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Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar

Few musicians have the archetypal stature of Charlie Christian, and none obtained it like the guitarist: exclusively as a sideman. Certainly, had the pioneering electric guitarist not died of tuberculosis in 1942 at 25, Christian’s impact would have been even more profound, as he was positioned to become a leading exponent of emergent bebop. Had Christian lived even to the age of 50, the guitar may not have been the second-tier instrument that some consider it. Still, Christian has a musical legacy and a mystique (albeit a far less exploited one) in the same ballpark as Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix.

The amazing aspect of Christian’s legacy is that the bulk of his official recordings were made in the employ of Benny Goodman, the unlikely teen idol of white America. Despite the fading of his youth culture stock by their initial 1939 sessions, Goodman still enjoyed such King of Swing perks as a weekly national radio show. Goodman’s plucking of Christian from territory band obscurity-credit John Hammond with the assist-was every bit as daring as his barrier-breaking hiring of Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson a few years before. Christian gave both Goodman’s Sextet and Orchestra sides an earthy, edgy voice that complemented the soar and swoon of Goodman’s clarinet.

The 18-month collaboration of this odd couple is the intriguing subtext of The Genius of the Electric Guitar. This is a far from definitive Christian collection. For the whole story, the 8-volume Masters of Jazz series of Christian’s recordings is recommended, as is the more easily obtained After Hours (OJC/Esoteric), which places Christian among peers like Gillespie and Monk, and shows how his Oklahoma and Texas-bred style helped catalyze the new music. Still, this well-appointed 4-CD set documents how Christian’s attack, tone and phrasing laid the foundation for all who followed him. It details how the principled and savvy Goodman tethered Christian’s rocketing talent, giving him enough slack to make compact high-impact statements, but without skewing the sound Goodman honed to balance his color-blind artistic agenda and his demographics-driven business sense.

Subsequently, some of the more compelling aspects of Christian’s genius lingered on the margins of a Goodman side, like his unsentimental style on ballads like “Memories of You.” When Goodman placed the radical, heritage-rich elements of Christian’s approach front and center in a Sextet tune-like the sliding notes that open the Christian co-penned “AC/DC Current”-they were ultimately assimilated into the frictionless rhythmic feel Goodman favored, but not before Christian had the opportunity to make clear linkage with his own budding modernism. Yet this tendency of Goodman’s should be considered within the context of a point touched upon by annotator Loren Schoenberg: the staying power of Christian’s work is one thing, but its forcefulness in contemporary terms had to be palpable.

By the late ’40 and early ’41 sessions that yielded nine distinctive takes of the reveling “Breakfast Feud,” Goodman had a greater comfort level with a blacker ensemble sound, bringing trumpeter Cootie Williams into the 7-piece unit billed as Benny Goodman and His Sextet, as well as leading sessions with, among others, Count Basie, Jo Jones and Lester Young (an early Christian influence). Occasionally, Christian’s tone is thicker and his blues sensibility more bluntly stated on the “Feud” sessions than the earlier sessions, qualities that offset his increasingly complex runs. It is noteworthy that Christian made these strides on tracks in tandem with Williams’ muted smears and wails, and, on four takes, both the jab of Basie’s piano and the push of Jones’ drums. The camaraderie rubs off on Goodman as well; though he does not solo with abandon, Goodman is obviously digging deep to produce well-formed solos that pack a punch.

How long the coalition between the meteoric Christian and the North Star-like Goodman could have lasted in a jazz world polarized by bebop is an interesting speculative exercise. Among its many pleasures, The Genius of the Electric Guitar provides plenty of fodder for a variety of viewpoints. Regardless of how far Christian could have dragged Goodman into modern jazz, this worthwhile collective confirms the guitarist to be a bridge between two of jazz’s most glorious eras.

Originally Published