Christian, Charlie (actually, Charles)
Christian, Charlie (actually, Charles)
Christian, Charlie (actually, Charles), seminal jazz guitarist; b. Dallas, Tex., July 29, 1916; d. Staten Island, N.Y., March 2, 1942. His father was Clarence James, mother was Willie Mae Jones. For some reason, his mother listed his birth (on his death cert.) as Jan, 6, 1917. All four of his brothers were musicians, two (at least) worked professionally: Edward (piano, bass; b. 1906) and Clarence (Jr.; b. 1911); their father, a blind musician, played guitar and sang. The family moved to Oklahoma City in 1921. Charlie started on trumpet, then concentrated on guitar from the age of 12; he also worked on string bass and piano during the 1930s. He played in the family band from his early teens, did local club work at 15 and there met Lester Young. He played in his brother’s band, the Jolly Jugglers, during the early 1930s, and is also reported to have worked as a tap dancer, singer, baseball pitcher, and prize fighter. After playing in Anna Mae Winburn’s Band, he led his own group, worked with trumpeter James Simpson in Oklahoma City, and toured (playing bass and guitar) with Alphonse Trent (c. 1938). He was with the Leslie Sheffield Band (1939), when his skill was noticed by Teddy Wilson, Norma Teagarden, and Mary Lou Williams. On the recommendation of John Hammond, he joined Benny Goodman in Los Angeles (August 1939), and subsequently made his N.Y. debut with Goodman in September 1939. He was featured mainly with the sextet, but also played a few numbers in front of the full band. His solos were of necessity short on the 78 discs of the day. Fortunately, he was also recorded while jamming in Harlem (at Minton’s and Monroe’s), so he can be heard “stretching out” While on a Middle West tour with Goodman, he was taken ill and later admitted to N.Y/s Bellevue Hospital (June 1941), where tuberculosis was diagnosed. He was transferred to the Seaview Hospital (Sanitarium), Staten Island, and died there. He was buried in Oklahoma City on March. 4.
The electric guitar was being used for fairly flowing solos in Western swing groups as early as 1935, and in a choppy jazz style by Eddie Durham in 1938, but Christian’s irresistible swing and long-flowing lines were a revelation that helped catapult the electric instrument into standard use. He probably knew the music of his predecessors on the instrument, as well as his colleague Lester Young, and he certainly knew the works of Reinhardt and Armstrong. His playing was deeply felt and intellectually stimulating, with his habit of varying and developing short phrases, and the long lines with which he “ate up the changes” on the modulations of a bridge (as on “Stompin’ at the Savoy” from Minton’s, 1941). Every early jazz electric player—Tiny Grimes, Al Casey (who switched from acoustic)—named him as an inspiration, as did Les Paul, T-Bone Walker, and B.B. King. As early as 1940, he had protégés as far away as Norway (Robert Normann) and Argentina (Oscar Ale-man). He is featured on a video, The Genius of Christian.
Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman and the Sextet (1939); Solo Flight: The Genius of Chralie Christian (1939); Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra (1940); Charlie Christian/Lester Young: Together 1940 (1940); Solo Flight with the Benny Goodman Sextet (1940); Memorable Sessions (1941); Jazz Immortal (1941); Live Sessions at Minton’s Playhouse (1941); Harlem Jazz Scene (1941).
J. Evensmo, The Guitars of Charlie Christian, Robert Normann, Oscar Alemán (in Europe) (Hosle, Norway, 1976); S. Ayeroff, Charlie Christian (N.Y., 1979); D. Fox, Charlie Christian, the Art of the Jazz Guitar (N.Y., 1988); P. Broadbent, Charlie Christian: The Story of the Seminal Electric Guitarist (Newcastle-Ypon-Tyne, England, 1977).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire