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  • Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas

    Mollie Kaye

    Victoria Jazz Society presents the Jerry Granelli Trio and the Victoria Children’s Choir.


    BY 1965, Christmas in North America was beginning to get a bad “wrap.” The overt commercialization and commodification of the Saviour’s Nativity was being analyzed and discussed, after enjoying a blithe bloating into 20th-Century capitalism’s most essential yearly selling event.

    Meanwhile, cartoonist Charles Schultz was making tens of millions each year creating the world’s most successful syndicated daily comic strip, populated by characters who were plenty jaded and analytical themselves. Nevertheless, they were still very attractive to the executives at Coca-Cola, who were keen to find a way to purchase and air a children’s animated Christmas TV special as a promotional vehicle for their products. They approached CBS, who approached Schultz.

    The cartoonist jumped on the opportunity and created a moody, religion-trimmed, somewhat subversive anti-commercial tale, employing his perennially-depressed leading man Charlie Brown to lament the fact that no one seemed to be remembering the “real” meaning of Christmas.

    Producer Lee Mendelson, a jazz aficionado, was a big fan of Vince Guaraldi’s work and contacted the musician to commission a soundtrack for the animated special.

    The project was done in a rush over a six-month period and aired in December of 1965, with most of the creative people involved anticipating a colossal flop. Guaraldi and his trio had recorded the soundtrack in just three hours. Jerry Granelli, Guaraldi’s drummer at the time, was 24 (it was his first paid recording gig). The musicians hadn’t seen the animated special and were given minimal information about its story. “We were just trying to play good music,” Granelli recalls.


    Jerry Granelli.jpg

    Instead of flopping, the special was a runaway hit, an instant classic, and is rebroadcast annually. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966. The soundtrack album was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007, and added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important American sound recordings” in 2012.

    The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s recording includes edgy re-imaginings of carols like “What Child is This” and “O Tannenbaum” (my particular favourite is a meditative riff on “Little Drummer Boy”), along with Guaraldi originals like “Linus and Lucy,” which endures as one of the most recognizable jazz recordings ever made, and serves as many a child’s introduction to the form. “Christmas Time is Here” employs a children’s choir singing plaintive lyrics (hastily penned “in about 15 minutes” by producer Mendelson, who couldn’t find a lyricist) encouraging us to seek goodwill year-round, set against a relentlessly melancholy series of descending arpeggios, and has taken its rightful place as a modern classic, performed worldwide by choirs young and old.

    It seems every organization involved with musical endeavours inevitably puts on a holiday-themed show each year, but not so for the Victoria Jazz Society. According to executive director Darryl Mar, this offering of Jerry Granelli’s touring reprisal of 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is “our first Christmas-related presentation in all of the 30-plus years I have been involved.”

    Granelli, the drummer and only surviving member of the trio who recorded the original soundtrack, emigrated from the US to Canada in the 1990s, and for 48 years, had never played the repertoire again—until he convened a new trio and performed it as a fundraiser in Halifax a couple of years ago. It was received with such enthusiasm that Granelli agreed to tour across Canada, which took him as far west as Vancouver last year, but not quite to Victoria.

    Mar explained that the timing last year just wasn’t right. “They offered it to us for a date in November, and we felt that it was too far away from Christmas,” he said. But this year, the timing was right, and he expects a sellout show at the Oak Bay High School’s brand-new Dave Dunnet Community Theatre.

    Granelli, for whom the Charlie Brown project was but an early and bright blip in an illustrious, decades-long professional recording career, has performed in Victoria before, and brings along celebrated Canadian musicians Simon Fisk on bass and Chris Gestrin on piano.

    The Victoria Children’s Choir will provide the vocals for the performance, says Mar. “In each city the trio hires a local children’s choir to perform, and we arranged for the VCC,” who, incidentally, performed recently at the Legislature for the visiting royals.

    The entire original soundtrack will be performed, and Granelli will share plenty of intriguing background and juicy anecdotes (hence the “Tales” part of the title of the show). There is no limit to how much nostalgic fervour this album brings up in those young enough to have been children when it started airing annually, and the Granelli shows have sold out in most locations.

    For the Jazz Society’s first Christmas offering, this is a fitting one, since Mar was unwilling to compromise on quality or musical integrity. “It’s the perfect project,” he says. “The time of year is right, and it’s been highly recommended by colleagues across Canada.”

    Perhaps channelling Charlie Brown himself, Granelli commented to the CBC in 2013 on reprising the album and speaking about the experience. “There are so many memories. All my friends who were on it are dead.” And why didn’t he perform the music for decades, when it had been so incredibly successful? “I think I was a little too serious and immature, but this had a life of its own. It crept up on me…What really touches me is that people know that music, and they enjoy it.”


    Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas, with the Juno-nominated Jerry Granelli Trio and the Victoria Children's Choir is on Saturday, December 10, 8pm, Dave Dunnet Community Theatre at Oak Bay High School. Tickets: $35 advance/VJS members/students, $39 at the door. Advance tickets, Victoria Jazz Society Office, 202 - 345 Quebec Street or 250-388-4423, Lyles Place, and the Royal & McPherson Box Office 250-386-6121, or online at www.rmts.bc.ca.

    Mollie Kaye remembers anticipating the special airings of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” each December, and thought the music—and the Peanuts characters’ dance moves—were the best parts.

    Edited by admin

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