Vince Guaraldi and his music for Charlie Brown cartoons

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.

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Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 2: the birth of reggae

Ska had given birth to rocksteady and by the late 1960s, another innovation was under way. The entire approach to musical instruments changed, especially the drums and bass but the keyboards – in particular the electric organ – also played a crucial role in the creation of this new sound, far more than it had previously done. The guitar had an equally essential role, which I’ll touch upon.

Reggae grew out of musicians drawing even deeper upon indigenous musical styles and traditions unique to Jamaica; they looked back in order to move forward. Reggae (and ska) were often seen by rock-oriented music historians as ‘upside down rock and roll/r&b’. American influences played a huge role in the music’s growth however, its most fundamental elements are indigenous to Jamaican musical styles. One of these styles was mento, a pre-ska style similar to calypso played on acoustic instruments.

In mento, the acoustic guitar or banjo does an offbeat strum that was directly brought into reggae.  This is a 1952 mento recording by Lord Messam, where you can already hear the offbeat that would later characterise reggae and rocksteady, a good decade before both of those musics ‘officially’ began.

Organists began to mimic this guitar pattern, and it added a new, choppy rhythmic feel to the music. Based upon the older mento style, it was a completely original approach to the keyboard. The musician that many cite as the originator is keyboardist Glen Adams, who featured on the Wailers’ landmark recordings with Lee Perry. The keyboard style was nicknamed as the ‘John Crow Skank’. The story goes that the alternating left and right hand action of the keyboard player apparently looked like the flapping of the John Crow bird’s wings, hence its name!

Here’s Adams playing on Slim Smith’s Everybody Needs Love.

Instrumentals

There’s an incredibly large amount of organ-led instrumentals in early reggae. With the exception of the early digital/computerised dancehall tracks of the mid 80s, keyboard-based tracks had never been so prevalent. They caught on in late 60s/early 70s Britain; the Trojan ‘Tighten Up’ series of albums had sold well in the black community, and then with the first wave of skinheads.

A few of these tunes did well in the UK charts; Double Barrel, featuring Ansel Collins on the keys, topped the British charts. Others such as Liquidator and Elizabethan Reggae also crossed over into the pop charts. The organist on those two tunes is Winston Wright.

There’s something about the keyboard-led tunes that reminds me of fairgrounds; indeed these tunes and other vintage reggae records were played at fairgrounds even up until the 1980s – and perhaps it’s because the organ has a traditional link to fairs that strengthens the connection.

‘Live Injection’, a Lee Perry production featuring the Wailers rhythm section and Glen Adams on organ is an exciting tune. The sound of the Hammond organ jumps out of the speakers. This sound informed 2 tone, in particular Desmond Brown’s playing on early Selecter records. (Listen to his solo on ‘On My Radio’.)

Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 1: ska and rocksteady

This had originally intended to show the development of piano/keyboard playing in Jamaican music, but rather than just do a step-by-step timeline, I’ve picked out a few favourite tunes that have impacted upon me as a musician.

Ska
The first one is ‘Broadway Jungle’ by Toots and The Maytals. I love the piano riff that goes on throughout the tune, it’s the icing on the cake of a typically joyous Toots and The Maytals performance. The piano does an intro that is a little like Jackie Mittoo’s El Bang Bang, and it may well be Jackie playing on this track.

The next track I’ve chosen, Killer Diller by Jackie Mittoo is a departure, as it features the electric organ playing the main melody. It’s a Booker T & the MGs/Watermelon Man-type track but in ska, and, reflecting the influence of jazz on Jamaican musicians, the organ solo is in the soul-jazz mode.

Napoleon Solo, is a classic piece of rocksteady. On piano again is Jackie Mittoo, heard with  Lynn Taitt and The Jets. I could almost imagine this as something from a 40s big band but adapted to the one drop style. The piano has a nice, understated jazz touch.

Ali Shuffle AKA ‘Rock Steady’ (and Seven Wonders Of The World) is a tribute to Buster’s friend Muhammad Ali, and it’s another organ-led piece, played by Winston Wright. What’s notable is the middle eastern tinge, which may have been a musical nod to the fact that both Ali and Buster were muslims. Coincidentally, John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were also exploring African and middle eastern elements, as was the genre called ‘exotica’ through people such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. This sound crops up in some of Don Drummond’s work and was later mined by Augustus Pablo in his output. Anyone familiar with The Specials will recognise Ali Shuffle as a precursor to Ghost Town.