Personalities | Charlie Christian | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

Charlie Christian was the last great figure to emerge from the jazz scene of the 1930s. He not only brought a perfectly formed approach to his music, but also an entirely new musical platform – the electric guitar. His career in the big time was brief, but Christian was a lighthouse whose beam still illuminates anyone with serious intentions on the instrument.

Charles Henry Christian was born on 29 July 1916 in Dallas, Texas to Clarence and Willie Mae Christian, both professional musicians. When Clarence lost his sight in 1918, he turned to playing the guitar, which he also taught to his three sons. By the time Charlie was 10 his father had died and the family had moved to Oklahoma City, where he began working part-time as a pianist. During his teens his future looked grim: at 15 Christian was a lanky high-school dropout and at 16 he was an unexpected father, trying to get by in the dust bowl of the Great Depression. But beneath the bashful, diffident exterior stirred an emerging savant of whom it was said that he could hear around corners with flawless logic. In Oklahoma City he was able to make his way, landing regular jobs in clubs.

Christian Joins Benny Goodman

Sometime in the mid-1930s Christian bought a Gibson ES150 electric guitar. No recordings exist by which to chart his development, but there is no question that travelling musicians took notice as Christian worked for $2.50 a night in Oklahoma City. One of the players who heard him while passing through in 1939 was Mary Lou Williams, pianist with the Andy Kirk Orchestra.

Meanwhile, Benny Goodman was eager to reinvigorate his band. He was clearly intrigued by the possibilities of the electric guitar and tried out several players on his radio programme, but none was up to the clarinetist’s virtuosity. That summer Williams told critic John Hammond about Christian. Hammond flew out to see him, was astonished and shortly afterwards brought him to Los Angeles, where Goodman was playing. In August Christian first sat in with Goodman’s quintet. Nothing could have prepared Goodman for what he heard. Christian was immediately hired and for the rest of his short career, the Benny Goodman Sextet and Septet were his professional homes.

He could not have found a more perfect environment. Goodman and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton were brilliant players who recognized one of their own and the Sextet, with its openness to developing original material, offered an ideal creative mandate. Furthermore, Goodman reached a vast national audience and gave his protégé a generous spotlight. Within weeks, both Christian and the electric guitar were famous. His solos were so inventive in concept and flawless in performance that they seemed to foreclose all future alternatives in one sweeping, inclusive stroke. As 1940 began he stood like a lone colossus on the commanding heights of a dawning, electrified instrumental empire.

Christian’s Style

Except for the use of accent chords or recurring triads in his largely set...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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