Charlie Christian brought electric guitar to the forefront of jazz. Today, when electric guitar is so commonplace with distortion, synthesizers and other effects, it’s challenging to imagine the great strides he made. Passing away at the age of 25, Christian left an impression that has lasted through the present day. His contributions to the development of the bebop style, place him among the most important innovators in jazz.
Prior to Charlie Christian, it’s instructive to briefly discuss the role of the guitar in jazz and American music to that point: Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson had provided rhythm and harmony lines behind their vocals, Lonnie Johnson traded phrases with Louis Armstrong on the groundbreaking recordings of the trumpeters Hot Fives and Sevens groups, and Freddie Green provided steady quarter note rhythm work behind Count Basie. Eldon Shamblin, Eddie Durham and Floyd Smith utilized the invention of the electric guitar on recordings, but no one made breakthroughs in the application of the instrument and musical vocabulary the way Charlie Christian would.
Born on July 29, 1916 in Bonham Texas, Charlie was raised by his parents in Oklahoma City, OK. Charlie and his two brothers were taught music by their father Clarence Henry, himself a guitarist and vocalist. In order to provide for his family after being robbed of his sight from a fever, the elder Christian had his sons perform as buskers (street musicians). By the age of 12 Charlie learned the guitar, and was intrigued by the tenor saxophone during his studies at the Douglass School. He was encouraged to learn trumpet, however for fear of lip damage, he temporarily gave up music, and pursued sports. In 1931, Charlie’s brother Edward asked guitarist Ralph Hamilton to tutor his blues honed brother on the intricacies of jazz. He learned to improvise on “Sweet Georgia Brown”, “Tea For Two” and “Rose Room”, and jammed on those tunes in Oklahoma’s Deuces Wild club. Not long after, word was spread of his prowess. He began building up steady work in the Midwest in 1932, and by 1936 his playing generated strong interest.
Three years later, Columbia records’ John Hammond convinced an initially disinterested Benny Goodman to allow Christian to audition for his group. The clarinetist, underwhelmed by electric guitarists he had heard to that point, was startled by what he had heard Christian play the evening of August 16, 1939 at Los Angeles’ Victor Hugo restaurant. Various accounts have observed that an afternoon studio session had not gone as hoped, and Goodman asked him to sit in on “Rose Room”. Goodman called the composition in the hope that Christian didn’t know it, and the guitarist reportedly unleashed 20 choruses on a forty minute version of the tune. Goodman hired him afterwards as a member of his sextet, which also included Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, Fletcher Henderson on piano, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Nick Fatool. The famous sides recorded with the Goodman sextet, showcased Christian’s gifts as a soloist. He employed horn like lines in the manner of Armstrong and thus creating a modern conception much the way organist Jimmy Smith or altoist Charlie Parker did.
Christian was a featured soloist with the sextet, however the limitations of the 78 RPM record format did not permit recording capacity beyond three to five minutes in length. The legendary 1941 recordings made at Minton’s Playhouse by Columbia student Jerry Newman, exhibited the guitarist improvising at length. The musicians at these after hours sessions included bebop trailblazers Kenny Clarke on drums, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk. Clarke credited Christian with the Monk compositions “Rhythm-a-ning” and “Epistrophy”, and although not on the recordings of these jam sessions, Monk and Gillespie were parts of the aggregations that jammed regularly with the guitarist. Christian never made recordings as a leader, and the roughly three years of official recordings show talent that begs the cliched question, where would he have gone musically had he lived? Sadly Christian expired from tuberculosis which he contracted in the 1930’s. Charlie Christian’s importance is massive, he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame due to his innovations, and his influence is heard in the work of most major jazz guitarists who succeeded him. The lengthy list includes but is not limited to: Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Pat Martino, George Benson, Grant Green, Mark Whitfield, and many others. Christian’s use of repetition to create tension, is very evident in the playing of Benson and Green in particular, and his ideas and influence can be heard in rock innovators such as Chuck Berry.