This blog post first appeared on the Unitive. Re-published with permission.
The song “Linus and Lucy” made it’s television debut in 1965 as part of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Since then, the song has become one of the most recognizable tunes in the lexicon of popular jazz music and is now synonymous with Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters. People may recognize the religious significance of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (expressed most clearly in Linus’ Monologue), and yet few people would give much thought to the role played by its music. Indeed, Presbyterian minister Robert Short wrote a whole book (The Gospel According to Peanuts) exploring the theological world presented by Charles Schulz through his comic strip characters, but what about that Jazzy soundtrack?
Vince Guaraldi was born and raised in San Francisco, and by 1963 he and his Trio had achieved real success with a Grammy award for the song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” Upon hearing Guaraldi’s award winning tune on the radio, producer Lee Mendelson was convinced that Vince Guaraldi would be the perfect person to compose music for a television special starring the Peanuts characters. It was clearly the perfect match, and Guaraldi would go on to compose music for no less than seventeen Peanuts television specials before passing away of a heart attack at the age of 47.
What may be surprising to know is that in the same year that Vince Guaraldi was recruited for the Charlie Brown Christmas special, he was also taking on the role of of composer and pianist for the Eucharist chorus at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Guaraldi wrote and recorded an entire concert of sacred music, which included rather interesting jazz renditions of the Nicene Creed and Kyrie Eleison. Not everyone may see Jazz as a suitable medium for the sacred, but knowing that Guaralidi was involved in this kind of work may give us reason to reconsider the theological significance of his other music. Indeed, listening closely to the song “Christmas Time is Here” we might see how Jazz is particularly appropriate for celebrating Advent.
The season of Advent is the time in the church calendar where we experience most acutely the tension in our faith of the “already” and “not yet” of God’s kingdom. Throughout Advent we experience the anticipation of Christ’s coming, and on Christmas day we get to celebrate the fulfillment of our hopes in the nativity scene, as Jesus is born of the virgin Mary. Rightfully we take joy in Christ’s arrival at Bethlehem, but that’s not the whole story, because we are still waiting. While we know that God’s kingdom has come to earth through the incarnation we also await Christ’s return; we await the day when the Prince of Peace will fully establish His Kingdom. Christ has come, Christ will come again, that is the tension of faith we live in, but what does that have to do with Jazz music?
Listening to “Christmas Time is Here” – a song written in F Major – I think it is interesting that as he comes to the very end of the tune Vince Guaraldi stops on the note of G. It’s a very Jazzy thing to do, to end on the 2nd note of the scale, and it gives the whole song just a tiny bit of tension. You can hear this tension yourself if you play G and F together on the piano; go ahead and give it a try, I can wait.
Can you hear it? Whether we are conscious of it or not we sense that tension and we anticipate that another note is yet to come. Guaraldi could have resolved that tension by ending the song on the Tonic note of F, or even by jumping up to the 5th which is C. Had the song been written in another style that would probably be how it would end. But Jazz is all about tension – tensions of rhythm, tensions of tone, dynamic tensions – and in this way it may be uniquely suited to embody the “already” and “not yet” of our faith. Did Mr. Guaraldi’s have this in mind when he was composing his Charlie Brown music? It’s hard to know. Regardless, the unresolved musical tension at the end of “Christmas Time is Here” invokes the theological in-betweenness of our faith. We celebrate and enjoy the arrival of Jesus at Christmas, but when the celebration is over and the song comes to an end we are still left anticipating something more.
So, when you reach for the Christmas music in the coming days why not give Vince Guaraldi’s music a spin?
Live into the tension of our faith, and have a blessed Christmas season.