The talents of Vince Guaraldi and Charles Schulz combined to create the Great Pumpkin and add a universal meaning to Halloween celebrations world-wide.
“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.”
– Linus Van Pelt, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
The Great Pumpkin is alive and growing in Europe, although the American-style Halloween isn’t universally celebrated in Europe. There is a pumpkin farm outside of Paris, France, where people pick their own pumpkins for Halloween and shop keepers in other European countries like Italy feature pumpkins in their Halloween décor and sales.
The Great Pumpkin has accumulated some impressive statistics to make him universal. The original Charles M. Schulz Peanuts comic strip began its decades long run on October 2, 1950, in seven newspapers. The Peanuts comic strip lasted until February 13, 2000, the day after Charles Schulz died at the age of 77. Peanuts appeared in more than 2,000 newspapers in 72 countries, and in 21 languages. It still continues in revisions.
At the beginning of It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, the lilting notes of Linus and Lucy cavort behind them as Linus and Lucy carve a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern. Vince Guaraldi composed and his trio played The Great Pumpkin Waltz and the rest of the music for this story and most of the music for all of the Peanuts cartoons and television specials
Snoopy Fights the Red Baron
During the Charles Schultz special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Schroeder and Snoopy are sitting in the pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin, not really believing that he is going to appear, but waiting just in case. While they are waiting, Schroeder plays World War I music on his toy piano while Snoopy, dressed in his World War I uniform, marches and flies his Sopwith Camel that doubles for his dog house and fights a battle with the Red Baron.
The World War I era songs that Schroeder plays and Snoopy marches to are It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, There’s a Long Long Trail and Roses of Picardy. These are well known and well sung favorites, but most people more readily remember Guaraldi’s Great Pumpkin Waltz and Linus and Lucy. A smaller number of people remember their creator, Vince Guaraldi.
Vince Guaraldi’s Life Story Isn’t As Mysterious as the Great Pumpkin’s Life Story
Born in San Francisco on July 17, 1928, Vincent Anthony Guaraldi, worked hard from his teenage years to earn his big musical break. He graduated from Lincoln High School and went on to San Francisco State College. Always describing himself as a “reformed boogie-woogie piano player,” Vince Guaraldi began performing before he graduated from college. He listened in on sessions at the Black Hawk, a nightclub in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District from 1949-1963, and Jackson’s Nook. Sometimes he played with the Chubby Jackson/Bill Harris band, and other times he played in combos with Sonny Criss and Bill Harris. Outside of nightclubs, he played weddings, concerts, and other venues. By now, his fellow musicians called him “Dr. Funk.”
For his first serious performance, Vince Guaraldi played as an intermission pianist at the Blackhawk, filling in for the famous jazz pianist Art Tatum, Jr. He joined the Cal Tjader Trio, named for vibraphonist Cal Tjader, and made his first recording with them which came out in 1953. His early ten inch LP, recorded under the name The Cal Tjader Trio, included the songs Chopsticks Mambo, and Lullaby of the Leaves. By 1955, he formed his own trio and in June 1956, he reunited with Cal Tjader and played an important part in his two bands. Early in 1959, Vince Guaraldi left Cal Tjader’s group to work fulltime on his own projects.
Vince Guaraldi Didn’t Compose Just for Charles Schultz and His Peanuts Gang
By 1962, when Vince Guaraldi won a Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition for Cast Your Fate to the Wind, his fame had spread throughout the country as well as the San Francisco area. In 1963, Reverend Charles Gompertz, pastor of the Grace Cathedral sitting atop the exclusive Nob Hill neighborhood, wanted to create a modern setting for the choral Eucharist. Reverend Gompertz and Barry Meneah, choral director of St. Paul’s Church of San Rafael, asked Vince Guaraldi to help bring the New Testament alive because he created catchy, tunes that sounded simple but often employed Latin musical elements and unusual time signatures.
After working on his music for 18 months, on May 21, 1965, Vince Guaraldi and his trio and a 68 member choir performed the 40 minute program. The album that he made from the performance became a popular and critical hit. The success of the Grace Cathedral Concert prompted Duke Ellington to play his first concert at Grace Cathedral in December, 1965.
Vince Guaraldi Writes the Music for the Peanuts Gang
Vince Guaraldi’s career now took a twist as enormous as the shadow of the Great Pumpkin over the pumpkin patch. While Lee Mendelson, producer of Peanuts, traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge in a taxi, he heard a version of Cast Your Fate to the Wind. As soon as he got to his destination, he got in touch with Guaraldi through a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and two weeks later, Vince Guaraldi performed a version of what later became Linus and Lucy over the telephone for Lee Mendelson. Vince Guaraldi ended up writing the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, including Christmas Time Is Here. This first Peanuts theatrical feature was aired on December 9, 1955 and it is now one of the many Peanuts classics.
Vince Guaraldi composed the music for sixteen Peanuts television specials, including the music for the original documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Other Peanuts favorites he composed include the songs in The Charlie Brown Suite, and The Peanuts Holiday Collection. Vince Guaraldi continued to release conventional jazz albums, and he finished his final album in 1969. Eventually, he spent most of his time composing Charlie Brown music.
In 1976, after completing work on It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown, Vince Guaraldi accepted a small schedule of nightclub performances in California.
Time Might Obscure Vince Guaraldi’s Life, But Not His Music
After Vince Guaraldi’s groundbreaking Grace Cathedral Concert, a variety of concerts from jazz to folk and rock to chamber music were played at the Grace Cathedral. On May 22, 1976, Cal Tjader performed a concert at Grace Cathedral. Tjader and his group replaced the performer who had been originally scheduled for the concert.
Cal Tjader and his group replaced Vince Guaraldi, who had died on February 6, 1976 of a sudden heart attack at the Butterfield’s nightclub in Menlo Park, California, eleven days before his 48th birthday. In the special This is America, Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown, talking about jazz, mentions Vince Guaraldi by name, and then hums a few bars of Linus and Lucy.
After Vince Guaraldi’s death, his Trio and his songs toured Europe and his songs still travel the world. The circle of the Great Pumpkin’s influence and Vince Guaraldi’s music continues.
- Geraldi, Vince. The Vince Geraldi Collection: Piano Artist Transcriptions, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2001
- Johnson, Rheba Grimsley. Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz, Andrews McMell Publishing, 1995
- Michaelis, David. Schulz and Peanuts. Harper Perennial, Reprint Edition, 2008