Charlie Christian - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            For thirty years, until Sixties rock guitar starting influencing all things musical, Charlie Christian’s supple and harmonically sophisticated sound defined the jazz guitar. His innovative and widely respected playing helped establish the electric guitar as a legitimate jazz instrument, and his solos still have the capacity to astonish. Christian’s playing, imitated and expanded upon by scores of players, has influenced everyone from Wes Montgomery to John Scofield and pretty much everybody in between.


            Charles Henry Christian was born on July 29, 1916, in Bonham, Texas, near the Oklahoma border. Both of his parents played music to accompany films at the local theater, with his father Clarence on trumpet and his mother Willa Mae at the piano. Charlie was the youngest of three boys, and all of them were started on stringed instruments by their father as soon as they could hold one. In 1918, Clarence Christian started to lose his eyesight, and was reduced to playing guitar on the street to earn what money he could. The family moved to Oklahoma City, where Willa Mae’s mother had a successful small business. Clarence passed away at the end of 1926, leaving his two guitars to Charlie. Now ten, he was still too small to handle the larger instrument and kept to his ukulele, with which he was already skilled enough to amuse his classmates.


            At the Douglass School, Christian was further encouraged by Mrs. Breaux, the musical director of the black public schools. He wanted to play tenor saxophone in the school band. Mrs. Breaux insisted he try trumpet instead. But Charlie wasn’t interested in the trumpet, so he quit playing altogether for a while, pursuing an interest in baseball, at which he excelled. He couldn’t stay away from the guitar for long, and T-Bone Walker recalled hearing him on the street in Oklahoma City around 1929. Christian was studying guitar with Ralph ‘Big Foot Chuck’ Hamilton and music theory with both Hamilton and trumpeter James Simpson. He started high school in 1930, but by most reports wasn’t much interested in school outside of music studies and baseball. In 1932, after the ninth grade, he dropped out of school to concentrate on his music.


            One evening, he went to a club where his older brother Edward, a pianist, was leading the band. Charlie sat in, playing three tunes to great acclaim, earning himself a regular slot with the group. He was also jamming a lot with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose lyrical approach to his horn would have a profound effect on the solo guitar style that Christian was developing. The “Deep Deuce” area of Oklahoma City was a vibrant black community, and there were plenty of chances to play in all-night jam sessions, often with visiting musicians from touring bands.


            Christian was soon performing regularly both locally and throughout the Midwest, as far away as North Dakota and Minnesota, with his own trio and in brother Edward’s band. Gigs were plentiful, and so were opportunities to play after hours. He was with Alphonso Trent and His Orchestra for most of 1936 and 1937, playing guitar and bass, then left to work with singer Anna Mae Winburn. Back in Oklahoma City for a spell, he rejoined Trent’s group in the late summer of 1938, this time playing only guitar as the group performed in spots like Deadwood, South Dakota, Bismark, North Dakota, and Casper, Wyoming.


            Various accounts of his appearances in the mid-Thirties indicate that he was trying to find a way to amplify the sound of his guitar. Sometimes he’d use a microphone held between his knees. Bassist Milt Hinton remembered him playing at the Texas Centennial in 1936 trying out a microphone attached to the guitar with rubber bands. He acquired his first electric guitar, a Gibson ES150, in 1937. The likelihood is that Christian heard the instrument for the first time in one of the jazz-inflected Western Swing bands that were frequently heard on radio in Oklahoma City. The timing was right. While Eddie Durham is usually considered to be the first jazzman to record on electric guitar in March 1938 as part of the Kansas City Five, George Barnes had used one on a Big Bill Broonzy session earlier in the month.


            Christian was back in Oklahoma City in the early part of 1939, playing with his own small group and making $2.50 a night at a time when most local players were clearing a dollar. But things were about to change. Among his many acquaintances among traveling musicians was Mary Lou Williams, pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk and His Clouds Of Joy. On March 16, 1939, the Kirk group was in a recording studio in New York City. One of the numbers they waxed was “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” featuring another pioneer of the electric guitar, Floyd Smith. When producer John Hammond remarked on Smith’s sound, Williams volunteered that Charlie Christian from Oklahoma was the best guitarist she’d heard, a remark that naturally piqued Hammond’s interest.


