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How Three Kansas City Musicians Recreate Vince Guaraldi's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'

J. Robert Schraeder Photography
The Coterie
The cast of the Coterie Theatre's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' and musicians Sam Wisman (percussion), Jeff Harshbarger (bass) and Gary Adams (piano).

Amid the vast genre known as holiday music, few classics stand out as much as A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to the iconic Peanuts television special.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the TV cartoon is the Coterie Theatre's live production. Demand for tickets was so intense the show is now sold out until after Christmas (it runs through Jan. 3).

Credit J. Robert Schraeder Photography / The Coterie Theatre
The Coterie Theatre
Sam Wisman grew up Jewish, so Christmas music wasn't big in his house. But 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was the first jazz music he remembers hearing.

"People really have a hunger and interest in seeing these Charlie Brown characters in this anniversary year," notes Jeff Church, the Coterie's producing artistic director. 

What really makes the show special, Church, says, is the accompanying jazz trio: Gary Adams on piano, Jeff Harshbarger on bass and Sam Wisman on percussion.

"Vince Guaraldi is so famous and we associate that music with all of the nostalgia we have for the Peanuts characters, to hear it live is such a high," Church says. "It’s not canned, it’s live and  in front of us. The parents have all of the nostalgia of their childhood, watching the TV special, so they get verklempt when they hear the music. And the kids just hear the purity of it."

Just off stage at a recent performance, the three musicians spoke with KCUR about their own relationship with the Guaraldi music and what it’s like to recreate it for an audience of children and their parents.

Credit J. Robert Schraeder Photography / The Coterie Theatre
The Coterie Theatre
The son of musicians, Jeff Harshbarger says the Vince Guaraldi Trio's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is 'in my DNA.'

Harshbarger: “It was always on in the house every Christmastime. My parents are both musicians too. My father’s a jazz saxophone player. He actually had the vinyl of the Vince Guaraldi Trio doing the soundtrack. So it’s kind of in my DNA. I’ve heard this music a lot.”

Adams: “It’s interesting because at Christmastime I’m always working a lot, and so I really was not that familiar with A Charlie Brown Christmas special until this. But even as a kid, I didn’t really, I don’t know why, I didn’t come in contact with it. I was deprived.”

Wisman: “Growing up Jewish, Christmas was not as big a part of my house as a lot of kids. But certainly I remember watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. I imagine for a lot of people, Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas music was some of the first jazz music they ever heard. It’s cool to play it live for these kids. It’s probably the first jazz music they’ve heard as well.”

Harshbarger: “Nothing really sounds like this record. The trio has a unique feel.”

Credit J. Robert Schraeder Photography / The Coterie Theatre
The Coterie Theatre
Gary Adams says he was 'deprived' because he didn't know much about 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' until the Coterie's show.

Wisman: “As soon as I knew I was going to do it, I went to listen to the original album because I hadn’t really heard it isolated in a long time. I’d watched the specials, but on the record you can hear the music in a clear way. So I said, OK, I’m going to use these drums, these cymbals.”

Harshbarger: “I definitely learned a lot listening to this record when I was younger. So to be able to actual play it is really wonderful. And I’m spending a lot of time thinking about some of my old teachers and the sound of the bass and how to get my instrument to sound this way.”

Wisman: “It’s different from a lot of musical theater that I’ve played in that there’s room for improvisation.”

Adams: “It’s very fun to have the opportunity to have a little freedom. As long as you do it and you don’t upstage the actors.”

Wisman: “I think it was yesterday, there was probably a two-year-old girl just getting down, dancing.”

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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