Art, Jazz, and the Christmas Story

One of the best things about Christmas—and this is just my personal opinion—is being able to play the music of Vince Guaraldi.  For those who don’t know, Guaraldi is the iconic jazz pianist and composer whose work flavors “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  In fact, the music is so integral to the story that one cannot hear his music without thinking of Snoopy dancing his weird little happy dance.

I think I learned the classic flagship piece, “Linus and Lucy,” when I was just a teenager playing at the local pizza parlor (my first steady gig). Since that time, I’ve learned to play by ear every song on the “Charlie Brown Christmas” album. The thing is, I have to wait until December because that’s the only appropriate time to play these pieces. There are so many reasons why I love this album. The breezy, uplifting melodies. The angular chord changes. The nostalgia of so many childhood memories of Christmas. Or maybe it’s because I relate to Schroeder a lot.

There is one thing that I believe made Guaraldi’s music unique, and that is it’s unwavering optimism. From his Grammy-winning “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” to the melancholy “Christmas Time is Here,” from the latin “Ginza Samba” to the lilting jazz waltz, “Skating,” there is an overarching optimism in his compositions and performances. It is perhaps what I love most about his music. When I listen to his music, it makes me feel that—no matter the circumstance and no matter the unknowing—somehow everything is going to be all right.

If you think about it, the use of a jazz trio to soundtrack a children’s Christmas special is peculiar, to say the least.  The story of the making of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is apparently immersed in such anomalous decisions—foregoing a laugh track, using real children to voice the characters, the over-arching theme which rails against the commercialism of Christmas, and especially the climax of the film, which is Linus’ famous soliloquy of the King James version of the Gospel of Luke. But at the same time, one cannot deny that this award-winning special has become a part of the very fabric of our culture.

I think this is a good word for those of us who seek to have integrity with our faith and our art.  In an era of Frosty and Rudolph and Santa, creator and cartoonist Charles Schulz was unwavering in his insistence that the story of Christmas—the shepherds, the angels, and the baby in a manger—be told.  And he used the small, delightful world of Peanuts to point us back to the mystery and awe that is the Christmas story.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and view this last scene again.  And as you do so, be in awe again of the jazz-laced Truth that lay in the words of a blanket-dragging, philosophizing, cartoon character. 

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

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