From the moment he burst onto New York City’s jazz scene with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Charlie Christian changed forever the way jazz guitar would be played. And although his career—and his life—were brief, Christian’s influence on the transformation that jazz underwent through the introduction of bebop remains unquestioned.
Born in Bonham, Texas, northeast of Dallas, in 1916, Christian moved with his family first to Dallas, then, around 1921, to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Christian’s father, who was blind, earned a living playing guitar and singing, sometimes with his three sons, Clarence (on violin and mandolin), Edward (on string bass), and Charlie, whose earliest guitars often were hand-made from cigar boxes.
Charlie’s skills were evident early, and he avidly absorbed the work of the many excellent southwestern blues and jazz players. As family friend, novelist, and essayist Ralph Ellison averred in his Shadow and Act, the young guitarist was exposed to a wide variety of musical forms at home and in the Oklahoma City community at large. One of the major stylistic influences on Christian, perhaps as early as 1929 and more extensively in 1931, was the visiting tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose long, arching solo lines made him a jazz icon.
Until Christian, the jazz guitar had nearly always been relegated to serving as a rhythm instrument, a weaker version of the banjo. Though some excellent acoustic guitar soloists had emerged—Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, George Van Eps, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, and the legendary Django Reinhardt—the guitar remained a minor solo voice. Early experiments, though, especially those by Eddie Durham, to play a guitar whose sound was amplified—at first mechanically, then electronically—showed some promise. In about 1937 Durham and Christian met, and Durham, a gifted composer and arranger as well, taught Christian what he knew about the amplified guitar. Floyd Smith, guitarist with Andy Kirk, may also have played a part in Christian’s amplification of his guitar.
As he immersed himself in playing, sometimes on bass, Christian joined and often led bands that took him as far as Minneapolis, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Wherever he played, he quickly established a reputation as an exciting, innovative talent, using his pickup-amplified guitar as a horn in conjunction with the saxophone and trumpet and taking extended horn-like solos. When he landed back in Oklahoma City in 1939, pianist-composer
For the Record…
Born July 29, 1916, in Bonham, TX; raised in Dallas, TX, and Oklahoma City; died of pneumonia, March 2, 1942, in New York, NY.
Became professional guitarist/bassist, c. 1928; played with father and brothers, then with other territory bands in Texas, Oklahoma, and throughout the Southwest; performed and recorded with Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1939-1942; contributed to the birth of bebop during after-hours gigs, Minton’s club, New York City, 1940-41.
Awards: Metronome poll winner on instrument, 1939-41; Down Beat poll winner, 1941-42.
Mary Lou Williams, startled by Christian’s artistry, alerted John Hammond. Hammond, benefactor to such jazz stars as singer Billie Holiday and bandleaders Count Basie and Benny Goodman, among others, flew to Oklahoma City enroute to a Goodman recording date in Los Angeles to hear Christian. Hammond found Christian’s playing “unbelievable” and convinced a reluctant Goodman to grant the guitarist an audition.
On August 16, 1939, at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, Christian, in full garish regalia, set up his Gibson EH-150 amplifier on Goodman’s bandstand, preparatory to auditioning with the quintet. Ever wary, Goodman called for “Rose Boom,” thinking the Oklahoma “hick” might not know the tune. Witnesses attested that the group, sparked by Christian’s brilliant inventiveness, improvised on the tune for 47 minutes! According to Bill Simon, in Jazz Guitarists: An Anthology, Hammond said he “never saw anyone knocked out as Benny was that night.”
Less than a month later, on September 11, 1939, Christian found himself in a New York recording studio with a Lionel Hampton group that included such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Clyde Hart, Milt Hinton, and Cozy Cole. On October 2nd of that year, Christian cut his first record as a member of the Goodman sextet. His impact was immediate and lasting. Not only was his playing a “must hear” for guitarists, but jazz instrumentalists of every kind were attracted to the mature solos of the friendly, unassuming 23 year old.
Indeed, despite his age, Christian’s musicianship seemed fully developed: his endless improvised riffs and figures formed the basis for compositions; his sculpted solo lines were miracles of form; his sense of time was impeccable; his infectious joy at playing seemed boundless; and his playing, evincing as it did such relaxed assurance as well as brilliance, inspired bandmates to personal heights. It may be argued, in fact, that Goodman played his best while Christian was with his band. Among the songs based on Christian’s various riffs—but usually co-credited to Goodman and/or writer-arranger Jimmy Mundy-are: “Seven Come Eleven,” “Charlie’s Idea,” “Breakfast Feud,” “Solo Flight,” and “A Smo-o-o-th One.”
