By Paul Tingen.
Charlie Christian was to jazz what Jimi Hendrix was to rock. Both guitarists were at the forefront of a new musical genre, came up with a revolutionary approach to playing their instrument, and ended up becoming the benchmark for generations of guitarists after them. One could say that Hendrix was the ultimate electric guitar hero, and Charlie Christian the firstelectric guitar hero.
Strangely, both guitarists broke through at the age of 23, and died only a few years afterwards. Hendrix changed the world of music and the approach to the electric guitar in the four years from his breakthrough at the end of 1966 until his death in September 1970, when he was only 27. Charlie Christian did the same things in less than two years, before his death in March 1942, aged 25.
During his extremely brief tenure at the top, Christian did not only lay many of the foundations of the electric solo guitar in jazz, but also of bebop and cool jazz, the two new jazz directions in the early forties. He influenced literally all jazz guitarists that came after him, as well as legendary bebop and cool jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
On top, Christian became a huge influence on electric guitar soloists in general, also outside of jazz, including T-Bone Walker Eddie Cochran, Scotty Moore, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Vernon Reid, Santana, and… Jimi Hendrix. It’s why Christian was in 1990 inducted in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, as an Early Influencer.
Born on July 29, 1916, in Texas, Charles Henry Christian grew up in the middle of the Jazz Age that dominated the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. Christian’s family moved to Oklahoma City when he was young. His parents were both musicians, and he and his two older brothers all followed in the footsteps of their parents and became musicians. Charlie’s father began to teach him guitar, but he died when Charlie was 10. He inherited his father’s guitar.
Charlie Christian’s middle brother Edward and a guitarist called Ralph “Bigfoot” Hamilton taught the young Charlie to play jazz guitar. In 1936 or 1937, Christian met top jazz guitarist Eddie Durham, who visited Oklahoma City while on tour with Count Basie. Durham gave Christian some guitar lessons, and he became a crucial influence.
During the early 30s, the guitar in jazz was still acoustic, and only played as a rhythm instrument behind the drums, piano, and horns, for the simple reason that even when playing rhythm, guitarists could hardly be heard above the noise. The volume issue led to a lot of frustration among guitar players, who were yet to dream of going to 11.
In jazz, people were experimenting with archtop acoustic guitars to which they fitted electromagnetic transducers, and Eddie Durham also tried resonators and megaphones. In 1936, Gibson brought the first commercially successful electro-acoustic guitar on the market, the ES-150. ES stands for Electric Spanish, and 150 was the price of the instrument, $150, which is around $2800 in modern prices.
Durham played the ES-150 by the time he taught Christian, and Christian immediately swapped his Epiphone Deluxe acoustic archtop guitar for an ES-150, bought with an installment plan. The amplifier that Christian used with the ES-150 was a Gibson EH 150, which was 15 watts and had a 10″ speaker. The combination of the Gibson guitar and amplifier gave a Christian a completely new, edgy sound, with a hint of distortion, and marked the first serious steps towards 11.
HITTING THE BIG TIME
During 1937-39, Christian continued to cut his teeth as a guitar player, and became a professional player. In March of 1939, local pianist Mary Lou Williams, informed record producer John Hammond of an amazing but unknown jazz guitarist who was playing around Oklahoma City. Clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman was one of Hammond’s proteges, and at the time already a household name. Hammond recommended Christian to Goodman, who promptly hired the guitarist.
Goodman’s band at that moment consisted entirely of famous names, such as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, pianist Fletcher Henderson, bassist Artie Bernstein, and drummer Nick Fatool. The sextet recorded regularly and performed almost daily. A significant number of their performances were broadcast on the radio. Christian’s playing was so fresh, exciting and recognizable, that it only took a few months before his name began to spread across the United States.
By the spring of 1940 Christian was amongst the most admired jazz musicians in the US. Through reader’s polls of the prestigious Metronome magazine, Christian was in 1940 elected into the Metronome All Stars, a selection of the best jazz musicians of the day.
In February 1940, Christian switched to a Gibson ES 250 guitar, which was an upgrade of the ES 150. However, disaster struck that same month. Christian collapsed during a concert, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After a month’s rest, Christian was back on stage.
BURNING THE CANDLE
In October 1940, Goodman had a new all-star sextet, with pianist Count Basie, trumpeter Cootie Williams, saxophonist Georgie Auld, drummer Dave Tough, and, of course, Charlie Christian. The pattern of almost daily gigs with the Goodman sextet continued, and there again were many recording sessions, for Columbia.
The new sextet dominated the jazz polls of 1941, like the previous sextet had done the year before. Perhaps most importantly, Christian also found time, often after his gigs for Goodman, to attend jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, in New York, a place that has become legendary as the birthplace of modern jazz, ie bebop, and it’s offspring, cool jazz.
The sessions at Minton’s during the early forties that Christian attended also saw future bebop stars like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. A number of these 1941 sessions were recorded for posterity by Columbia University student Jerry Newman.
Christian’s schedule of almost daily Goodman gigs, regular recording sessions, and Minton’s jam sessions continued until June 19th, 1941, when Christian played the last concert of his life, with the Benny Goodman sextet, in Sandusky, Ohio.
His deteriorating health made further performances impossible. Against medical advice, Christian had continued smoking and drinking, and rather than taking regular rest, he was burning the candle at both ends, playing day and night. All this aggravated his tuberculosis.
Charlie Christian was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York City, accompanied by front page headlines. Several weeks later he was transferred to the Sea View Sanatorium on Staten Island, where he remained for eight months. Charlie Christian died at 8:15am, on March 2, 1942, at Sea View Hospital. He was only 25.
PAVING THE WAY
Charlie Christian had been active as one of the world’s leading musicians for less than two years. Yet his legacy lasts to this day. There are very few musicians, if any, who had such a great impact in such a short time.
So what was it that made Charlie Christian such a great guitarist, and why did he have such enormous influence? The simple answer is that his playing was not only very exciting but also stunningly original, and so ahead of his time, that he still sounds contemporary eighty years later.
Christian’s tone, feel, swing, fluidity, speed, choice of notes, harmonic inventions, and endlessly creative melodic phrases, continue to sound fresh and awe-inspiring. Christian had been influenced by Eddie Lang, who was first to elevate the guitar from purely a rhythm to also being a solo instrument. The influence of Eddie Durham has also already been discussed.
Christian developed the jazz guitar further than them, in part influenced by horn players like saxophonist Lester Young. Another influence was the rowdy Western Swing music from his native Texas and Oklahoma, which fused jazz, blues, and local roots music, and often used violins and guitars. The influence of this style can be heard in Christian’s strong sense of groove, with his rhythm and solo playing often sounding almost funky.
He also used blues licks and double stops, and the way he played over the swing rhythm, which is a precursor to the rock ‘n roll shuffle, meant that his playing resonated with rock guitarists. Sometimes he’d crunch into his solos with a bite in his tone and an attack that predates the electric blues and rock ‘n roll of decades later.
Christian’s sense of phrasing was innovative in the way he spaced his notes and riffs across the beat, and across bars, often emphasizing off-beats. He also experimented with harmonic innovations like altered chords which he often played as arpeggios, and he tended to emphasize sixths and ninths. He also frequently used chromatic notes.
All these elements were crucial influences on bebop, and the jazz that came after it. Christian influenced jazz musicians in general, and pretty much all rock lead guitarists also owe a debt to him. As the world’s first guitar hero, Christian paved the way for generations of guitar heroes to come.
© 2021 Paul Tingen.
Watch the video below to learn more about the wonderful Charlie Christian!