Saturday, June 02, 2012

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano: Derrick Bang's Book on a Great Pianist

I am reading Derrick Bang's recent book, "Vince Guaraldi at the Piano." I met Derrick online when he contacted me over my posts about Guaraldi, a personal hero of mine as well as Derrick's.

 Derrick's book is quite compelling, describing the exciting San Francisco jazz scene of the 1950's and Vince Guaraldi's place in it. Vince Guaraldi is well known for his hit tune "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" as well as his association with Charles Schultz and the comic cartoons of "Peanuts." Guaraldi supplied the original jazz accompaniment to "Peanuts" cartoons and television specials.

Vince was taken from us too soon when he died at the age of 47 from an aortic aneurysm, often incorrectly described as a heart attack. He had just played the last set of his life at Butterfield's nightclub in Menlo Park, California, when he took a break to relax in his nearby motel room. It was there that the aneurysm burst and Vince died instantly, without even a chance to have a last word or say goodbye. The date was February 6, 1976.

Intrigued by his music, I yearned to learn more about this enigmatic jazz musician. I visited his grave near San Francisco where he is buried in a common grave with his mother, Carmella. I visited the site of Butterfield's in Menlo Park and the motel next door where he died (the building that was Butterfield's was torn down some months after my visit).

Thanks to Derrick, I am learning a lot more about the life and career of Vince Guaraldi (known as "Dr Funk" among his fellow musicians). Derrick Bang's book "Vince Guaraldi at the Piano" was based on many interviews with the musicians with whom Vince played music, as well as access to newspaper clippings and other family records. He was allowed to peruse Carmella's diary and newspaper clippings of her son, and thus able to string together the disparate facts of Guaraldi's life and career. Derrick was also able to obtain photographs of Vince from throughout his life, from childhood on, from family members, singers and former band mates.

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano
There is a photograph of a young, clean-cut, tuxedoed Guaraldi with his lovely bride, Shirley, in 1953. Other photos show him performing with famous jazz musicians like Carl Tjader.

One of Guaraldi's former girlfriends told me that I have a "man-crush" on Vince Guaraldi, and she is no doubt right, but there is nothing gay about it. I love many men and women whom I never met and never will meet in this life. They inspire me with their creativity and passion for life, their courage, their heroism, their example.

Vince Guaraldi is one of them.    Not just because of his great music, but because he was a little guy with small hands and short fingers who should never have been a piano player, but who refused to quit.  Derrick Bang likens Vince to Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character who was one of life's perpetual losers.  Charlie never won a baseball game, never got the little red-haired girl he secretly loved, who only got rocks instead of candy in his Halloween sack, never received a card on Valentine's Day.

But Charlie never quit, never stopped trying.  Vince was like that.  He learned to use his small hands on the keyboard in highly effective ways and it worked.  He overcame many discouragements, firings and failures, determined to make an important mark on the music world.  He succeeded, and no doubt would have extended his fame and musical creations greatly but for his sudden death at a young age.

I feel that Vince's untimely death was a great cosmic injustice, and I feel like arguing his case before the Court of Heaven.  Then I remember it will do no good.  Heaven has its own ways and purposes and we can only accept what it decrees.  Still, there's a part of my mind that wants to fight about it.

Now I have to dislodge my kitty cat from my lap and get outside where I can light up a cigar and continue reading Derrick's great little book.  What can you do?  You can listen to the sampling of his music below and perhaps gain insight into my admiration for Vince Guaraldi.

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