TBT – The Debt We Owe Charlie Christian
This Throwback Thursday nod to the great pioneering guitarist Charlie Christian was first published on March 5th, 2015. As part of our holidays celebration, we are rerunning our best articles of 2015. Enjoy!
The electric guitar was born in 1931. The earliest proponents of this new instrument included Charlie Christian, Les Paul, T-Bone Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Lonnie Johnson. Each of these revered artists was a huge influence in shaping the way guitar would be played, and the contexts in which it would be used as the future unfolded. An uncharted course lay before them. For the most part, guitar was viewed as a rhythm instrument, used as backing accompaniment. One notable exception was Django Rheinhardt, who incorporated both lead runs and rhythm playing in his Gypsy Jazz, dropping in and out of the rhythm to play lead runs as Chuck Berry would do years later. As far as guitar was concerned, it did not command the respect and admiration it does today. Consider that by 1931, Andrés Segovia had already spent the better part of two decades raising the status of the guitar to the point where it was finally beginning to be respected as a concert instrument.
Today, there are many guitar techniques that are taken for granted. That is due in part to the work of modern masters across many genres including folk, blues, jazz, rock, and classical music. Pioneers such as Wes Montgomery, Earl Hooker, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Brian Setzer, Sharon Isbin, Mike Stern, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, and John Scofield advanced technique, phrasing, and “feel” immensely. Several of these master have, at one point or another, have mentioned Charlie Christian, either as an influence, or someone they enjoyed listening to.
Born in Texas in 1916, Christian spent his youth growing up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Along with his brothers, he was taught music beginning at an early age by his father, Clarence Henry. He began playing guitar as a child, and when he was 12 years old, his father died, leaving him his instruments. By 1936, Christian was playing electric guitar throughout the Midwest, and enjoyed a good reputation regionally. Eventually, John Hammond heard about Christian, who later auditioned for him. Hammond arranged for Christian to audition for the great Benny Goodman, who supposedly, was not impressed with him. Hammond later had him put in with the band onstage that evening, and Goodman was not pleased. So, he called a tune that he was sure Christian didn’t know, “Rose Room.” As luck would have it, he was very familiar with the tune, and came in on the first chorus, and played. Goodman was taken aback by his ability, and style, and he was welcomed into the new sextet comprised of Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Nick Fatool, and Artie Bernstein. He would later play in a restructured sextet including Cootie Williams, Count Basie, Dave Tough, and Georgie Auld.
Christian really learned and conducted his journeys of discovery at Minton’s Playhouse, a club in Harlem. It was in these sessions that he could improvise more freely, instead of having to be mindful of the constraints of Goodman’s more structured music. The “rule book” was thrown out the window. Listen to Christian improvise in this jam “Swing to Bop (Charlie’s Choice).” Note how fluid, emotive, and expressive the playing is. He’s improvising on the spot. No pause. Even more amazing is that he is playing with Joe Guy, Kenny Kersey, and Kenny Clarke. And dig that tone! This was an early example of what would come to be known as “Bop.” Here he is with Benny Goodman playing “Flying Home.” Another great example of his deft fingering and finesse is heard here in “Seven Come Eleven.”
Having listened to “Swing to Bop (Charlie’s Choice),” check out this cut from Magic Sam, “I Don’t Want No Woman.” Listen to “Pretty Woman” by Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins, or this Buddy Guy track from 1958, “Try To Quit You Baby.” They are all distinctly different, and yet, there exists subtle traces of Charlie Christian in each of them. And that friends, is the beauty of Charlie Christian.
Unfortunately, Christian’s life was cut tragically short when he succumbed to tuberculosis on March 2nd, 1942, at 25 years old. It makes one shudder to think of what he would have accomplished had he lived longer. As it is, he left a body of work that is elegant, emotive, and groundbreaking. His legacy is realized in successive generations of musicians who study, learn, and ultimately enjoy his music. As a testament to this, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.