            Billed as “Charles Christian & His Electric Guitar, One of the Southwest’s Most Popular Swing Bands,” the guitarist had a regular gig at Ruby’s Grill in Oklahoma City three nights a week in the summer of 1939. In July, when the Kirk band passed through town again, Christian easily outplayed Floyd Smith at a cutting session. Mary Lou Williams took the opportunity to ask Christian if he’d be interested in joining the Benny Goodman band if the opportunity presented itself. The clarinetist, who was Hammond’s brother-in-law, was the first white bandleader to feature black musicians in his groups, having hired Fletcher Henderson as arranger and Teddy Wilson on piano in 1935, and adding vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in 1936. The reticent guitarist hesitated, but soon came around to the idea, if Williams would be with him. Williams went ahead and wired Hammond in New York with the news. Just a few days later, Hammond telegraphed Christian to say that he was traveling to Los Angeles, and that he’d like to audition the guitarist in Oklahoma City. Christian agreed, and in early August, Hammond got to hear Christian for himself. The producer was impressed by the guitarist’s improvising, but didn’t care for his band. Later that month, Christian received another telegram from Hammond, asking him to come to Los Angeles and audition for Goodman. He also sent $300 to cover expenses. When Christian left for the West Coast on August 14, 1939, the local celebrity got his picture on the front page of the area’s black newspaper that week.


            There’s a cloud of myth around Christian’s arrival in Los Angeles. Whatever the details, something about the guitarist did not sit well with Goodman the first time they met. Hammond has said that Goodman wasn’t interested in auditioning him that first day in the studio, and made it difficult for the young man to relax and really play. Since Hammond knew what Christian could do, he was determined to get him a fair hearing. To that end, he conspired with Goodman’s bassist Artie Bernstein to sneak Christian and his amplifier on stage at the Victor Hugo in Beverly Hills during the dinner break between shows. Though Goodman was not at all pleased when he came on stage, he went ahead and started the set, calling “Rose Room,” a popular tune of the Thirties. As it happened, this was one of the songs that Christian had played to impress his brother Edward so many years before, and he proceeded to spin out chorus after chorus for 47 minutes, according to Hammond. Goodman, finally impressed like everyone else, offered Christian a job on the spot, at $150 a week.


            The Goodman band was extraordinarily popular, and the “Camel Caravan” series of radio broadcasts quickly established Christian as a national star. His first recording session took place on September 11, 1939, in a true all-star group led by Lionel Hampton which featured the saxophones of Benny Carter , Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, and Ben Webster, plus Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet. Fast company indeed, but Christian clearly made the grade. Airchecks captured on home recorders from broadcasts from Los Angeles, Atlantic City, Detroit, Minnesota, and New York testify to the band’s long hours on the road in 1939. Back in New York that fall, Christian was reunited with Lester Young at Hammond’s Spirituals To Swing concert on Christmas Eve. Goodman decided to give his men a couple of weeks off in January 1940, and Christian took the opportunity to return to Oklahoma City for a visit. On the first of the year, DownBeat announced that he’d led their poll for Best Guitarist after just four months in the national spotlight, the first of three consecutive wins.


            Back with the Goodman band in February, Christian was taken ill and briefly hospitalized. There it was discovered that he had tuberculosis scars on his lungs, and his doctors counseled rest. Christian ignored the warning, although the band did get an extra couple of weeks off due to Goodman’s own health issues. After a couple of months in Los Angeles, Goodman needed an operation, so he broke up the band, placing just five key members on retainer. One of them was Charlie Christian. The guitarist again returned to Oklahoma City, this time to rest more than play.


            Rehearsals with the new Goodman septet got underway in October, 1940, with trumpeter Cootie Williams newly recruited from the Ellington band. Christian’s playing continued to develop, and now he entered what most fans think of as his most productive period with tunes like “Benny’s Bugle,” “Breakfast Feud,” and especially his big band feature, “Solo Flight,” recorded on March 4, 1941. It was also sometime in this period that Christian, an inveterate jammer, discovered the uptown scene in Harlem at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House where the new language of bebop was being hammered out on the bandstand. A number of surviving location recordings from May, 1941 have surfaced over the years, and they clearly demonstrate how swing was mutating into bop, prodded in no small way by Christian’s exploratory guitar. In June, the Goodman band hit the road again, but Christian collapsed in the Midwest, and was sent back to New York’s Bellevue Hospital with a recurrence of tuberculosis. Although he was reported to be making progress, and a Down Beat report in February 1942 had him and Cootie Williams starting a band, Christian died in a sanitarium on Staten Island on March 2, 1942. He was just 25.


            Although his career was tragically brief, Christian did have many opportunities to record, both officially and through the preservation of radio broadcasts. The vast majority of his work remains in print, with all of the studio work with Goodman and more in the four -disc Columbia/Legacy boxed set The Genius of the Electric Guitar appearing in 2002.

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