Playing for Peanuts | Reviving the Music of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

A Charlie Brown Christmas” made its debut on Dec. 9, 1965, on CBS. Sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company, this holiday classic based on Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip was made on a shoestring budget by director Bill Melendez who had previously worked on Disney films including “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi” and “Fantasia.” Instead of a laugh track, which was standard for children’s television animation at that time, Melendez made the atypical, yet essential choice to hire avant-garde pianist Vince Guaraldi to compose a jazz score for the project.

“It’s just the simplistic, hummable melodies [Vince Guaraldi] wrote. You can whistle or sing ‘Linus and Lucy’ in your sleep. It sounds so clean, like they weren’t really trying too hard.” — Chris Sexton

He knew of the charismatic artist from his easy listening hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which won a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963. Although the final touches were made on the back of a paper napkin mere days before the broadcast, Guaraldi’s winning combination of thoughtful themes woven around familiar, yet surprising melodies is easily as enduring as the film itself, which has become a holiday staple over the years. The soundtrack he envisaged featuring tunes such as “Linus and Lucy,” “Skating,” “Christmas Time is Here” and jazzy reinterpretations of traditional carols made a mark on popular culture that will remain.

Watch the humorous, homemade music video for “Hot Date”

This is especially true if one group of local musicians has anything to do with it. Known as The Peanuts Gang Trio, alumni of University of Nevada, Reno Jazz and Instrumental Music Department led by pianist Chris Sexton, has been paying tribute to Guaraldi’s masterpiece for the past five winter seasons. Like many, Sexton recalls Guaraldi’s timeless music floating through the background of his childhood Christmas memories.

“My parents have been playing those records around the house since I was born,” says the Reno native.

When he began studying jazz piano at age 16, Sexton fell in love with the Guaraldi sound all over again and learned a lot of the music for himself.

“It’s just the simplistic, hummable melodies he wrote,” he says. “You can whistle or sing “Linus and Lucy” in your sleep. It sounds so clean, like they weren’t really trying too hard.”

Dec. 19 | 9 p.m.
Rum Sugar Lime | Reno, Nev.

Dec. 20-21 | 8 p.m.
Moody’s Bistro, Bar & Beats | Truckee

Dec. 22 | 2 p.m.
Northstar California | Truckee

 Dec. 22 | 7 p.m.
West Street Market | Reno, Nev.

 Jan. 2 | 5 p.m.
Nevada Museum of Art | Reno, Nev.

The Peanuts Gang Trio took a similarly authentic approach this summer when recording their debut album, aptly titled “Welcome In.” Sexton’s brother Mark, with whom he plays in neo-soul group The Sextones, recorded the trio live with only three microphones in Chris’ living room near the Truckee River in southwest Reno. In the process, he captured six original compositions inspired by Guaraldi’s signature style and unique approach to songwriting.

“When I think about the Guaraldi sound, I envision a playful nature,” says Sexton. “There’s something really fun and instantly engaging about it and I wanted to write some material that took that into consideration. For this music he was looking at certain scenes created by Melendez and I think that’s what I was trying to go for, too.”

On its surface, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a about a loveable loser who feels depressed about the holidays. With the help of his friends, he discovers the true meaning of Christmas amid the garish trappings of an increasingly commercialized holiday. Much like Guaraldi did for the television special, Sexton envisioned animated scenarios in his head while composing emotionally resonant, musical messages to not only accompany, but enhance the magic of the lighthearted, touching scenes of his imagination. The resulting music is a warm, appealing romp through various subgenres of jazz that show off the chops of drummer Greg Lewis (of Rob Ford Explorer) and bassist Mac Esposito, as well as Sexton’s intricate, inventive talent as a composer.

Opening track “Saint Duke” reanimates a New Orleans second-line funeral marching through the French Quarter while “Festa na Piscina” (Portuguese for pool party) has a Brazilian flair that brings to mind elves serving daiquiris in the sunshine.

Waltz ballad “Always Believe” features heartfelt alto vocals from Sexton and single-track “Hot Date,” the up-tempo 1950s swing in the style of Charlie Parker.

“Snowflake Dance” covers the psychedelic ground of modern jazz looping and swirling like ice crystals in the winter wind, before the album is capped by “The Coolest Kid on the Playground” featuring raw, old-school Ramsey Lewis blues channeled through Sexton’s nimbly ingenious fingers.

“I’m heavily inspired by a bunch of film music,” says the prolific artist who also plays with reggae rockers The Umpires and alt-country group Dainesly. “My ultimate goal in life is to become some kind of film composer so I wanted to spotlight that with this project.” |,,,