Personalities | Charlie Christian | The First Great Soloist | Guitar Heroes

Charlie Christian (1916–42) pushed guitar to the forefront of the big-band era, furthering the instrument’s evolution from a provider of acoustic accompaniment to an electrified foreground instrument that could pound out rhythm like a drum set or solo out front like a horn.

His playing, in fact, was likened to jazz horn players who were leading the evolution of traditional jazz into a new, modern jazz during the Thirties and Forties.

Christian was born in Texas but soon moved to Oklahoma with his family. The family was musical and young Charlie and his brothers would sometimes perform live for donations to help support the family. Christian picked up guitar from his father, inheriting his father’s instruments when he died. He began playing around Oklahoma City around 1931, learning from guitarist ‘Bigfoot’ Ralph Hamilton. Christian was a natural, however, and soon was gigging around the Midwest. By 1936, he was playing electric guitar and had become a regional attraction. He would jam with stars travelling through Oklahoma City, among them Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. It was jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who told producer John Hammond about Christian.

Christian auditioned for Hammond, who became convinced that Christian would be a perfect fit for Benny Goodman, who in 1939 was forming a new sextet. Goodman was not pleased when Hammond arranged for Christian to travel to California for an onstage tryout with Goodman, but after trying to stump Christian by calling the tune ‘Rose Room’, Goodman was astounded by Christian’s command of the tune (he had been playing it for years), and the quality and originality of Christian’s solos. Christian was hired on the spot and became a star of the Benny Goodman Sextet, winning accolades and awards from jazz fans and critics.

In the spring of 1940, Goodman reorganized his sextet, retaining Christian and filling the group out with Count Basie, former Duke Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams and former Artie Shaw tenor-saxophonist Georgie Auld. The Goodman Sextet was in 1940 an all-star band that dominated the jazz polls in 1941.

Christian was influenced more by horn players such as Lester Young and Herschel Evans than by early acoustic guitarists like Eddie Lang and jazz-bluesman Lonnie Johnson, although they both had contributed to the expansion of the guitar’s role from ‘rhythm section’ instrument to a solo instrument. Christian admitted he wanted his guitar to sound like a tenor saxophone. By 1939 several players had adopted electric guitar, but Christian was the first great soloist on the amplified instrument.

Christian’s frequent participation in after-hours jam sessions helped spur the developing form of bebop, while he performed more accessible swing during his ‘day job’ with Goodman. Often jamming late-night at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in New York City, Christian created flights of improvisational fancy on extended solos, some of which were recorded by students on primitive tape recorders. There are also recordings of the partial Goodman Sextet made in March of 1941. With Goodman...

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