Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Charlie Christian: Swing to Bop and Beyond

Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian (Courtesy of the Duncan Schiedt Collection)
Charlie Christian

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

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published

Dan Morgenstern

Dan Morgenstern is director emeritus of Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, which he oversaw for more than 35 years. Prior to joining Rutgers, he edited several jazz magazines, including Metronome and DownBeat. He is the author of two books, Jazz People (1976) and Living with Jazz (2004), and has won eight Grammy awards for his album liner-note writing. In 2007, he received the A.B. Spellman Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy from the National Endowment for the Arts.