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]