ABC will broadcast the annual special at 8 p.m., bringing what for many is the true start of the Christmas season.
Guaraldi's opening number, "Christmas Time Is Here," the fast-paced instrumental "Linus and Lucy" and the moody "Skating" endure as jazz classics, a strange connection for a genre associated with drugs, dark clubs and intellectual pretension rather than Charles Schulz's middle American cartoon world.
Those who've tried to learn the music, such as me, are mesmerized by Guaraldi's complex chords and challenging meters. Performing with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey, Guaraldi in his piano work ranges from subtle slow phrasing to manic progressions.
The music's originality matches the cartoon's artistic success. Guaraldi's opening number, augmented by a children's choir's ethereal singing, illuminates the dreamlike animation of children skating on a frozen pond as big, lush snowflakes fall.
That's a brilliant piece of video, especially for 1965, when the show first aired. The lyrics, hastily scribbled by Charlie Brown producer Lee Mendelson, reflect the season's mystical power.
Schulz's simple yet transcendent script has strong narrative appeal, with the story of Charlie Brown's journey from despair to ridicule to joyous acceptance. The humor of Lucy's interactions with Charlie Brown, Linus and Guaraldi surrogate Schroeder never loses its appeal. Still daring is Linus' evoking the religious foundation of the holiday in his moving recitation of Luke's Christmas story.
Another interesting cultural tie: Mendelson reached Guaraldi through Ralph J. Gleason, the San Francisco Chronicle's music critic and later co-founder of Rolling Stone. Two volumes of Gleason's work have recently been released. First known for his interviews with jazz musicians, Gleason in his essays for Rolling Stone set the standard for rock criticism. Odd that he'd have a tie to such a mainstream work.
CBS first broadcast the show on Dec. 9, 1965, with little confidence that it would succeed much less become a classic. The show reflects the best of Schultz's Peanuts philosophy and writing, with perfectly cast child actors and simple animation that achieves compelling symmetry with the folk-like artwork. Above all, there's Guaraldi's music.