Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Christian, Charlie (Charles Henry)
“Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?” asked clarinetist Benny Goodman when producer John Hammond suggested he give Charlie Christian an audition in 1939. In its infancy at that time, the electric guitar became one of the defining sounds of twentieth-century American music, in no small part thanks to Christian's innovations on the instrument.
Christian was the first jazz virtuoso of the electric guitar, who developed solo lines on the instrument that challenged and in some ways surpassed the era's best horn players, making him a key figure in the transition of jazz from swing to bebop.
Charles Henry Christian was born in Bonham, Texas on July 29, 1916. The youngest of three brothers, he was born into a musical family, and both his mother and father reportedly accompanied silent films at a local movie theater.
The Christian family moved to Okalahoma City in November 1918, after Clarence Sr. lost his eyesight. Oklahoma City was a major stopping point for band traveling east to west and Christian was exposed to many great musicians including Louie Armstrong, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Don Redman, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb.
To make extra money for the family, Christian performed as a street busker with his father and brothers, Clarence Jr. and Edward, as early as 1921. They performed in the city's white middle-class neighborhoods, dancing and playing everything from popular tunes of the day to blues to well-known classical themes for tips and food.
By 1923, Christian had already learned basic guitar skills from his father, and was playing and performing around Oklahoma City. “We had a little routine of dancing that we did,” remembers blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. “Charlie would play the guitar awhile and I’d play bass, and then we’d change and he’d play bass and I’d play guitar, and then we’d do our little dance.” Sometime in 1928, Christian began studying more seriously, learning basic music theory and sight-reading skills from Ralph ‘Big Foot Chuck’ Hamilton.
After hearing saxophonist Lester Young in 1929, Christian began adapting Young’s relaxed melodic solo style to the guitar. Like Charlie Parker and others, Christian learned many of Young’s solos by heart and, years later, was still able to scat sing them from memory. Young passed through Oklahoma City again in 1932, playing at the Ritz Ballroom with the Thirteen Original Blue Devils. After the performance, Young and Christian reportedly played together at a jam session.
Between 1934 and 1937, Christian gained experience by playing with a variety of regional bands, including a trio with his older brother Edward, Leslie Sheffield and his Rhythmaires, Edward Christian and his Blue Devils, Alphonso Trent and his Orchestra , and Anna Mea Winburn and the Cotton Club Boys.
Christian acquired his first electric guitar, a Gibson ES150, in 1937. Before switching to the electric, he performed with a microphone held between his knees to better project his solos. It is likely that Christian first heard electric guitar from the Western Swing steel guitar players like Bob Dunn, Leon McAuliffe and Muryell ‘Zeke’ Campbell, all of whom played around Oklahoma City and performed on local radio.
Around this time, Christian introduced himself to the electric guitar pioneer Eddie Durham after a performance by the Count Basie band in Oklahoma City. Durham instructed Christian to use a down stroke in order to “get a punch like a saxophone.” Still trying to adapt Lester Young’s style to the guitar, Christian made this a definitive part of his style.
On the recommendation of pianist Mary Lou Williams, Christian auditioned for producer and talent scout John Hammond on August 3, 1939. Hammond invited Christian to Los Angeles to play for Benny Goodman two weeks later. After a shaky audition, Christian sat in with the band that night during an engagement at Victor Hugo’s.
Christian played exceptionally well on “Rose Room” and was immediately hired as a full-time member of the Goodman sextet shortly after. “Benny went crazy when he heard him,” said Jerry Jerome, a Goodman band member. “He’d never heard a guitar player that could sound like a tenor saxophone. . . . The solo work was wonderful.” In the course of a few weeks, Christian went from making $2.50 a night to making $150 a week.
Christian’s first commercial recording was on September 11, 1939 with Lionel Hampton. A few weeks later, on October 2, 1939, Christian had his first recording session with the Goodman sextet. They record “Flying Home,” Rose Room” and “Stardust.” The group went into the studio again on November 22 and record Christian original, “Seven Come Eleven.”
Playing with Goodman brought instant recognition and success and by the end of the 1939, he was already a popular figure. He won the Down Beat poll for the best guitarist for 1939 even though he had only been with Goodman (and receiving national recognition) for four months. Christian would top the same poll in each of the next two years.
Christian was hospitalized in February 1940 and a routine X-ray revealed tuberculosis scars on his lungs. As an effective and affordable antibiotic treatment for the disease had yet to be developed, this was a life-threatening diagnosis for Christian. Undeterred, he continued performing and touring with Goodman.
Due to back problems, Goodman dissolved his band in the middle of 1940. Christian was one of the few band members who remained on salary, a sign of Goodman’s appreciation for his playing. Shortly after reassembling the band in October 1940, Goodman and Christian played with members of the Count Basie band at an informal recording session. Including Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones, these recordings document many of these players at their best.
Benny Goodman’s Septet recorded on November 7, 1940, featuring Ellington trumpet star Cootie Williams on tracks such as "Benny Bugle." Having recently left Ellington for Goodman, Williams became a featured soloist in Goodman’s small group along side Christian. The septet recorded several times in the following months—including sessions on December 16, 1940 and January 15, March 4 and 13, 1941—producing some of the most memorable playing by Christian.
Christian recorded his most famous song, "Solo Flight," with Goodman on March 4, 1941. Considered by many to be Christian’s finest playing with Goodman, “Solo Flight” was originally titled “Chonk, Charlie, Chonk.” The side became a #1 hit with the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade and reached #20 in the Billboard Hot 100 (Pop) in 1944.
At one memorable performance in May 1941, enthusiast Jerry Newman recorded Christian playing at an after hours jam session at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. Christian appeared frequently at the club to play with the house band, run by drummer Kenny Clark and featuring pianist Thelonious Monk. Recordings such as "Stompin’ at the Savoy" and"Up On Teddy's Hill" feature Christian at his best.
It was at these sessions that the seeds of bebop began to take hold, attracting players such as saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (among many others). Parker named Lester Young and Charlie Christian has two of his biggest influences. “I tried to get the sound of Charlie Christian,” said Parker, “tried to get his sound on the saxophone.” Though Parker and Gillespie receive the most recognition for the bebop movement, Christian was unquestionably one of the early pioneers of the modern style.
In June 1941, Christian collapsed while on the road with Goodman and was admitted into Bellevue Hospital in New York City. He died on March 2, 1942 succumbing to pulmonary tuberculosis. He was only twenty-five years old.
After a funeral service in Harlem and another in Oklahoma City, Christian was buried at Gates Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Bonham, Texas. An Oklahoma City newspaper, The Black Dispatch, reported that Christian’s funeral was the largest and most attended to date.
Though Christian was only in the national spotlight for a few short years, his influence was wide reaching. His superb rhythmic control and single-line solo style pushed improvisational language towards bebop and beyond. In 1990, Christian was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey as an “early influence,” demonstrating how large of an impact Christian’s playing had on those who came after him. It is unfortunate that tuberculosis took him at such a young age, but the recordings he left behind should be listened to and cherished for what they are: simply great music.
Contributor: Darren Mueller