Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
19:26

Learning Focus
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Holiday
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The beautiful jazz soundtrack of the Vince Guaraldi Trio from A Charlie Brown Christmas represents some of the most beloved sounds of the holiday season. In fact, AllMusic.com ranks Guaraldi’s 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack as #1 on their list of “The 30 Top Christmas Albums of All Time.”¹ In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May breaks down how to play the jazz piano holiday standard “Christmas Time Is Here.” You’ll learn:

Today’s jazz piano lesson on “Christmas Time Is Here” is perfect for beginner and intermediate piano students who want to better understand and play jazz music.

Christmas Time Is Here: Song Facts

Lee Mendelson’s 1965 production of A Charlie Brown Christmas marked the first time that Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters were featured with animation on national TV. Mendelson approached Guaraldi to write the score after the success of his 1962 crossover hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” which won a 1963 Grammy award for Best Original Jazz Composition. Not only was A Charlie Brown Christmas a huge success for Mendelson, but the soundtrack became a huge hit for Guaraldi as well. In fact, the album has sold over 5 million copies. In 2020, the multi-platinum-certified album also reached the Billboard 200’s Top 10, fifty-five years after its original release! That puts Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack in the same league with popular holiday albums by artists including Nat King Cole, Mariah Carey,  Michael Bublé, Pentatonix and Carrie Underwood.³

A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack combines a mix of traditional holiday classics with Guaraldi’s original jazz compositions. In fact, Guaraldi’s original tune “Christmas Time Is Here” became a holiday standard almost immediately. By 2019, it had also become a platinum-certified single. The original A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack contains two versions of “Christmas Time Is Here.” First, there is an instrumental version performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. In addition, the animated film opens with a charming version that contains lyrics sung by a children’s choir.

Vince Guaraldi Trio

“Christmas Time Is Here”  (Instrumental)
Vince Guaraldi Trio

“Christmas Time Is Here” (Vocal)

It was producer Lee Mendelson who suggested that the “Christmas Time Is Here” needed lyrics. However, when a lyricist could not be found to complete the project on short notice, Mendelson wrote the lyrics himself on an envelope in about ten minutes!⁴ Since then, “Christmas Time Is Here” has been covered nearly 600 times by artists representing virtually every genre imaginable.

Christmas Time Is Here: Cover Versions

Since the oringal release of “Christmas Time Is Here,” the tune has been covered by a variety of artists including Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, Patti Austin, Steve Vai, Diane Reeves, Diana Krall, Sarah McLachlan, Toni Braxton, Alicia Keys, Chicago, Stone Temple Pilots and many more.

When it comes to jazz piano versions of “Christmas Time Is Here,” Vince Guaraldi’s 1965 original recording sets the standard. However, here are a few versions you may want to check out:

David Benoit

“Christmas Time Is Here” (1983)
Ellis Marsalis

“Christmas Time Is Here” (2011)
Beegie Adair

“Christmas Time Is Here” (2012)

After today’s lesson, who knows…maybe you’ll be ready record your own version too!

Christmas Time Is Here: Basic Piano Chords

Today’s lesson and backing track are in the key of F Major. In fact, you can download the backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Due to publisher’s restrictions, the PDF lesson sheet is available here through our partner, MusicNotes.com. Be sure to enter your PWJ discount code to receive 20% off.

The harmony for “Christmas Time Is Here” is comprised almost entirely seventh chords—there are a total of 12 chords in all. That makes this a great tune for students who are interesting in learning more about basic jazz piano chords. In today’s lesson, you’ll encounter major 7th chords, minor 7th chords, dominant 7th chords, half-diminished 7th chords and even dominant 7(sus4) chords.

To get started playing “Christmas Time Is Here,” first play each of the following chords in your left hand using the fingering 5–3–2–1.

Jazz Piano Chord Chart to Play Christmas Time is Here

Once you feel comfortable playing each of these chords, you are ready to play through the song’s chord changes shown below.

If you’d like further study on how to play and distinguish between various types of 7th chords, check out our Level 4 Foundations Learning Track.

Chord Changes for “Christmas Time Is Here”

Christmas Time Is Here - Jazz Piano Chord Changes

Great job! If you are more on the beginner level, simply drop in the melody on top of these chords and you have a respectable and recognizable version of this jazzy holiday favorite.

In the next section, intermediate and advanced students can learn more about the jazz piano techniques found in today’s lesson sheet arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Jazz Piano Techniques in Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here”

Let’s suppose that you already know how to play the various types of 7th chords illustrated in the previous section. What are the next steps on a tune like “Christmas Time Is Here?” In this section, we’ll explore additional jazz piano skills and techniques that can enhance your jazz piano playing.

