TORONTO — A few days ago, Jerry Granelli found himself idly flipping TV channels in a New York hotel room when he stopped on a familiar holiday favourite: A Charlie Brown Christmas.
There was a time when the Halifax resident would have simply kept on flipping. You see, the 69-year-old drummer is the only surviving member of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, which wrote and performed the holiday special’s memorable soundtrack.
In the 45 years since, Granelli has at times downplayed his connection to the beloved special, mainly because he felt it was a world away from his accomplishments as a seriously daring jazz percussionist.
But this time, he stopped, and he watched. And he dug it.
“It was great!” the affable Granelli said over the line from Halifax on Tuesday. “I enjoyed it, man. I was like: ‘Wow, that’s cool work.’
“I’m over the part of me that was just busy moving on, you know? ’Cause I’m going to be 70 in a week. I’m not trying to sound ancient or wise or anything — I’m certainly not — but yeah, you can look back on it and appreciate it, because it happened.
“It just happened. It wasn’t a formula, man. It just wasn’t a formula.”
Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a pretty amazing series of circumstances that led to Granelli’s involvement with the 1965 special.
In the early ’60s, Granelli heard that Guaraldi needed a drummer. Guaraldi was a hot name at that point. Granelli went out to Sacramento to audition, knowing that “everybody wanted that gig.”
He was only in his early 20s and he was competing for an opening coveted by many more experienced drummers. If he got it, it would be only his first jazz job. Good grief.
“I knew man, I had to play my ass off — this was my chance,” he recalled.
“In all honesty, it was do or die for me. And I think I played way over my head. The music overlords were good to me.”
Granelli initially didn’t think much of it when Guaraldi first mentioned the idea of writing music for a Charlie Brown TV special.
After Guaraldi (who died in 1976) penned the music, the trio rehearsed the tunes every night in jazz clubs. They had the basic framework of the Charlie Brown Christmas songs and would improvise within that — “so that you didn’t just want to blow your brains out” playing the same songs every night, Granelli explained.
When it came time to record, Guaraldi’s trio couldn’t actually see the cartoon and didn’t have concrete times for how long to let the tunes run, which is why the music fades in and out during the special.
Granelli says his approach was defined by simplicity. For instance, Linus and Lucy — likely the most famous original song on the soundtrack — was built around Guaraldi’s deceptively difficult piano melody. But Granelli’s propulsive percussion — which “combines the Latin and the swing feeling,” he says — keeps the tune skittering along.
“Keep it simple, stupid,” Granelli says of his approach. “And you know, don’t make any mistakes.”
Though CBS had been lukewarm on the special and its music (believing that children would be confused by the jazzy soundtrack), “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was an immediate hit. According to one oft-cited ratings estimate, 50 per cent of American TVs were tuned to the show when it first aired on Dec. 9, 1965.
“It was amazing,” Granelli recalled. “It didn’t change our lives right then and there, because that wasn’t the jazz audience that was coming to clubs every night (who watched it).
“But it made some other things possible for Vince, and some other things possible for the trio.”
And the music and special, obviously, have endured.
The album version of the soundtrack — which also includes “Christmastime is Here,” “Skating” and “Christmas is Coming” — has been re-released again and again, most recently in 2006. And the TV special is still primetime appointment viewing for millions each year.
Granelli says it’s hard to pin down a reason for the special’s continued popularity.
“It was serendipity on some level — that’s what made it happen,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really knows what’s going to have the particular magic to do something.”
“But Charles Schultz was being Charles Schultz and Vince was being himself and we were being ourselves, and maybe that’s it. People feel that.”
Granelli didn’t stay with Guaraldi’s trio for long, departing within a year of recording “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” He then went on to play with a long list of impressive jazz musicians, including Charlie Haden, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lou Rawls, Sly Stone, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Mose Allison and John Handy.
He moved to Halifax in 1987. There, he founded the Creative Music Workshop, a two-week intensive music program that he runs each summer in conjunction with the Atlantic Jazz Festival.
This year, he decided to record his first solo drum album, “1313,” released by Divorce Records. The tracks on the album are improvised, with most being recorded without overdubs, and usually in one take.
“I was lonely man, like, ’Where’s the rest of the band?”’ joked Granelli, who’s planning on making a new record with bassist Simon Fisk and saxophonist Danny Oore in January.
Despite its success, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” hasn’t translated into a fortune for Granelli.
He doesn’t get any royalties for the soundtrack unless it’s appropriated for something new. While he asserts that the system for royalties is unfair, he says he isn’t bitter about it now — though he acknowledges that his erstwhile frustration might be a reason he turned his back on the special for so long.
“There was a period of time when I didn’t pay any attention to it when it was going on,” he said. “I didn’t get paid what I should be paid for that. And for years, I never thought it was very important, in a very arrogant way. Because I was on to other things … I always think the next thing I’m doing is the most exciting to me, forget about the past.
“But people would always hear it and like it. And over the years, I think I began to be grateful for that, that gee, you made something that touched somebody. A lot of somebodies. Millions of somebodies. Generations of somebodies.
“My kids saw it, and my grandkids saw it. .. I hear it sometimes and I think: ’That’s really good music. There’s nothing sellout or corny about that. That’s jazz. It’s really good jazz.”’