Charlie Christian: Swing to Bop and Beyond

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Charlie Christian
By Courtesy of the Duncan Schiedt Collection
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Charlie Christian
By Courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

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Charlie Christian has been gone for nearly 60 years, but there isn’t a guitarist worthy of the name that’s unaware of who this jazz genius was and how significant his contribution continues to be. Yet of all the indelible names in the pantheon of jazz, his is the one granted the least time to earn its place.

For a scant 22 months, Charlie Christian occupied center stage of the jazz world, and then he was gone, as suddenly as he had appeared. We know the basic facts of his life: Born in Dallas, Texas, on July 29, 1916, youngest son of a blind musician; raised in Oklahoma City, where he and his two brothers all became professional players; playing bass and guitar with various bands, including that of Alphonse Trent; beginning to experiment with amplification in 1937; heard by various touring musicians who were impressed, among them Teddy Wilson, Eddie Durham (a pioneer of amplified guitar who gave Charlie pointers) and Mary Lou Williams, who told John Hammond, who went to Oklahoma City to hear for himself and promptly gave Charlie train fare to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for Benny Goodman and was hired on the spot; featured member of Goodman’s sextet, then septet, recording prolifically, jamming at Minton’s, winning polls and then, as his tuberculosis worsened, forced to leave the band, spending the remainder of his brief life in a hospital, where he died on March 2, 1942

And we know the records, and hear echoes of his inventions, riffs and melodies all over the place. Yet we know precious little about the man himself. Ralph Ellison, whose younger brother went to school with Charlie, has given us some insight into the circumstances of his early life, and musicians who knew him have given us glimpses of him, such as tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome. The words that crop up most frequently are “sweet” and “shy.”

“He had the most wonderful smile, something like Tiger Woods,” the 86-year-old Jerome says. He helped Hammond place Charlie’s amplifier on the bandstand in the French Garden Room of the swank Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills on the night of Aug. 16, 1939, when the guitarist played with Goodman for the first time. “Charlie and I were both single, and both of us were crazy about Lester Young, so we started to hang out and go jam, as on that night in Milwaukee, a few weeks after Charlie joined, that happened to be recorded on acetates and, to my great surprise, came out more than 20 years later.

“Charlie would get every new Basie record with Lester, and he knew all the solos by heart, could play them or sing them.” (According to Ellison, Charlie first heard Young in Oklahoma City in 1929, and when the young guitarist Mary Osborne heard Charlie for the first time in Bismarck, N.D., from outside a club, she thought he was playing a tenor sax.) “He was an absolute master of riffs, and he responded musically to things around him. Once, when we were on a train and had been shunted to a siding, some cars went by and made that grating noise that would make most people flinch, but Charlie smiled, said “C sharp!” and proceeded to make up a riff in that key.

“He was a great third baseman; we played quite a bit of baseball when we were on location, with the waiters and busboys, or with other bands. Charlie had a great move to first base. I think he could have been a minor league prospect.”

It is difficult for most people to imagine what it was like to be in one of the top big bands at the height of the swing era. Charlie was plucked from working in a club on Oklahoma City’s Second Street, where he might have made five dollars on a good night, but three days after he’d been signed by Goodman, he was presented by the leader to a live audience at the Hollywood Bowl for a coast-to-coast network broadcast in prime time as “one of the most terrific musicians to be introduced in years,” featured with Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Bernstein and Goodman himself on “Flying Home,” a brand-new tune Charlie certainly made a major contribution to composing.

Then off by train to Wichita, Kan., where he was greeted by friends thrilled to see him in his new role, then Atlantic City’s famous Steel Pier, the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the Michigan State Fair in Detroit and a week at the World’s Fair in New York City, with time out for a “Swing Session” at Manhattan Center opposite the bands of Stuff Smith and Teddy Wilson, plus the weekly Camel Caravan broadcasts. Then, on September 11, his first commercial record date, with an all-star Hampton group including a reed section of Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Chu Berry, a young trumpeter named John Birks Gillespie, the great Clyde Hart on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Cozy Cole on drums. Was Charlie fazed? “Nothing fazed him, musically,” Jerome recalls, pointing out that, aside from his fantastic soloing, “Charlie was a hell of a rhythm guitarist—boy, could he make you play.” On that date, he was a key ingredient in what has been singled out as one of the greatest swing rhythm sections captured on record, and also contributed a lovely accompaniment to Hamp’s vocal on “One Sweet Letter From You,” his first recorded solo, so to speak.

