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“What Christmas is all about”: Jerry Granelli Fosters Togetherness and Tradition With Tales of Charlie Brown

Cover photo by Geoffrey Creighton.

At the climax of the now-classic 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus van Pelt—clutching his beloved blue blanket and illuminated by a single spotlight—offers Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang his definition of the meaning of Christmas. Reciting a verse from the Gospel of Luke, which ends with a promise for “peace and goodwill” towards all, Linus states, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

It’s this emphasis on harmony, togetherness and “loving thy neighbour” that has earned the animated special a place in the Christmas pop culture canon—and it’s that same focus on community and kindness that Jerry Granelli hopes to spread with his upcoming performance, Tales of Charlie Brown.

***

Today, Jerry Granelli is a 76-year-old musician, mentor, educator and community leader living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He records, paints and leads a music camp every summer.

But in the mid-1960’s, Granelli was a hot young jazz-obsessed drummer rocking and rolling through clubs in San Francisco. After earning a reputation for his percussive talents, Granelli found himself a gig behind the kit with the Vince Guaraldi Trio. “I was getting paid to play jazz! Actual money!” he exclaimed, with fond remembrance.

Though the group achieved some success with a hit called “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” they would soon earn themselves a more permanent place in the history books when producer Lee Mendelson heard their song on the radio and recruited the group to compose the soundtrack to an in-progress Peanuts Christmas special.

“Vince saw little bits of animation, but most of the animation wasn’t even done,” Granelli said. “It would just be like: ‘skating,’ and then Vince would get the feel for it, and we put the bass and drums to it…We all knew who Charlie Brown was, so we just tried to capture that.”

The group did so well, they even earned the approval of creator Charles Schulz.

“Charlie just loved it…On later specials, when they started using soundtracks with synthesizers, he would say, ‘Can we go back to Vince’s music? This is not Charlie Brown.’ ‘Cause Vince’s melody is Charlie Brown; it really gets to the heart of who Charlie Brown is.”

The album was recorded very quickly—“Took us about three hours…That’s what you did a record in, in those days. You did a whole record in three hours”—and Granelli took his mere $100 and left, with no idea the project would be as beloved as it is today.

“We had no sense that we were capturing ‘lightning in a bottle.’ No sense of it. And I think that’s what makes it work…The key to this piece is that it was completely honest—no BS. No one was looking to make a hit. Everyone was just having fun and doing a great job…I think that human beings, in our hearts, know what’s true—and we can hear it. I think we really captured the spirit of that moment, and I think it’s lasted because that spirit of…of joy…is getting harder and harder to find in this world.”

***

A few summers ago, a man came up to Granelli on a beach in Cape Breton. Accompanied by his great-grandson and grandson, the man thanked him for the music made many years before, and what the project had come to mean to several generations of their family.

While Granelli had always had a sense of the soundtrack’s importance to people—the record is currently the second-best-selling jazz album of all time, behind only Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue—he was reluctant to revisit his Charlie Brown past, opting instead to focus on his numerous other artistic and musical projects.

However, after reflecting on the encounter at the beach, Granelli realized just how significant the music was to people, and the type of experience he alone—Granelli is the sole surviving member of the Trio—could provide audiences. Thus, for the first time in several decades, Granelli decided to return to the old tunes, putting together a show called Tales of Charlie Brown, which makes its Fredericton debut at the Playhouse on Dec. 18, in conjunction with Shivering Songs Festival.

The show combines stories about the project, various clips from the Schulz family, and, most importantly, 45 minutes of “real jazz music, man. We really play it…I take great pride in really playing this for people.” With each performance, Granelli and his two bandmates are accompanied by a local children’s choir—”The less-perfectly they sing, the better!” he said, honouring the original recordings’ emphasis on honesty. Proceeds raised by the show are donated to arts projects in that performance’s host city.

It’s all in an effort to foster the kind of togetherness Linus encourages, which has become a life mission of Granelli’s. After settling in Halifax in the late 80’s, Granelli co-founded the Atlantic Jazz Festival—the only festival to offer an educational component. Granelli passionately believes in the value of arts education, which he has demonstrated by serving as an instructor for numerous workshops and projects. Yet his greatest concern with these projects is, always, to use the arts to promote community.

“What we need now is community,” he said. “We need our neighbourhoods again. The role of the artist has changed. We need artists who are willing to go out and fight for the arts in our community, and then share that with people.”

Indeed, Tales of Charlie Brown allows him to do just that.

“One of the reasons I’ve been doing this is that it’s got nothing to do with me,” Granelli said. “I just play it. What it really has to do with is bringing people together…It gets to a part of being human that is beyond Christmas. What Linus did his speech about—what the ‘spirit of Christmas’ is—it doesn’t matter what your religion is.

“I happen to be a Buddhist, yet it sure makes sense to me: it’s all about how we can love each other, and about giving. This show gives people a chance to relax for a bit from everything that’s going on in the world. Things are getting long, but for an hour-and-a-half, things aren’t feeling long anymore. Instead, we get to celebrate things that are important to being human.”  

I’m sure that wherever he is, Linus van Pelt approves.  

Photos by Noah Stevens.

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