I jumped at the chance to review Derrick Bang’s biography, “Vince Guaraldi at the Piano”, having been a fan of Guaraldi since I first heard his song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”. Listening to Guaraldi’s music made me think that I would have liked him had I ever met him, after reading Bang’s well researched biography I’m sure I would have.
Bang concentrates on Guaraldi’s professional life but manages to include relevant aspects of his personal life. For instance two of Guaraldi’s uncles are professional musicians, he grew up exposed to the realities of the job,
the need to always be practicing, the work hours, and the uncertain paychecks. Bang follows Guaraldi’s career from playing at school dances and parties for his classmates to summers moving back and forth from lesbian bars and strip clubs, to first occasional work as a sideman with Cal Tjader, to becoming a regular with Tjader’s group until finally stepping out with his own group.
Guaraldi’s third album, titled for the 1959 movie “Black Orpheus” focused on Guaraldi’s interpretations of Latin music. Since those cuts were not enough to fill an album Guaraldi used several of his other compositions to fill out the album. Fantasy Records, the company Guaraldi was under contract with, issued a 45 single to promote the album. One of Guaraldi’s other compositions, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became the B side of the record. Over the next few years that recording climbed the charts, first the 45, then the albums, one Stereo and one Monaural, made it into their respective “Best of the Week” charts and Guaraldi’s life became hectic.
He became so busy that Bang had to devote separate chapters to events unfolding at the same time. First the rise of Guaraldi’s Grammy winning recording of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”. Second, as a direct result of someone hearing that record, he was asked to compose a Jazz Mass for the opening of San Francisco’s long awaited Grace Cathedral, a controversial effort to bring, as some said, saloon music, into the church. Third, again because of CYFttW,, a struggling local production company asked him to score a documentary they were doing on a local writer.
“Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, a jazz instrumental, climbed the pop charts in a year when Elvis and the Memphis Sound was battling it out with the Beatles and the British Invasion. Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass changed church music forever. It was the third project that became Guaraldi’s overshadowing success. I do mean overshadowing. In fact when I saw that Bang’s other works were on Charles Schulz I feared that the Peanuts gang would crowd Guaraldi out of his own biography.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Bang shows us the life of a hard working piano man, a determined professional who overcame his inability to read music. We get a look at what is was like to struggle as a Union musician in the days when a week was a long engagement and as a recording artist when the record companies ruled like feudal lords. He paints a vivid picture of the San Francisco jazz scene and what a small world professional jazz is. Of the few jazz musicians I know most of them turned up at one time or another sharing a stage with Guaraldi. Of the names that I never expected to show up, Jerry Garcia was the most surprising.
This is a wonderfully entertaining story that somehow gets even more engrossing after Guaraldi’s death in 1976 at age 47. The only negative I can say about this book is that exploring its discography of Guaraldi’s recordings is going to be expensive.