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Bang explores life of ‘Charlie Brown’ composer Guaraldi in new book

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From page A3 | May 08, 2012 | 1 Comment

Author Derrick Bang will sign copies of his new book, “Vince Guaraldi at the Piano,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in downtown Davis. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

Check it out

What: Author Derrick Bang will sign copies of his new book, “Vince Guaraldi at the Piano”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in downtown Davis

Author Derrick Bang — known to Davis Enterprise readers for his many movie reviews — first noticed the music of jazz pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi a long time ago.

“I’ve been a fan since the first ‘Peanuts’ TV special — ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ — aired on Dec. 9, 1965,” Bang said.

A boy at the time, Bang was attracted to the original music that Guaraldi had written and recorded for the show. As a teen, “I bought some of his albums,” Bang said, “and I realized that he had worked as a sideman with a lot of different folks” — including several of Cal Tjader’s combos.

“When I came to UC Davis as a student in 1973, I had the intention of heading to the Bay Area one day and seeing Guaraldi perform,” Bang recalled.

Guaraldi, a native San Franciscan, appeared regularly in Bay Area jazz clubs. However Bang didn’t have a car, which made getting to one of the pianist’s gigs a bit of a challenge.

“But I figured there was no hurry,” Bang said, “because he wasn’t that old.”

But then Guaraldi died unexpectedly in February 1976, at age 47, attributed to a heart attack or an aortic aneurism.

“Talk about missed opportunities,” Bang said. “It’s one of those things I look back on with regret.”

Bang’s ongoing interest in the “Peanuts” comic strip and its creator Charles Schulz (Bang has written two books on the subject) kept bringing him back to Guaraldi. Eventually, Bang decided to prepare an essay about the composer.

“And I began to realize that there was very little written about him, anywhere.”

After the essay, Bang started working on a Guaraldi discography and a biographical timeline, with as much information as he was able to gather.

In the 1990s, Bang’s postings about Guaraldi drew the attention of Santa Cruz-based pianist George Winston, who was preparing to record an album of Guaraldi’s compositions (“Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi,” 1996).

Bang attended one of Winston’s concerts in Santa Rosa in 1998, and was invited backstage. There, Bang met Guaraldi’s adult son David, and the pianist’s mother, who had kept extensive scrapbooks with newspaper clippings documenting her son’s musical career.

The family generously let Bang copy material from the scrapbooks, which he used to beef up his Web pages about Guaraldi. And eventually — sometime around 2006 — Bang decided there probably was a book to be written about Guaraldi’s life — but he also realized he would need to move fast, since many of the people who had worked with Guaraldi were fading away.

Bang got in touch with Lee Mendelson, the executive producer of the “Peanuts” TV specials, a critical source, by then in his 70s.

“But I discovered I had already missed the opportunity to talk to Guaraldi’s ex-wife, or his longtime girlfriend … they had just died,” Bang said.

There were also complications stemming from the changeover from vinyl LPs to CDs (and later Internet downloads), even as publications switched from printed form to online archives, with vexing gaps in indexing during these transitions.

Bang’s research led him to realize that Guaraldi’s life had even been busier than Bang had realized.

“Albums that he’d been involved with just kept popping up.”

There were, of course Guaraldi’s albums of “Peanuts”-related music, his albums with his own trio and others with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. But there were also numerous albums by other artists on which Guaraldi appeared as a sideman, with Benny Goodman and others.

“I also learned that he was very involved with the civil rights movement, and frequently donated his time, performing in fundraising concerts. And while I had known that he had composed and performed a jazz Mass for Grace Cathedral in 1965, I was not aware that this was the first jazz Mass ever presented in a church in the United States.” (This was when Bishop James Pike, a noted and controversial progressive, was serving at Grace Cathedral.)

The result of Bang’s research  is “Vince Guaraldi at the Piano,” a 390-page biography, just published by McFarland. Like any thorough biographer, Bang reached some conclusions about what sort of person his subject was. Bang offered the following bullet points about Guaraldi:

* “Guaraldi was driven. Obsessed. Music was everything for him. When he wasn’t performing, he was practicing, and when he wasn’t practicing, he was still thinking about music. Everybody that I’ve chatted with, from his sidemen to others who knew him casually, agreed on this. He almost never switched off. And once he started performing, he was completely enclosed in his musical world.”

* “Guaraldi’s mustache” — an attention-getting handlebar-style soup-strainer, seen on album covers — “was something he grew in self-defense. He was not a tall man, and he had a very boyish face. He got tired of people thinking he was younger than he really was. Then, after grew the mustache, he began to realize it was a great marketing tool, and the mustache became ever more flamboyant.

“It became such a big thing that his label, Fantasy Records, traded on it by handing out cardboard mustaches at clubs where Guaraldi was appearing, so patrons could wear these cardboard mustaches when he came on stage.”

* “He had a remarkable facility for composition. He had a gift for turning theses little spontaneous bits of improv into full-blown melodies. And one of the reasons that his ‘Peanuts’ music continues to be so enduring is that it was very bossa nova/Latin-inflected.

“People get this gently swaying, finger-snapping, toe-tapping buzz from all the ‘Peanuts’ music. It’s got a charming, whimsical, attractive, easily embraced rhythm. And it is happy music. I don’t think you can listen to Guaraldi’s stuff without smiling.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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Discussion | 1 comment

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  • AndersonMay 13, 2012 - 6:20 am

    Great story on a wonderful book, which I read a couple weeks back. Bang has filled a gaping hole in the history of West Coast jazz and American pop culture with this engaging and thorough biography. I notice it's now available in less expensive eBook editions, too. Strongly recommended!

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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