Passings Chords

First, we’ll look at the topic of passings chords. These are nonessential chords added by a composer or arranger to create interesting or unexpected harmonic tensions and resolutions. By nonessential, we simply me that they are ornamental, rather that critical, to the overall harmonic structure of the tune. However, even though passing chords are nonessential from a harmonic perspective, they are an important jazz piano technique for obtaining a professional sound.

Sidestepping

In the jazz piano arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” on today’s lesson sheet, some of the passing chords have been added by Jonny, while others are part of Vince Guaraldi’s original composition. For example, in the second line of the A section, Guaraldi uses a passing chord technique known as sidestepping (aka parallel chords). This technique slides chromatically into a resolution chord by approaching it from a ½ step above (or below) with the same chord voicing. To illustrate the concept of sidestepping, first play the following excerpt which include only the essential chords.

Measures 5–8: Basic Chord Progression

Basic Chord Progression without Jazz Piano Passing Chords

Next, play the same four measure excerpt below which includes the sidestepping passing chords.

Measures 5–8 with ‘Sidestepping’ Passing Chords

Adding Jazz Piano Passing Chords with Sidestepping Technique

Now that you understand how sidestepping works, you can explore adding your own passing chords by sidestepping in other tunes you already know.

Secondary Dominants & Tritone Substitution

Now, let’s look at another jazz piano passing chord technique featured in “Christmas Time Is Here.” In the measures 5–6 of the B section, the basic chords are Am7 to D7. These chords have an important relationship—they are an example of counterclockwise movement around the circle of 5ths. In other words, the root movement from A to D is descending by a perfect 5th. Whenever we have this type of chord progression, we can make the first chord a dominant 7th chord using the secondary dominant technique. For example, instead of Am7→D7, we can substitute A7→D7, since A7 naturally resolves to D.

Circle of 5ths Counter-clockwise movement

 

Secondary Dominant Chord Substitution

Secondary Dominant Passing Chords

Now that you have a framework for understanding how secondary dominants work, let’s look closer at the chords that actually appear in measures 5–6 of the B section.

Christmas Time is Here Jazz Piano Tritone Sub

In this example, instead of having a secondary dominant of A7→D7, we find E♭7→D7 instead. Here, Vince Guaraldi is using a further example of chord substitution known as a tritone substitution. This jazz arranging technique substitutes dominant 7th chords that are a tritone (3 whole steps) apart. This works because dominant 7th chords that are a tritone apart share the same guide tones (3rd and 7th). For example, the guide tones of A7 are C♯ and G. Furthermore, the guide tones of E♭ 7 are G and D♭. When you play the guide tones for A7 and E♭7 on the piano, they are enharmonically the same pitches! The following example illustrates the essence of the tritone substitution technique.

Tritone Substitution

Jazz Piano Tritone Substitution in Christmas Time Is Here

If you found yourself scratching your head in this section, don’t worry. That is literally the response of every student when they are first introduced to secondary dominants and tritone substitution. That’s why PWJ creates complete courses on these important jazz piano techniques. For a deep dive on passing chord techniques, including secondary dominants and tritone substitution, check out our Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Int, Adv) courses.

Let’s now turn our attention to another jazz piano technique in “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Chord Extensions & Alterations

One of the reasons that “Christmas Time Is Here” sounds so inherently jazzy is because Vince Guaraldi has deliberately placed colorful chord tones in the melody. These colorful chord tones include chord extensions and chord alterations. We’ll consider these concepts one at a time.

What are chord extensions?

Chord extensions are any of the three additional chord tones above the 7th that pianists can add to enhance the harmonic color of their chords. Available extensions for major 7th chords and dominant 7th include the 9th and the 13th. On the other hand, minor 7th chords use the 9th and the 11th.

Let’s look at an excerpt from “Christmas Time is Here” which features a chord extension in the melody. At the end of the A section, the when the tonic chord arrives (F major), the melody comes to rest on the 9th of the chord (the note G) creating a beautiful Fmaj9 sound.

Example of Chord Extension in Melody

Chord Extensions in Melody
The simple-stated melody of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” resonates with beauty in part because of his deliberate use of chord extensions in the melody itself.

This is just one example of how chord extensions contribute to beautiful jazz chords on piano. However, a chord extension does not have to be in the melody for you to include it in your chord voicing. In fact, Jonny’s arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” includes chord extensions in the inner voices throughout the entire tune.

Next, let’s consider the topic of chord alterations in “Christmas Time Is Here.”

What are chord alterations?

Chord alterations are notes added to chords to create rich and complex jazz harmonies. There are four potential alterations in all: the♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and ♭13. Simply put, a chord alteration is a chord extension with an accidental. Alterations are most commonly used on dominant chords.

