As I've gotten older, Christmas has turned from a season of effortless magic into a time of nonstop busyness and tasks that must be completed, as it usually does for most people. But one way that the magic remains for me is in the music.
As Thanksgiving dinner is digested (and usually not one moment later) I pull out Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack
and the familiar sound of Guaraldi's cerebral piano jazz fills the room. Once again, the Christmas season has turned into an excuse to hear some of my favorite music in the world—and there's a primal connection; I've been listening to this stuff longer than even my most favorite pop music.
Interestingly, when Charles Schultz created his first television special, the now beloved Charlie Brown Christmas
, everyone thought he was nuts for using such grown-up music for a kids show. And yet, Guaraldi's soundtrack has contributed immeasureably to the timeless appeal of this holiday chestnut.
Another guy making similar artistic decisions (or, in this context, maybe I should say "another cat
") was Fred Rogers. Instead of twee, dumbed-down kiddy tunes for his program, he instead drafted Johnny Costa to lay, again, cerebral piano jazz to carry the show along.
As a 2000 article
in Christianity Today
Johnny Costa, who Mister Rogers says was "probably one of the finest jazz pianists in the world," had been the music director for nearly three decades when he died in 1996. "I was a real jazzer," Costa once said, and so he wasn't sure if directing music for a children's program was the best way to use his talents. Rogers encouraged him to do all the jazz he wanted for the program. Costa decided that, rather than create singsongy and childlike music, he would improvise with his own style. He played live in the studio for each program.
The end result, for me, was a process of artistic curiousity and exploration that led me to the prime mover of cerebral piano jazz: Bill Evans, to whom both Guaraldi and Costa owe an artistic debt. Evans, who was classically trained and brought new sophistication to jazz piano, rose to prominence as a member of Miles Davis' late '50s ensemble. He struck out on his own shortly thereafter with Everybody Digs Bill Evans
, which I got for Christmas a few years ago.
Probably since I had my own, frustrated, childhood grappling with classical piano (along with seven years of lessons) I've become a bit of an Evans obsessive, as many tend to do... especially musicians. I can certainly listen to as many takes of Waltz For Debby
as are out there.
So, the ironic effect of both Rogers' and Schultz' artistic decisions was to make me a huge fan of a chronically drug-addicted jazzer. (Evans was a well-known heroin addict in his '50s and '60s prime, and a cocaine addict thereafter. He died in 1980 at only 51, his life likely shortened by his substance abuse.)
Unfortunately, current children's programs making such progressive musical choices are rare. However, Mister Rogers Neighborhood
is still in constant reruns for my moppet, and the Charlie Brown specials tend to pop up regularly as well. Nothing good really goes away. I least, I hope not.