I first saw the animated versions of Charlie Brown on television back in 1976 at around the age of ten. Some of them actually dated back to a few years; they were originally shown on US television from the mid 60’s. I instantly took to the cartoons and a huge part of their appeal was the music that accompanied them, written and performed by pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi. I made a mental note of his name when I saw it roll up the credits at the end.
From the start there was something different about Charlie Brown that set it apart from other cartoons. Whereas Tom and Jerry and the various from Merry Melodies/Loonee Tunes began with a fanfare and a flurry, the opening of a Charlie Brown cartoon was more subtle and would often see two characters in mid-conversation. The music was in the ‘background’ yet audible enough to capture the viewer’s attention without detracting from the on-screen dialogue. I imagine this was purposely done. The choice of Vince Guaraldi’s music was a canny one. Like the spoken dialogue in the cartoons, the music is sophisticated and subtle, even though it was aimed at a young audience. Adding to the uniqueness of the cartoons is the fact that its main protagonist Charlie Brown has a world-weary, sometimes melancholy character which the music depicts perfectly.
Many of the cartoons had a theme associated with public holidays in the USA. Thus, there’s the famous Christmas one, as well as specials for Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Coinciding with a time when American children would have been off school no doubt added to the sense of occasion; they were also shown during school holidays in the UK. From the 1965 Halloween special, ‘The Great Pumpkin Waltz’ is a favourite.
Another element distinguishes the music of Charlie Brown from its counterparts. In a Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoon, you don’t so much hear full pieces as music as little fragments of tunes that musically depict the dialogue or emotions expressed by the characters, a technique known as ‘tone painting’. This rarely takes place in Vince Guaraldi’s scores; instead you’d get one complete piece of music that sat nonchalantly in the background, rather than brief snatches that imitated each and every action or piece of dialogue.
I had no idea of what kind i.e. style of music it was. I just knew it was something I relished hearing, that was enough. Children tend to be like that, and aren’t self-conscious about what they do and don’t like. I didn’t know the music was ‘jazz’ but it did unknowingly plant the seeds for getting into jazz later on. When I heard pianists such as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, I was reminded of the music I first encountered on Charlie Brown cartoons. Thank Vince Guaraldi for that.