On Oct. 2, the first Goodman Sextet date, he introduced his unique blend of clarinet and electric guitar and vibes. Among the tunes, “Rose Room,” which they had jammed on for nearly three-quarters of an hour on that first night at the Victor Hugo, and “Flying Home,” which would bring fame and fortune to Hamp. A couple of weeks later, Charlie’s Carnegie Hall debut, with the Sextet at ASCAP’s 25th anniversary concert. By then, the band was settled in for a two-month season at the Waldorf Astoria. Charlie got to play with Louis Armstrong on the next Camel Caravan and in November they were both involved in a promising but short-lived Broadway venture: Swinging the Dream, a musical based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring Louis, Maxine Sullivan, the Goodman Sextet, Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude band, Zutty Singleton, Jackie “Moms” Mabley and others—but it closed after just 13 performances. On Christmas Eve, John Hammond’s second “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall, where Charlie got to play with his idol, Lester Young, as well as with the sextet and in a jam with the Count Basie band and others, where his solo almost stole the show. Then a record date with the Metronome All Stars (though on the scene for just a few months, Charlie won both the Down Beat and Metronome polls), then a Hollywood Bowl concert where Benny joined forces with Leopold Stokowski and the L.A. Symphony for the first half, with the sextet featured on the second, and then a record date with Fred Astaire...

That’s what it was like to be in the big time, and Charlie Christian fit right in, playing as relaxed and inspired as he had back home, and maybe even more so, and inspiring those around him—especially guitarists. As Tiny Grimes, among the first to fall under Charlie’s spell, put it: “After I heard Charlie Christian, I had no use for anyone else.” His was a new sound, a new conception, and one that immediately struck a responsive chord in all who listened—it is worth noting that acceptance of Charlie Christian was as good as universal, with musicians and with the public.

There was a chance to see friends and family back home when Goodman’s persistent back problems became so unbearable that he had to undergo surgery. He disbanded, but kept on salary a select few: Hampton, trumpeters Ziggy Elman and lead man Jimmy Maxwell, bassist Artie Bernstein, arranger Eddie Sauter, vocalist Helen Forrest—and Charlie. The layoff lasted more than three months; when he got back into action, Benny took an experimental group into the studio that included Charlie, Lester Young, Count Basie and his famous rhythm section, and trumpeter Buck Clayton. This was the prototype for the new Goodman Septet, featuring Cootie Williams, acquired from the Ellington band, and tenorman Georgie Auld, resulting in a new blend in which the Christian guitar again functioned like a horn—and which, notably when Dave Tough came in on drums, and Basie (as he often would) sat in on piano, inspired Goodman to some of his greatest playing. Again, too, the Christian gift for catchy riffs informed the repertory. Now, also, Charlie more often played in the big band as well, though Benny continued to carry a rhythm guitarist.

Among the highlights of the winter season was the President’s Birthday Ball in the nation’s capital, where Charlie got to shake hands with FDR. The band now settled in for a long stay in the New York City area (there was a new weekly radio show, for Old Gold), and Charlie began to spend a lot of time after hours at Minton’s, the Harlem musicians’ hangout where, legend has it, bebop was born, and also at other Harlem clubs, including Monroe’s Uptown House, and thanks to Jerry Newman’s portable disc recorder, we have some precious close-ups of Charlie in an informal setting. (There’s also the studio jam captured by Columbia engineers, which presently is available only on the French Masters of Jazz Christian CD series.)

Charlie was still with the Goodman crew when the great Sid Catlett and young Mel Powell came on board, but this potential dream combination lasted no more than weeks. Charlie’s health, always precarious, now made it impossible for him to remain on the road. Though he was hopeful that his condition would improve, that was not in the cards, and he would not live to see his 26th birthday.

But his message lives on; like Lester Young, he sounds as fresh as ever. As one of his countless disciples, fellow Texan Herb Ellis, put it: “If Charlie were alive today, we’d still be taking lessons from him.”

Originally published in July/August 2000

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