Great Guitarists #5: Charlie Christian

Many of the jazz guitarists featured so far will have been influenced by today’s Great Guitarist. Not only one of the foundations of how jazz guitar can be played & appreciated, but also one of the innovators behind bebop…

Charlie Christian

As one of the first players to ensure the guitar was taken seriously as a lead-playing instrument (along with Django Reinhardt), Christian arguably helped lay for foundation for all jazz guitar to follow. Born into a musical family Texas in 1916, he was the youngest of three brothers. His introduction to jazz and first break came while playing in his oldest brother Edward’s band across the state border in Oklahoma, impressing fellow musicians in late-night jam sessions while still only a teenager.

Taking his style from horns, Christian’s goal was for his guitar to sound like a tenor saxophone. Although he was undoubtedly aware of Django Reinhardt’playing, it does not appear to have influenced him anywhere near as much as the various horn and reed players Christian was surrounded by and worked alongside.

Christian was recommended to band leader Benny Goodman in 1939. Various accounts demonstrate a reluctance on Goodman’s part, largely due to the fact that the electric guitar was a very new instrument, and not regarded as a soloing one. Up until then, it has largely been an alternative to the banjo as an accompanying instrument. As Goodman was mainly leading a sextet at the time, he clearly preferred versatility in his performers. However, Christian’s skill at melodic improvising soon won him over. When Goodman overhauled his sextet in 1940,Christian was the only band member who stayed on, playing in a new ‘supergroup’ lineup which included Count Basie on piano and Cootie Williams on trumpet.

During this time, Christian was also a prominent figure in the after hours jams at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where bebop was born. Many of the leading jazzmen of the day frequented these sessions, including Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke, almost others. According to Leonard Feather (1960), several participants in these jams attribute Christian’s humming of the melodic phrases as the onomatopoetic origin of the name bebop.

According to the legendary guitarist (and Charlie Christian fan) Barney Kessel (read my Great Guitarists installment on Barney Kessel here), Christian played almost entirely using downstrokes with a large triangular pick held between his thumb and forefinger. His remaining right hand fingers apparently remained steadfast against his guitar’s pick guard. I’m always amazed at how early pioneers of single-note guitar playing sounded so smooth without using an alternate picking technique. It only goes to show what can be achieved when the music needs to come out…

Unfortunately, the world never got to see where Christian would take jazz, or at least his own playing, next. Having contracted tuberculosis in the late thirties, Christian’s health started to decline, not helped by the lifestyle of a busy working jazz musician. He died in a sanatorium on Staten Island in New York in 1942, aged just twenty-five. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham, Texas, the town of his birth. Today, the exact location of the father of modern jazz guitar remains unknown.

Essential Listening

Due to his untimely demise, Christian never cut any records as a band leader. A few amateur recordings exist of groups he led playing live (presumably between Goodman dates), as well as some of those Minton’s Playhouse sessions, such as Swing To Bop (1941).

The main way to hear Christian’s playing is from recordings made with the Benny Goodman sextet between 1939-1941. Thankfully, Goodman recognised Christian’s talent and allowed him plenty of time in the spotlight. These solos have been listened to and learned by jazz guitarists the world over, not least greats such as Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and many more. Among the recordings by the Goodman sextet , Solo Flight is a great starting point.

Christian (front row), between Count Basie (piano) and Benny Goodman (clarinet). Freddie Green, a guitarist famous entirely for his rhythm playing, can be seen in the back row.

Christian’s influence lives on beyond the world of jazz guitar. Countless musicians have credited him as an early influence, from Miles Davis to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Outside of jazz, Christian’s pioneering use of the guitar as a lead instrument helped pave the way fir rock’n’roll. His direct musical influence can be heard in artists such T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore and Eddie Cochran. Indirectly, he probably reached all of us…

Published by timguitar

Guitarist, composer, music therapist and avid bibliophile. Providing an insight into my life as a professional musician, lessons learned as an allied health practitioner, as well as various musings on the world of music in general. Expect plenty of articles about music & wellbeing, classical guitar, jazz, world/roots genres, and all sorts of guitar-related chat.

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