"Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?"
This quote came from the 1930´s when John Hammond suggested to Goodman that he give an audition to Charlie Christian. It´s a stark reminder that the instrument, which was to become synonomous with popular music in the latter half of the twentieth century, was held in such little regard by the man who defined popular music in the 1930´s having been dubbed "The King Of Swing". Yet Christian auditioned successfully and became an integral part of Goodman´s orchestra. In time, he was to be crowned one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time.
The first time I listened to Charlie Christian was when I was about 14 years old. Having been a huge fan of Chuck Berry my interest was piqued when he was asked about his musical influences. He proceeded to name check T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian. As I was primarily interested in learning rock and blues I ate up T-Bone´s music and licks voraciously (forgive the pun). Charlie Christian was a tougher nut to crack though. I managed to get my hands on the album "The Genius Of The Electric Guitar" from my local library. I´ll be honest and say that my 14 year old self was a little disappointed. The majority of the tracks were three minute songs from the Benny Goodman Sextet recordings in which Christian was given a limited time to show his abilities. Too many clarinets and trumpets for me at that time!
Now older and perhaps a little wiser I can approach Charlie Christian´s music within a broader context. He was a pivotal figure in the world of jazz being one of the musicians who straddled the two worlds of swing and bebop. By day he was recording with Benny Goodman and established swing artists like Cootie Williams and Lionel Hampton. By night he immersed himself in the world of after-hours jam sessions in Harlem at places like Minton´s Playhouse. He wasn´t the first jazz guitarist to play the electric guitar but, being heavily influenced by the sound of Lester Young´s saxophone, he was the first to give it its distinctive voice that was to prevail in practically every jazz record that employed a guitar for the next thirty years.
All of this is even more remarkable when you consider the brevity of his career. He was born in Texas in 1916 and by the early thirties he was establishing a name for himself on the Oklahoma circuit (even striking up a friendship with previously mentioned T-Bone Walker). He acquired his first electric guitar around 1937 (a Gibson ES-150) and came to the notice of producer and promoter, John Hammond, who also happened to be Benny Goodman´s brother-in-law. After a nervy audition Christian´s star soared over the next couple of years.
Check out Solo Flight as an example of Christian´s work with Goodman. He wanted his guitar to sound more like a horn, hence the reason that he doesn´t really sound like Django Reinhardt or Eddie Lang, more like his hero Lester Young.
But as the world was hurtling toward its second global conflict, jazz was to experience an important musical schism. Christian was part of a group of musicians that were experimenting with a looser more dynamic style that was to become bebop. There are some great recordings that demonstrate this dating back as far as 1939 when he was touring with Goodman (Blues In B and Waiting For Benny are great examples). Yet it is the amateur recordings made when Christian was jamming at the after-hours clubs in Harlem that really show the direction of the music. Jerry Newman, a student from Columbia University and a Benny Goodman nut, managed to bring a recorder into Minton´s Playhouse in 1941 and captured a free wheeling Charlie Christian in full flow. Topsy was one of the results. (Check out Kenny Clarke´s sublime bebop drumming as well)
Yet less than one year later Charlie would sadly have succumbed to tuberculosis. The musical baton was to be picked up by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Any guitar player to emerge post 1941 would be influenced by him. This also included guitarists outside of the jazz sphere including BB King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and beyond.