Vince Guaraldi: Oh Christmas Tree

I enjoy precipitation.  All forms of precipitation.  Being a Florida resident, we are often afforded only one or two variants- rain or heavy rain with occasional hail.  There are some who claim that it snows in Florida, however it's more like soft hail than anything that could conceivably be considered snow.

Now, there are some who would say that a love for falling moisture has much to do with the cleansing or purifying nature of the act, or that it's symbolic of the cycle of carbon-based life.  Those are all well-intentioned and beautiful things, however my love of rain and snow and hail and sleet and the life stems not from a psychological perspective, but a visual standpoint.
Of course, there's always Chocolate Rain too.

When it rains, the world is transformed.  You see, it's more often not raining and you've got varying degrees of sun and cloud and after a while it all just gets pretty boring. It all looks the same. But when it all of a sudden rains, well then it's an entirely new world out there! This is especially noticeable when it begins to snow, as the transformation is more long-lived and has a few more stages in its evolution.

Now, these alterations of our reality really aren't vast in the grand scheme of things. They are simply giving us the opportunity to look at our own unique world in a new and different way. Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) was able to do just that with his music.

And his mustache.  
Vince was born in in San Francisco, CA at a very pivotal time in the musical history of the United States.  He grew up into the era of Jazz moving forward into the mainstream of American culture and he himself was actually a big part of it. I can say with almost 100% certainty that every person reading this (even you crazy Russians) have heard Mr. Guaraldi play the piano. Even if you don't know him by name, you've heard his music.

Vince was contacted in the mid-1960's to do the score for a special animated Christmas special for Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoon. The producer of the special, Lee Mendelson, had heard Guaraldi's trio playing their radio hit, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" and decided that the group had the sound required for the show. Guaraldi accepted and shortly thereafter began to create music for the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special and eventually went on to score 17 specials overall.

Sadly, Guaraldi died young of a heart attack, collapsing the same day after recording tracks for "It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown".  He was 47.

What made him extremely memorable to me, aside from the obvious childhood influences we all probably share, was how he managed to find new ways to tell all these old stories.

Take "Oh Christmas Tree" for instance. A very simple song in general:
Now, I know many of you don't actually read music, but that's OK.  Here's what I want you to look for: the very top line is the melody and the 2nd and 3rd lines are what the piano would play.  The 4th, 5th and 6th lines are just continuations of the music from the top.  It reads left to right, just like you're reading the text now, but it's always stacked together like this when there are multiple parts. Now, above each couple of notes you'll see some letters. These letters refer to specific chords, which are essentially piece parts that make up everything except the melody.

If we were to write this out, you'd notice a bit of a pattern here.  It starts out with G - D - G - Am (which means A minor) - D7.  Then it repeats that same pattern again (G D G Am D7).  Sing O Christmas tree in your head and you'll notice that the melody at the beginning repeats the phrase "Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, how are thy leaves so verdant!"

Same melody, same chords.  Simple. Now check out what Vince did-

Same melody (essentially speaking, he takes some rthymic liberties to make it a bit more zazzy), but look at the different chords!  Now, keep in mind we're in a different key so in this case F = G, D = C, etc. We start out with C7 - F - Gm7 - Am - D7(b9) - Gm7 - Em7(b5) - C7 (b9) - F - Bbm/C. Now, that's a workout of alphabetic proportions.  The additional symbols you see (the 7's, 9's and 5's) all refer to extra notes. With a simple C chord, a musician would assume that the notes C, E, and G are to be heard. When you add a 7 to that chord, we then expect the same C, E, and G, but now also a Bb.  If you throw in a b9 you'd add a Db, and a b5 means Gb instead of G. The Bbm/C implies a minor Bb chord (which is Bb, Db and F) while playing a C below all those on the piano (which is actually a 9th).


Before we go deeper, let's just compare the second phrase to see if it's the same-
1st Phrase -  (C7) - F - Gm7 - Am -                     D7(b9) - Gm7 - Em7(b5) - C7 (b9) - F - Bbm/C
2nd Phrase -            F - Gm7 - Am - Eb9(#11) - D7(b9) - Gm7 -                     C7(b9) - F

The answer is...sorta.  I put the 1st chord of the first phrase in parentheses since it's a pickup note. You'll notice the original version above does not have a chord symbol there at all (but it's essentially the same chord that Vince uses).  The first 3 chords are the same, but after the Am, he adds a bit of chromaticism to enhance the movement towards the D7.  You'll notice that the Gm7 goes straight to the C7(b9) and to the F, omitting the Em7(b5) from the previous phrase. The piece is in the key of F (which if you've read any other Listening Fridays, you might recall that F would be called tonic here) and music always likes to return to tonic.  It's like home.

So in this case, both phrases sorta end on F, but in the first phrase he throws in that Bbm chord with the 9th in the bass to (again) zazz things up a bit.  It makes it more interesting between the phrases because otherwise we'd have the same chord for 2+ measures.

OK. So I totally get it if I lost you back there. We got a little theoretical and that's not for everyone. The big takeaway is that Guaraldi added a lot of color to the standard work to make it his own. From a basic standpoint, it's not any better or worse. It's just...different. For Guaraldi, it was his way of changing his view on the world and in a very special way, it became the norm for many, many people in the world through the magic of that first Peanuts special.  Does that mean that to make good music you just have to add extra notes? No. There is some exceedingly beautiful music (some of which we'll talk about next week) that utilizes very simple harmonic structure to create astounding effects.  But with Vince, he had a knack for turning the standard on its head and making it work.

There's no shortage of American children who got their first dose of jazz during that Christmas in 1965. And there's no shortage of musicians who had that seed planted by Guaraldi and his trio inserting their art into the American psyche. In a big way, it's very poetic. One thing you must realize is that Jazz is uniquely American. In fact, it's the only completely original American music. Everything else you hear today was either imported or a descendent of Jazz.

That crappy pop music you kids listen to? The form that it's built on was invented by Jazz! Those awful three-chord rock tunes? Jazz with guitars and no horns. Even humble Miley Cyrus owes much to the rich traditions of texture, form and structure of Jazz.

All Vince really did was introduce us to our long, lost ancestors.

Homework: Make a cup of hot chocolate (or if you're in Florida get a $1 sweet tea from Mickey D's since it's still 84 degrees outside). Put your feet up on something comfortable. Press play.

See you next Friday.


The gif is from Blazing Saddles
musicnotes.com provided the sheet music.

As a separate note, being that this Friday represents the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who (in my humble opinion) was one of the finest leaders our fair country has ever seen- I invite you to visit this particular entry, in honor of his memory today.