Let’s look at an excerpt of a chord alteration in the melody of “Christmas Time is Here.” The B section of the tune modulates to F minor through a technique called modal mixture (aka modal interchange). This is simply the parallel minor key. So, at this point of the tune, even though the key signature doesn’t change, we’re thinking and analyzing in F minor (B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭).

The B section opens with a beautiful D♭maj13, the 6-chord of F minor. This is followed by a striking G♭9(♯11) which features the ♯11 (the note C) in the melody. You might be wondering where did Vince Guaraldi get a G♭9(♯11) chord in F minor? This is another example of tritone substitution! Here, G♭9(♯11) is a tritone away from C7, the primary dominant chord in F minor.

Example of Chord Alteration in Melody

Chord Alterations in Melody
The striking G♭9(♯11) in the B section of “Christmas Time Is Here” features the ♯11, a chord alteration, in the melody.

If you like this beautiful jazz piano sound, then you love our Level 5 Foundations Learning Track where you’ll master intermediate level jazz piano skills including extensions, alterations and more!

In the next section, you’ll learn how Jonny uses specific jazz piano voicing skills to dress up his arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Jazz Piano Voicings

The study of jazz piano voicing techniques allow students to develop a depository of stylized jazz piano sounds that are available at their fingertips for any occasion. Once you become proficient with particular voicing techniques, you will be able to insert them almost instinctively within the context of jazz tunes like “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Let’s look at a few contemporary jazz piano voicing techniques found in Jonny’s arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Quartal Voicings

A quartal voicing is any jazz piano chord voicing that uses stacks of two or more 4th intervals. Quartal voicings can be played in one hand with three notes or in two hands with four, five or even six notes. Ideally, quartal voicings seek to maximize perfect 4th intervals. However, it is common for some of the intervals to be a 3rd or an augmented 4th depending on the chord type and melody note.

In the opening measure of “Christmas Time Is Here,” Jonny harmonizes the melody note C on beat 2 with a quartal voicing structure. Notice, the notes A–D–G–C are all a perfect 4th apart.

Example of Jazz Piano Quartal Voicing

Jazz Piano Quartal Voicings & Upper Structures in Christmas Time Is Here
Quartal voicings supporting the melody on “Christmas Time Is Here” create a professional, contemporary jazz piano sound.

To learn how to apply quartal voicings to your jazz piano sound, check out our Quartal Voicings Essentials (Adv) Smartsheet lesson.

Next, we’ll explore the exciting category of jazz piano chord voicings involving upper structures.

Upper Structures

In jazz theory, upper structure triads (also “upper structures” or “polychords”) refers to a voicing approach that uses basic triad shapes as the top portion of a more complex chord. The most common upper structures are major and minor triads that contain at least two chord extensions or alterations. Jazz pianists often play upper structure triads in the right hand against a two-or-three-note chord shell in the left hand. The chord shell can be any combination of the root, 3rd and 7th of the chord.

Let’s look at an example of an upper structure application in “Christmas Time Is Here.” The final chord of the B section is a C13(♭9♯11). This is essentially a C7 chord with three additional colors—one extension (the 13th) and two alterations (the ♭9 and the ♯11). It just so happens that these three additional notes happen to form a minor triad built on the ♯4 above the root…the note F♯. In other words, the notes of F♯ minor (F#–A–C♯) are the ♯11, the 13th and the ♭9 of C7 respectively. Most often, jazz pianists play upper structure triads in the right hand with a chord shell in the left hand. However, here Jonny has brought the guide tones into the right hand also for a denser voicing.

Example of Jazz Piano Upper Structure

Jazz Piano Voicing with Upper Structure Triad in "Christmas Time Is Here"
Jazz piano voicings that use the upper structure triads technique feature a basic triad shape as the top portion of a more complex chord voicing, usually an altered dominant.

As you might imagine, upper structures open up an exciting new world of voicing possibilities. For a deep dive on this topic, check out Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Adv).

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s jazz piano lesson on “Christmas Time Is Here.” If you want to learn even more techniques for transforming familiar holiday tunes into beautiful jazz piano arrangements, check out our Greensleeves/What Child Is This (Int, Adv) courses. Inside these courses, you’ll learn:

  • Lead Sheet Interpretation
  • Melodic Ornamentation
  • Chord Shells
  • Rootless Voicings
  • Walking Bass Lines
  • Improv Scales & Soloing

Additional Holiday Resources

Also, be sure to check out our complete Holiday Resource Library containing over 40 holiday Quick Tips and full-length courses.

Additional Jazz Piano Techniques

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

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¹ “The 30 Top Christmas Albums of All Time.” AllMusic.com, Netaktion LLC.

² “Vince Guaraldi.” Grammy.com, Recording Academy.

³ Zadel, Kayla. “Charlie Brown Christmas Album Hits Billboards Charts Top 10 for First Time Ever.” Outsider, Outsider, 30 Dec. 2020.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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