Charlie Christian – Bebop and Cool Jazz Inovator

Charles Henry “Charlie” Christian

(July 29, 1916 – March 2, 1942) was an American swing and jazz guitarist

Charlie Christian was an important early performer on the electric guitar and a key figure in the development of bebop and cool jazz. He gained national exposure as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra from August 1939 to June 1941. His single-string technique, combined with amplification, helped bring the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the forefront as a solo instrument.

John Hammond and George T. Simon called Christian the best improvisational talent of the swing era. In the liner notes to the 1972 Columbia album Solo Flight: The genius of Charlie Christian, Gene Lees writes that, “Many critics and musicians consider that Christian was one of the founding fathers of bebop, or if not that, at least a precursor to it.”

Charlie Christian was born on July 29, 1916 in Bonham, Texas but was raised in Oklahoma City from the time he was two years old. Charlie’s immediate family were all musically talented – his mother played the piano; his father sang and played the trumpet and guitar; his brother, Clarence, played the violin and the mandolin; and his oldest brother, Edward, played the string bass. His parents made living writing accompaniments for silent movies.

Charlie Christian Playing

At the age of twelve, Charlie was playing on a guitar that he had made from a cigar box in a manual training class. Charlie was actually first trained on the trumpet which was a huge contribution to his fluid single-note guitar style. Then, his father and brothers formed a quartet and Charlie got a real guitar. They performed in Oklahoma City clubs and Charlie even met Lester Young (tenor saxophonist) during one of his performances. Charlie was fascinated by Lester’s style which helped in shaping his own stylistic development.

At the age of twenty-one he was playing electric guitar and leading a jump band. At the age of 23 (1939), Charlie was discovered by a talent scout, John Hammond, who had stopped in Oklahoma city to attend Benny Goodman’s first Columbia recording sessions. Pianist Mary Lou Williams had actually recommended Charlie to John Hammond.

Goodman was not very excited, this was due to the fact that Charlie was an unknown musician playing an electric instrument. The amplified electric guitar was fairly new at the time (trombonist and arranger Eddie Durham began playing it as a solo instrument in Jimmie Lunceford’s band in 1935). It was essentially an amplified “f-hole,” and it helped in making the jazz guitar solo a practical reality for the first time.

Previously relegated to a chordal rhythm style by the limitations of the acoustic instrument, jazz guitarists could now revel in the volume, sustain, and tonal flexibility provided by amplification. Charlie quickly realized the potential of the electric guitar, and developed a style which made the most of the unique properties of the instrument. When Charlie arrived in Los Angeles, he was only allowed a brief audition and he was not even allowed the time to plug in his amp.

Goodman was not impressed so Hammond decided to sneak Charlie onstage later that night during a concert at the Victor Hugo. This made Goodman angry and he responded by launching into “Rose Room,” which he assumed Charlie would be unfamiliar with. Charlie performed an impressive extended solo on the piece. This impressed Goodman and Charlie was let into the band.

Charlie was a hit on the electric guitar and remained in the Benny Goodman Sextet for two years (1939-1941). He wrote many of the group’s head arrangements (some of which Goodman took credit for) and was an inspiration to all. The sextet made him famous and provided him with a steady income while Charlie worked on legitimizing, popularizing, revolutionizing, and standardizing the electric guitar as a jazz instrument.

After working at nights with Goodman, Charlie would seek out jam sessions. He discovered a club in Harlem, Minton’s, located on New York’s West 118th Street. At Minton’s Charlie played with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Joe Guy (trumpet), Nick Fenton (bass), Kenny Kersey (piano), and Kenny Clarke (drums).

Charlie impressed them all by improvising long lines that emphasized off beats, and by using altered chords. He even bought a second amp to leave at Minton’s. Jamming sessions would usually last until about 4 A.M. and Minton’s became the cradle of the bebop movement. Charlie’s inventive single-note playing helped popularize the electric guitar as a solo instrument and helped usher in the era of bop.

In the summer of 1941, Christian was touring the Midwest when he began showing the first signs of tuberculosis. He left the tour and was admitted to the Seaview Sanatorium on Staten Island. While he was there, he died on March 2, 1942 at the age of twenty-five.

Charlie Christian’s most familiar recordings are those with Benny Goodman which were available on vinyl for years (”Solo Flight”) and which are now available on cd as “Charlie Christian: Genius of the Electric Guitar.” There are recorded sessions from when he played with members of the Goodman and Count Basie bands, Lester Young, and numerous artists at Minton’s. Charlie Christian had an immense influence on the development of BeBop and the transition from Swing to BeBop.