In addition to his beautiful, flowing melodic lines—executed at even the fastest tempos—Christian increasingly developed a harmonic structure that intrigued fellow musicians and liberated the approach to solo playing. In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller explained, “Because of Christian’s superiority as a sololine player, his rhythm playing has been much neglected; occasionally one even reads implications that he was not terribly effective in this area. But if proof of Christian’s prowess as rhythm guitarist be needed, we can find it abundantly.” Christian’s skill in this area is documented mainly by four recorded sessions: that first session with Hampton, on which he did not solo; a March, 1940, club session in Minneapolis cut by a local disc jockey; a session on February 5, 1941, with the Edmond Hall Celeste Quartet; and one at Minton’s club in May of 1941 that included Thelonious Monk on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums.
Minton’s had opened in the Hotel Cecil on Harlem’s 118th Street in October of 1940. In an unusual move, Teddy Hill—a musician—was named manager. Hill had led a popular band and knew most of the local and visiting musicians. Almost instantly, with Hill acting as benevolent host, Minton’s became the after-hours place of choice. It especially attracted the more experimental players, such as Gillespie, Clarke, Monk, and Charlie Parker, and it was here that the ingredients blended—and sometimes clashed—to produce bebop, jazz’s direction for decades to come.
Minton’s became a second home to Christian. Night after night he held forth on the stand, interacting with all comers but especially with those regulars with whom he created the new musical brew. His Minton’s activities would, of course, come after he had completed his day’s work with Goodman in the recording studio and/or the Hotel Pennsylvania or other nearby venues, and Christian would usually play continuously until 4 a.m. In fact, Christian logged so many hours at Minton’s that Hill bought an amplifier for him so that he would not have to transport his to Minton’s nightly.
Of Christian’s contributions to the Minton’s scene, Swing Era author Schuller wrote: “There can be little doubt that at the time of his death, in 1942, Christian was on the threshold of becoming a major voice, perhaps, had he lived, the major voice in shaping the new language of jazz. All the greater the tragedy of his loss, one that has, I believe, not yet been fully fathomed and appreciated.” Fortunately, the flavor of these Minton’s sessions has been preserved through the acetate recordings of jazz fan and collector Jerry Newman, which were released with the help of writer Bill Simon on Vox records in 1947. Though technically wanting, these extended versions of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and an original, “Charlie’s Choice,” reveal Christian in full glory, propelling the rhythm and elaborating inventively on several choruses.
But the frenzy of Minton’s undoubtedly shortened Christian’s life. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1940 and advised to curtail his activities. Christian not only ignored this advice, he accelerated his pace, musically and personally, after Minton’s opened and into 1941. Immensely popular, he was often surrounded by admiring women and “friends” who provided him with alcohol and marijuana, even after he was admitted to Seaview Sanitarium on Staten Island around July of 1941. Probably as a result of these extracurricular escapades, the 25-year-old genius contracted pneumonia and died on March 2, 1942.
Christian’s legacy is all but unanimously recognized. Two generations of jazz guitarists, admittedly or not, trace their inspiration to him. Most admit it. Herb Ellis, the guitar virtuoso mainstay of the Oscar Peterson trio for many years, was asked by Guitar Player magazine for its January, 1992, issue to list “The Solos That Changed Jazz Guitar.” His first five choices were Christian solos on specific songs; his sixth was “Charlie Christian’s other solos with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra.” Simon, writing in Jazz Guitarists: An Anthology, deemed Christian one of “a handful of musicians of whom it may be said that they completely revolutionized, then standardized anew the role of their instruments in jazz.” And Stan Britt, writing in The Jazz Guitarists, contributed: “Christian... was to become a seminal figure in the transition from the swing era to the jazz revolution of the early 1940s called bebop. But initially it was his use of an amplified instrument that in itself was to play an integral role in another revolution—that of the jazz guitar itself.” Finally, as Allan Kozinn and coauthors sum up in The Guitar, “Christian... has been jazz guitar’s only authentic figure of genius, responsible for synthesizing the best elements of the instrument’s previous history into a seamless, totally original approach of such great melodic-harmonic resourcefulness that it has served as the basis for literally all subsequent developments in the instrument’s usage in jazz.”
Edmond Hall: Celestial Express, Blue Note, 1941.
Charlie Christian, Vox, 1947.
Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian, Columbia, 1972.
The Harlem Jazz Scene, 1941, Evidence, 1993.
Lester Young and Charlie Christian: 1939-1940, Jazz Archives.
Britt, Stan, The Jazz Guitarists, Blandford Press, 1984.
Ellison, Ralph, Shadow and Act, Vintage, 1972 (originally printed in Saturday Review, May 17, 1958).
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1965.
Jazz Guitarists: An Anthology, edited by James Sallis, Quill, 1984.
Kienzle, Rich, Great Guitarists, Facts on File, 1985.
Kozinn, Allan; Welding, Pete; Forte, Dan; and Santoro, Gene, The Guitar: The History, The Music, The Players, Quill, 1984.
Lyons, Len, and Perlo, Don, Jazz Portraits, Quill, 1989.
Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1897-1942, Vol. 1, Storyville Publications and Co., Ltd., 1982.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Guitar Player, January 1992.