Charlie Christian: electric guitar genius

July 28, 2016 at 11:24 pm (culture, jazz, Jim D, music)


Above: live performance of Wholly Cats, c 1940 with the Benny Goodman Sextet inc Count Basie and Charlie Christian

There is some doubt about Charlie Christian’s date of birth, but most informed opinion now puts it at 29 July 1916.

Charlie was a very important and influential musician, revered in jazz circles as a pioneer (though not the inventor) of the electric guitar and a precursor of the bebop revolution, though he died in March 1942 (of TB, like many other great African American musicians of that generation), before Parker and Gillespie put bebop (or just plain ‘bop’, as it became) on the jazz map.

But his influence goes far beyond jazz, and continues to permeate all of popular music right up to the present day, due to his mastery of the electric guitar. I think it’s fair to say that Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and George Benson are Charlie Christian’s children just as much as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.

Christian’s big break came in 1939, when an initially unenthusiastic Benny Goodman was persuaded (by John Hammond, Goodman’s socialite brother-in-law and a keen champion of racially-integrated jazz) to recruit him for the Goodman Sextet.

Goodman’s biographer James Lincoln Collier (in Benny Goodman And The Swing Era) gives a good account of how Charlie’s influence and musical ideas developed from there:

Although Christian eventually played with the [Benny Goodman] big band for a brief period before his death, for the most part he played only in the Sextet, and it was with the small group that he made an enduring mark on jazz. Aside from bringing the electric guitar to national attention, he is best known for having contributed ideas to the bop movement which would begin to coalesce around 1942. For one thing, Christian was using some of the upper notes of the chord — ninths and elevenths — more frequently than other jazz players. He was also prone to substitute a diminished chord for the dominant seventh in places. The boppers would eventually develop these practices to the point where chromatic alterations and the upper-chord notes would be a major characteristic of the music.

For a second thing, Christian liked to use long lines of unaccented eighth notes. This was in part due to the nature of his instrument. It cannot be made to accent notes with anything like the subtlety of a wind instrument. But it was also a matter of taste — Charlie Christian liked to run long lines. There is a surprising lack of syncopation in his work. The use of long lines of relatively uninflected notes also became a characteristic of bebop.

Christian habitually phrased against the grain of the tune. Jazz musicians have always played asymmetrical phrases, but there is nonetheless a tendency to design a solo to match the two-, four- and eight-bar segments most tunes are constructed of. Christian persistently played phrases of odd lengths — one of three-and-a-half bars, followed by another of five, and then one of two — interjected at irregular points in the chorus. This use of disjunctive phrasing was also typical of bebop.

Finally, Christian frequently ended phrases on the second half of the last beat of a measure. This is the weakest point in a measure, and in most standard music, ranging from the operas of Mozart to the worst material from Tin Pan Alley, phrases are ended at stronger points, often at the first beat of a measure. But this inclination to plunk down at a weak point also became a characteristic of bebop.
(from Benny Goodman And The Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier, pub: Oxford 1989).

But, as it turned out, Charlie Christian didn’t live to see or hear the musical revolution he’d set in train: in 1941 he contracted TB and died in March 1942 from associated pneumonia in a Staten Island sanatorium. He was buried in Harlem in the cheapest coffin available. His advocate, John Hammond, wrote, “He was a sweet loving man with few defences against the world. His only resource was his music and when he was unable to play he was unable to live.”

[NB:   I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Digby Fairweather’s entry on Charlie Christian in the Rough Guide To Jazz, by Carr, Fairweather and Priestly, 1995]

1 Comment

  1. Robert said,

    Thelonious Monk is noted as having refused to comment on an electric guitarist and given his reason that he had heard Charlie Christian and there was nobody comparable. Possibly the precedent for some of Charlie’s playing was Eddie Durham’s work with Benny Moten, on not an electric guitar but a steel-bodied item with acoustic resonators, which let the sound ring out as it can be heard on record, and sound startlingly — well — even out of place, since the sound is no what would be expected from anything recorded in 1930. It’s just a different direction of expression, a different phrasing. One of the other things I remember from early reminiscences of having been surprised by young Charlie was somebody supposing he was hearing a trombone, a loudish burry sound which he used his eyes to discover was coming from a loudspeaker.
    It’s amazing how guitarists rather vanish for a little while — like George Barnes on electric, playing delightful things with blues singers, and like the acoustic masters before they went electric, Teddy Bunn and the wondrous Al Casey, Bunn a considerable loss. His brother Jimmy made a stunning recording with Howard McGhee, rather neglected since it was a result of the altoist on the date having been rendered less than ideally capable (the notorious Charlie Parker “Lover Man” date!). When Peter Tanner caught up with Teddy Bunn he said he’d been planning to form what he thought of as like the Nat Cole Trio (I think he said “only better” — and why not imagine that if you’re not so far behind) with his brother Jimmy and a bassist. Unfortunately Teddy didn’t then proceed to recover from the stroke then disabling him, and didn’t survive further ill health. Shame about his brother. I might also be worth mentioning Jimmy Arthur Shirley, not only “Night Shift” with James P. Johnson but the only recording which displays Clarence Profit playing the unusual harmonics an exclusively studio, commercial and pre-war date allowed to be recorded by him, on a disc originally unissued because what he played were taken to be bum notes. I can’t remember who plays drums on the Black&Blue date with Jimmy Shirley, Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Stephane Grappelli, but that was an ensemble with its strings attached and in tune. And this year marks the ninetieth birthday of Papa Pizarelli (whose name I will never learn to sppel) nly ten years younger than Charlie would have been!

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