Welcome to Day 2 of our
25 Day Ottawa Life
We’ll be updating with a
new treat daily so be sure
to keep checking under the
OLM Tree to see what’s new.
All images by Andre Gagne.
Listen to our full interview with Jerry Granelli above.
If the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s holiday classic “Christmas Time is Here” doesn’t instantly bring to mind images of a round headed barber’s son, a loudmouth fussbudget and an imaginative beagle you must have been living in a desert near Needles for the last five decades. Good grief.
With lyrics written in 15 minutes on the backside of an envelope, the song has become the soundtrack to the Christmas season whether it be background music while carving the turkey, sung along to while wrapping gifts or something you quickly turn off the thousandth time it comes on the car radio during the first week of December.
The song is a classic but 51 years ago when three jazz musicians stepped into Fantasy Recording Studios in San Francisco, to them, it was just another gig. Sure, a gig for the first animated special of a popular comic strip but, still, just a gig. They’d come in, lay down their jazzer Christmas cuts, pocket their pay, and then hit up the jazz club in the evening to jam as they always did. Overall, the work that would become their legacy, took a total of three hours and they netted about $68. .
While we can now look back at A Charlie Brown Christmas as much part of the holiday season as Santa, Rudolph and an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air riffle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time, not everybody was confident in the Peanuts gang’s transition to television back in 1965. In fact, along with the music that became so attached to the beloved characters, A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn’t make it to a first airing.
“CBS said no,” recalls Vince Guaraldi Trio drummer Jerry Granelli of the network’s disdain for the final product. “We’re not going have jazz music on television and we’re not going to have a little kid tell us the spirit of Christmas.”
Granelli was in his early 20s at the time he was offered a coveted spot in Vince’s trio. Though he’d had moderate success, scoring for film and television was relatively new for Guaraldi’s band. Writing a few tracks for a documentary on Peanuts creator Charles Schultz was what eventually lead to writing the music for the Christmas special though, having not seen a single frame of film, the trio kind of just improvised like most good jazz musicians will.
When they turned in their soundtrack it was promptly rejected by the network. While CBS was dealing with a mountain of problems it had with the special, the music would stay shelved.
Though it had taken a bit of time (the strip had debuted over ten years earlier), by the early ‘60s Schultz’s comic strip had become a worldwide sensation. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and especially Snoopy had evolved beyond the printed page and became part of the growing social consciousness of a decade that would see much change. For Granelli, Peanuts was on the crest of a wave that would soon wash over the 1960s and change everything.
“We were coming off the ‘50s Ozzie and Harriet and people were no longer believing in that. Schultz was right in that stream and people identified,” he says. “People could read (the comic) and feel kind of safe in one way and challenged in another way. These little characters were so sweet but there was an edge to them.”
It was an edge that paired nicely with the creative leaps jazz music was making at the time. Jazz pianist Guaraldi had been experimenting with the genre prior to putting his now iconic trio together. When Granelli came along on drums and Fred Marshall on bass things clicked and their live playing became more cutting edge.
“We were playing pretty outrageously for the time,” recalls Granelli. “People like Miles Davis came every night. (Vince) was playing with this edge to him and when Schultz heard the trio he became a fan.”
CBS, however, did not and it wasn’t until they were pressed by Coca-Cola –who was the main advertiser– that network executives reluctantly agreed to air the special. To them, it was a one off, something people would see and then forget and the special would vanish into ether never to air again. They were about as wrong as Charlie Brown’s ill-fated belief of his ability to kick a football.
When it first aired on December 9, 1965, the special was watched by over half the viewing audience of North America. Unlike the Great Pumpkin, it would be seen again each holiday season introducing new generations to Charlie Brown and Snoopy. For many, the special became the much watch event of the season with Christmas not quite being Christmas without at least one viewing.
As for the soundtrack, it went 3x platinum and became one of the highest selling jazz albums of all time, something that is still surprising to Granelli. For a while, he didn’t even include A Charlie Brown Christmas on his resume. In fact, a man who helped create the music that is part of so many’s holiday cheer actually doesn’t really like Christmas at all.
“I hate Christmas,” Granelli chuckles through this very Charlie Brown-like statement. “I’ve never been happy at Christmas in my whole life. Even as a kid it was always disappointing.”
Still, even with his dislike of the season Granelli eventually decided to revisit the music for the first time in its entirety a few years before the 50th Anniversary.
Granelli, the last surviving member of the trio, had watched the rise in popularity of the special but had never been inspired to perform it outside of a few tracks here and there. He had been approached over the years by people wanting him to make imitations of the soundtrack but he declined all offers. It took nearly 5 decades, but he finally came around to seeing how he could perform the piece, tour it and still maintain the integrity of the music people had come to value each December.
“I could finally see it as a piece artistically, a statement I could make without trying to recreate something. I was looking for a place of comfort, someplace to go and I feel now I can not do anything less than the spirit it was (originally) done with.”
Now a Canadian citizen, Granelli launched Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas four years ago. Part concert, part storytelling, part film screening and all heart, the show has the drummer sharing his memories and music with new audiences who all leave with a smile.
The piece had it roots in Ottawa where it was first performed and it has returned every year as a special festive presentation by the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The show has included local choirs of youngsters as well as one or two kids playing some of the Peanuts gang.
Granelli remains in awe of the love the music receives. The first time he performed the piece he nearly couldn’t get through it, so shocked by all the joy in the room that his hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“It’s just overwhelming. Right now with what’s going on in the world it feels great to go out and do something where people will feel pretty joyful for an hour and a half. It’s totally amazing.”
Does it make him look forward to the Christmas season now, one may wonder? Granelli laughs and admits that it does.
“I look forward to the tour.”
It’s not hard to see why. Just look over those leaving Dominion-Chalmers United Church last night. They were families with wide-eyed kids, beaming parents, grandparents, and maybe even a few great-grandparents. Many were repeating popular lines from the show. Some of the kids were acting like Snoopy and dancing in the aisles. Many were humming the music. You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in that crowd not filled with some slice of holiday happiness. This is the joyful warmth –like that found in, say, a good blanket– that the special and its music wraps around you.
Family? Happiness? Joy? That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.