‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’: Vince Guaraldi’s Music Was ‘Crucial’ to Special’s Success

A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t just a beloved holiday special. The 1965 cartoon’s soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio is also one of the most popular Christmas albums of all time. Producer Lee Mendelson has even credited the special’s jazzy music with making it an enduring Christmastime classic. 

‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ producer wanted to do something different with the special’s music 

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In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, producer Lee Mendelson reflected on the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas. He explained that he knew he wanted to do something a little unexpected for the special’s music. 

“I wanted to use different kinds of music. I knew we would use traditional Christmas music, and we would use some Beethoven because Schroeder played Beethoven,” Mendelson said. But he also wanted to use jazz music in the story of Charlie Brown and his attempt to organize a Christmas pageant with his friends. Mendelson turned to Grammy-winning composer Guaraldi for help. 

Mendelson originally wanted to work with Dave Brubeck 

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt leaning on a brick wall in the snow in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'
‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ | ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Guaraldi worked on the Christmas special and composed such memorable tunes as “Linus & Lucy” and “Christmastime Is Here.” But the special’s music nearly could have been composed by another well-known jazz musician: Dave Brubeck. 

Before making the Peanuts Christmas special, Mendelson worked on a documentary about Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. He had hoped to get Brubeck to do the music for that project. 

“I’d first called Dave Brubeck, who was an old friend, and he was busy,” Mendelson recalled. Brubeck suggested another musician, Cal Tjader. Tjader was also unavailable but referred the producer to Guaraldi. 

Thus began Guaraldi’s long association with Peanuts. After A Charlie Brown Christmas, he went on to work on It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and many other Peanuts specials. According to Mendelson, both Brubeck and Tjader felt they’d missed out on a golden opportunity. 

“Years later they both said they wished they hadn’t been busy,” he said. 

Lee Mendelson said Vince Guaraldi’s music was a key part of the appeal of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ 

Black and white photo of Vince Guaraldi at the piano
Vince Guaraldi | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Guaraldi’s music is as much a part of the appeal of A Charlie Brown Christmas as its message about remembering the true meaning of Christmas amid holiday stress and rampant commercialization. Mendelson credited the composer for the special’s popularity. 

“I think Guaraldi’s music was crucial to its success,” he said. “Because that was the first time a cartoon had used jazz, had used adult music. That raised it a certain level.” 

“Schulz felt the same thing,” Mendelson added. “[The music] was one of the really critical elements to its success.” 

Guaraldi managed to nail a sound that would appeal to both young viewers and their more sophisticated parents, Mendelson explained in his book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition (via PBS). 

“The same way Bill kept the animation simple, Vince kept the music simple,” he wrote. “This was jazz that appealed to both kids and adults, that captured the spirit of the characters. The music helped make the shows, and the shows helped make the music.” 

A Charlie Brown Christmas airs Sunday, Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m. on PBS. (Check local listings.)

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