Sometimes I like to imagine I’m a workaday jazz musician from a very specific point in time. It’s May 1941 in New York City. I’m dragging and it’s getting late, but I head on over to Minton’s Playhouse, where some cats are going to jam into the morning. I park myself out of the way, listen to the nascent forms of bebop taking hold, but it’s only when a 24-year-old guitarist starts doing his thing that I shed all vestiges of the soporific and come alive.
That guitarist, of course, is Charlie Christian, who will (and it feels like a miracle in reverse) be dead in less than a year. His body of work—his legacy—is built over the years 1939-1941. Doesn’t seem like a lot, until, that is, you start listening to that protean sound, which seems to have no beginning and no end.
Christian’s dalliance with fame began in 1939, when he latched on with the Benny Goodman Orchestra following an audition for John Hammond. My gut feeling is Goodman—who heard your sound and didn’t see your color at a time when most white bandleaders took the path of least resistance, a.k.a. segregation—heard Christian play guitar and had one thought: Their loss, my gain.
Goodman was initially unimpressed when he heard Hammond’s recording, though, and was only won over after challenging the guitarist to extemporize on “Rose Room” at an L.A. gig. This establishes a thematic pattern: You’ll never go wrong with a Charlie Christian studio recording, but his legacy is made in spontaneous moments, captured as if by chance. Thus we come to Minton’s, and what may be—though it’s garnered many official releases over the years—jazz’s greatest bootleg.
Bebop had a strange cycle of development, due in part to the World War II recording ban. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are seen as its chief drumbeaters (albeit on their respective horns), but listening to the Minton’s recordings of Charlie Christian, you’re given real pause on the primary source front, because if anyone was charging harder at the leading edge of bop than this particular fellow, I haven’t heard it. A Columbia student named Jerry Newman is the quiet hero of a quintessential document, for he’s the guy who figured it’d be a good idea to record Christian and his mates cutting loose when most of the East Coast was long asleep.
An urban legend persisted that the group included Gillespie and Thelonious Monk—much like the country version that Johnny Cash was a part of the Million Dollar Quartet at Sun—but that’s long been dispelled. Still, Kenny Clarke mans the drum kit (with Joe Guy on trumpet and Kenny Kersey on piano), and Klook was a big Christian backer, going so far as to say that it was the guitarist who wrote “Epistrophy” and “Rhythm-a-Ning,” not Monk.
Whether Christian did or didn’t scarcely changes the value of this sublime piece of eavesdropped genius. If you’re not familiar with the tape, what you’ll notice upon an initial listen—what you can’t help but notice—is the tone of his guitar. It’s a blend of seeming extremes, within a package of maximum flex, fluidity, and fit. There’s a somatic quality to that tone, and an annunciatory one, a Klaxon horn of sustained notes spreading from top to bottom in the listener. But the sheen and viscosity is even more notable, as if honey has been drizzled over the inside of an abalone shell.
On “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Christian’s notes are dancing points of light. They snake in a forward surge, but for all the speed—and it’s formidable—there’s a highly wrought, mathematical design element. Christian blasts off but also stays grounded, building an edifice that makes us think we can all but enter into his vestibule of sound and ride an elevator to the loftiest of penthouses. This is high-grade art. This is what we’re here for, when we listen to music, ponder how one person went in directions ostensibly unknown to almost everyone else.
This is the sound of someone moving the goalposts of musical history, an elision that just had to be made, or else the world wouldn’t evolve quite as well as it could. What you might even say—as you’re careful to not let your awe overcome your focus—is that the electric guitar has no other moment in its existence where we can experience it being moved forward as a concept, a totem, a power, an art defined by its ability to be in flux, to a greater degree than it is right here.
Minton’s was to bop as the Galapagos Islands were to Darwinism: a tucked-away ecosystem with much to teach the world about the ones surrounding it. That makes Christian one rare bird.