1965,” says Shawn Mendelsohn. “Not only do you get to hear a man tossing around different ideas and trying to do something, but you get to hear what it would be like to hear someone improvising in a club.”

Piano nerds will enjoy a “super-fast” rendition of “Skating,” which Shawn Mendelsohn calls a “rite of passage” for jazz piano players. There is also a more experimental version of “O Tannenbaum”.

“It seems like it’s in the multiverse. It’s so unsuccessful, even a jazz lover would say, “What is going on here?” Sean Mendelson said: “You can’t even find where the drop is because he plays in such a weird and unusual way.”

For the rest of Guaraldi’s career, he never surpassed the widespread success of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but continued to release albums and perform in the Bay Area. He often jammed alongside Jerry Garcia (although it’s unclear if he ever played with Grateful Deal). Guaraldi lived in Mill Valley until his death in 1976 at the age of 47 from a heart attack, just hours after finishing a concert in Menlo Park with a cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.

Charlie Brown and Linus appear in the scene from where "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The holiday special soundtrack has been preserved and a super deluxe version has been released more than 50 years later.

Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas. The holiday special soundtrack has been preserved and a super deluxe version has been released more than 50 years later.

Charles M. Schulz / AP

While his name may be on the Mount Rushmore of jazz greats, he certainly has a claim to being the most listened to pianist. “It’s Christmas Time” has racked up 130 million plays, beating the likes of John Coltrane’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” 144 million, and just ahead of Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green.” (125 million). The music’s iconic and incredible animated accompaniment further cements Guaraldi’s legacy.

“What’s especially great about this music and how it intersects with the show is the pathos,” Sean Mendelsohn said. “Back then, music excited children. So not only was it jazz and a new form of cartooning, but the music is different in mood. I think it reflects the emotional pathos of the characters that Schultz creates.”


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