Urban Culture Vulture: Playboy, Charlie Brown, and West Coast Jazz

I’m always a sucker for someone who has a complete, encyclopedic knowledge of one specific topic. When I was 14, I met a girl who knew everything there is to know about whales — she’s my best friend to this day. My little sister can tell you anything you’d ever need to know about vintage pin collections. ASU professor Andrew Barnes, it just so happens, has an exhaustive knowledge of jazz. So much so, in fact, that he gave the final lecture in ASU’s Jazz A to Z project lecture series.

Specifically, the topic was West Coast Jazz, but it’s clear that Barnes would be qualified to talk about any number of jazz subgenres. While his official area of academic expertise is early modern Europe, Barnes describes his passion for jazz as a lifelong obsession, one that began in his uncle’s St. Louis juke joint in the ‘50s. While he quickly discovered he lacked the talent necessary to be a jazz musician, his love for the music only increased with age, and Barnes even DJ’d his own radio show as an undergrad at Princeton. So while his main credential as a lecturer on jazz is his 40 years of experience listening to jazz, that’s more than good enough for me.

Jazz lover Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas catapulted musician Vince Guaraldi to commercial success. Picture from TVguide.com, originally created by Charles Schultz.

Barnes begins his lecture by citing the most universally recognized piece of jazz in the United States: Vince Guaraldi’s music for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi was a San Francisco jazz musician as talented as many of his critically acclaimed peers, but reviews of his work were almost all negative. Barnes then puts Vince Guaraldi’s story on pause for a second to tell us a little bit about the history of West Coast Jazz and the scene that Guaraldi came from, which is most often credited with bringing strange instrumentation like the flute into jazz music.

The way Barnes tells it, it all began in New York in ’46, when New York jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie (a favorite of Allen Ginsberg’s) and Charlie Parker came to California and recorded some of their most popular music ever. Soon an entire scene sprang up there, with an audience to boot — a fact that was solidified when Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine began publishing its very own Jazz Poll and including prominent West Coast jazz musicians. Thanks to Hef, jazz soon became the cool music of choice for young white guys looking to increase their sex appeal.

Ultimately, Barnes says, West Coast Jazz was about pure musical beauty — something that Charlie Brown’s Vince Guaraldi understood. In fact, he goes so far as to say that Guaraldi was the definitive sound of American jazz in the second half of the 20th century. He chalks up Guaraldi’s lack of critical acclaim to a standard East-coast fear of the impact of West Coast Jazz. To Barnes, this is silly: “Jazz didn’t die,” he says, “it changed coasts.”

Looking to listen to (and watch) some of the west coast’s most famous jazz musicians? Professor Barnes suggests youtubing episodes of the short-lived Nat King Cole Show, or LA’s Frankly Jazz. Or, of course, you could always dust off an old copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Email me at jlpruett@asu.edu.