Photograph by Max Weiss
SCORE: Vince Guaraldi's life was marked by serendipity.
Old Jazz Hands
'Peanuts' composer Vince Guaraldi remembered in new documentary
By Caroline Osborn
Andrew Thomas and Toby Gleason are two men who can't be pinned down. "Don't consider us filmmakers," Thomas advises. "Consider us cultural anthropologists."
Thomas, an Emmy award–winning documentary maker, collaborated with Gleason, a KRCB jazz DJ, voice actor and son of Rolling Stone cofounder Ralph J. Gleason, to create a filmic tribute to Bay Area jazz luminary Vince Guaraldi. Haven't heard of him? Think again. The jazz world lauds Guaraldi for his performances with Woody Herman's band and Bola Sete, as a member of the resident trio at the hungry i nightclub and a regular performer at Sausalito's Trident Lounge, but everyone else knows him as the "Peanuts" composer.
"I think that to the generation of 'Peanuts' fans, he's almost the world's best-known jazz musician whose name you don't know," Gleason says.
Gleason and Thomas present their documentary about the artist, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, to North Bay audiences at the Sausalito Film Festival Aug. 14.
Guaraldi's propensity for pop/jazz crossover sealed his legacy as one of the only jazz musicians ever to break into pop radio's Top 40. He bridged the gap in 1963 with his hit single "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." But Gleason knows him first and foremost as a family friend. "[Vince] and my father were very close during the late '50s up to about the mid- to late '60s," Gleason remembers. "In my formative years, he was around a lot. I liked him. He was fun. He gave me yo-yo lessons. He took me for a ride in his black Porsche that he got from his first royalty check from 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind.' I always felt a special fondness for Vince."
Gleason's affection for the friendly man with the thick black mustache and thick black glasses went beyond his general affability. "One of the reasons I liked him more than I liked a lot of other jazz musicians is that he was very good with kids, and he was small for an adult, so he was a lot closer to our physical size," he laughs. Gleason estimates Guaraldi's height at around 5-foot-4, give or take a few inches. Perhaps his short stature and easy rapport with youngsters contributed to his talent with cartoon scores.
"Vince had an innocence and childlikeness within him and an ability to compose jazz music that was as much for children as it was for adults," Gleason says. "Not a lot of artists can have that light, that innocent, that joyous of a touch."
Video footage of Guaraldi was hard to come by. Fortunately, Ralph J. Gleason's friendship with Guaraldi elicited hours of exclusive performances and interviews of a man known for not leaving much of a visual record of his life. "My father filmed him more than probably anybody else in the world," Gleason says. Some of this footage comes from Ralph's Jazz Casual, a television series in which he gave oft-shortchanged jazz musicians extended airtime. Guaraldi appeared as a guest on the show twice.
Still more filmic record of Guaraldi comes from a 1963 documentary Gleason made with his friend entitled Anatomy of a Hit in reference to Guaraldi's breakout success, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." Since Gleason and Thomas estimate that they drew about half of their new movie from this past doc, they titled their work The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi as a nod to Ralph's work.
Although Jazz Casual is currently out of print, Gleason released it through Rhino Records in the 1990s. That's where he met Thomas, then a Rhino employee, who helped him package the video release.
Gleason originally conceived of the project as a rerelease of 1963's Anatomy of a Hit. Thomas suggested going even further. The new film could extend Guaraldi's story beyond 1963 and thus delve into the part of his career that had not yet occurred at the time of Ralph's film, heightening its relevance to the modern audience.
But even with the world's largest trove of Guaraldi footage at their fingertips, Gleason and Thomas did not have nearly enough materially or philosophically to carry the film on the old video alone.
They sought out other jazz musicians that Guaraldi had known, as well as other prominent members of the North Beach scene.
"If you're going to say 'What's it like to be a jazz musician in North Beach in the '60s?' you have to rely on what is the ethos of the people who were living and performing there," Thomas explains. "When you start a project like this and you're really talking about the existential essence of somebody, you really need to come at it from a more ethereal place. Who Vince really was has to be examined in a more existential vein." Most of the people interviewed were Gleason's longtime friends; he describes the filming process as "old home week."
Thomas used a stabilizing device called a fig rig for his camera when taping interviews. The fig rig looks like a steering wheel with a horizontal bar cutting across the bottom quarter on which the filmmaker rests his small camera. This casual setup allowed Thomas to converse with his subjects comfortably.
"Each conversation would be three or four hours," Thomas says. "We'd talk about all sorts of things, not just Vince. After a while, they'd forget that there's a camera, because it's just me sitting in a room with this thing on my lap. We got recollections that nobody else would ever get. Dave Brubeck doesn't perform 'Take Five' on our film; he sings it. That's different. There's no other place where you'll find Dick Gregory whispering, 'I finally had to get away from Lenny Bruce because the trial fucked up his head so badly.'"
Gleason and Thomas' immense enthusiasm was unfortunately not matched by an ample budget. "We started [filming] on the day Obama was elected president," Thomas says, marking his past with a reference to progressive politics, a subject that he consistently and easily slips into conversation. "I had to take off for a month and a half in March because we had no money," he continues. "We did this all with pocket change and what we could find in the cushions of the couch. There was no funding for this at all."
Thomas, who has worked extensively with Disney, A&E, Discovery and Fox, avoided seeking corporate sponsorship on purpose. "I discovered that when corporate media is paying the tab, they have, legitimately, the right to tailor the content of the piece to their own sensibilities," he says. "There was no way corporate America was going to allow us to talk to jazz musicians about the necessity of smoking pot or to have an aging gay priest talk about Hiroshima." Thomas laughs. "There are some rather pointed and angry statements in the film."
Artistic freedom came at a price. "I'd [take the money I had] and I'd fly to New York, rent a car, sleep in the car, drive from place to place, sleep in the airports," Thomas confesses. "Eventually, I actually lost my house. I was living up in Sonoma. At a certain point, you say, 'Roll the dice.'"
Yet Thomas' unwavering devotion to the importance of pure art has never been clearer. "If you're going to have credibility as an artist, and if you're going to have the kind of independence that you think the subject deserves, you have to be willing to make some sacrifices," he says. "To be honest, the way the world is now, if the sacrifice is economic, that's a small price to pay."
As economically tough as the project was, Gleason and Thomas' art karma has rewarded them in full. "Everything we did was serendipity," Thomas says. "Why would the people who were in the film be available at the only time we could do it? We were dirt poor, but the one time I happened to be driving through northern Pennsylvania, Dave Brubeck was there. The one time that Toby and I happened to be doing a thing in Oakland, Jerry Granelli came to visit his daughter in San Francisco for the first time in 30 years."
Thomas notices a confluence of happy accidents surrounding both his and Gleason's experiences with Guaraldi. "The film is actually about serendipity," Thomas says. "Nothing happened in [Guaraldi's] life that wasn't the product of serendipity. He happened to be in the right place at the right time for every goddamned thing that happened to him. I think that that's reason for celebration. It says that the cosmos works."
Thomas hopes that Guaraldi's knack for lucky happenstance will inspire audiences. "To me, without being either maudlin or a Pollyanna, our theme of serendipity is probably the most hopeful idea that we can give the public today. It says that things can work out thanks to just the general clockwork of the universe. If you just hold on, it will come together. That's what it's about."
The Sausalito Film Festival runs Aug. 13–Aug. 15. 'The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi' makes its Bay Area debut on Saturday, Aug. 14. The Rev. Malcolm Boyd performs after the film. Cavallo Point, 601 Murray Circle, Fort Baker, Sausalito. 7pm. $25. 415.887.9506.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.