something about film: the anatomy of vince guaraldi
It’s been a few weeks since me and the older kid worked a couple of shifts at the local film festival and we, along with my wife and younger boy, got to spend three days and nights watching close to thirty-something films. Shorts, animation, features and documentaries. And quite a bit of live music on the plaza too, but we were more focused on the screen.
This was the 16th annual Temecula Valley Film and Music Festival out here in Southwest California, and hopefully not the last one. I’ve heard that the theater is closing down after the holidays. And our local indie bookstore too. But that takes me down another path….so I’ll stick with Vince today.
There were only about two dozen of us at the second screening of The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi along with filmmaker Andrew Thomas, who partnered with Toby Gleason on this documentary and oral history. Toby’s dad is Ralph J. Gleason, who was the respected jazz critic in San Francisco, the co-founder of both Rolling Stone magazine and the Monterey Jazz Festival. It’s the film footage Ralph and Vince shot together over forty years ago that forms the core of this story, along with rare performances from private collections and a series of fascinating interviews.
Maybe I should take a moment and remind you of who Vince Guaraldi is. An Italian American jazz pianist born and raised in San Francisco, he’s best known for composing music for animated adaptations of the Peanuts comic strip and coming up with one of the biggest crossover hit records of the sixties: “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”. If you can’t recall that song, just You Tube or iTune the first ten seconds of it and you’ll remember. It’s an aural icon of American music from a man who sadly lived too short a life.
I should tell you that I’m never been much of a jazz fan although through the years I’ve been exposed to a ton of it. It’s a style of music I’m only now appreciating and learning more about, and this film not only serves as a biographical journey for Vince, but it’s a generational snapshot that captures the mid-fifties through the sixties in a very close and intimate way. And it’s a great primer to jazz should you need one.
The interviews with Dave Brubeck, Dick Gregory, Professor Irwin Corey, Lee Mendelson and Jon Hendricks to name but a few, are special because they were back there and living in those times, and each hold various pieces of the story not unlike a puzzle. And pianist George Winston…whose playing is so inspired by much of Vince’s catalog…brilliantly brings the viewer inside the origin and rhythm of the music.
There are many threads and subplots within this film, but one of the most fascinating is the story of brothers Max and Sol Weiss. Together they founded Fantasy Records in 1949 and despite being known for the long and winding John Fogerty/CCR lawsuit, this was primarily a hard core jazz label that today is owned by Archie Bunker creator Norman Lear. To put it simply, Max and Sol were crazy…and shrewd businessmen who did the same thing most indie record labels did back then (and maybe still do): they gave Vince five percent and took ninety-five. Despite being lovable masters, their interviews and the scenes in both the studio and warehouse are a peek into the convergence of art and commerce.
Guaraldi died of a heart attack at age 47 on February 6, 1976. He was found dead in a room at the Red Cottage Inn, where he had been relaxing between sets at Butterfield’s Nightclub in Menlo Park, California. Guaraldi had just finished recording the soundtrack for It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown earlier that afternoon.(Wikipedia)
Despite leaving this world at a rather young age, Vince has left us a huge catalog to enjoy. From his early work with Cal Tjader to his work with trios, bands and guitarist Bola Sete…it’s all mostly still available. And of course, there’s all this music from the various Peanuts’ television specials. With the holiday season upon us, I’m sure you’ll be hearing it soon.
After the screening, Andrew Thomas and I spoke for a few minutes about Vince and particularly about Fantasy Records. Off and on for about a dozen years I represented their product line and knew some of the characters who are now long gone. I asked if the new owners…Norman and his Concord Music Group…were all over this film as a way to increase awareness of Vince’s music. The answer was not quite yet…they were hoping to partner with the label but it takes time…you know…business…and all that jazz.
This film has been playing and receiving awards at film festivals all over the country. A DVD and soundtrack are planned in the near future.