Charlie Christian

A lyrical early electric guitarist

Sometimes I like to think about what it must have been like during the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz music intersected with popular music, a couple of decades during which the genre was rapidly evolving. Swing was becoming complicated, but as swing morphed into bop, it was still dance music.

Bands, many originating in Kansas City and Oklahoma, toured the country. Every town of any size had a ballroom, and ballrooms wanted and would pay for new talent. As always, novelty rules! Many of the bands had musicians who were both black and white. The black musicians had to find their own food and lodging, as mos clubs and ballrooms had a “whites only” policy.

Benny Goodman was a popular bandleader during those decades, and he was a pioneer due to his preference for musical quality, which in his view trumped any racial issues. People, including John Hammond and guitarist Mary Osborne, had recommended to him a young guitarist from Oklahoma City named Charlie Christian. Goodman had employed guitarists before, and wasn’t fond of the instrument. His view was that a guitar could provide rhythm, but it wasn’t a lead instrument.

Meanwhile Charlie Christian had acquired a new Gibson guitar called the ES-150. It was an innovative hollow-body guitar with a pickup, and it was meant to be played through an amplifier. Christian had developed a melodic technique influenced by tenor sax players like Lester Young and Herschel Evans.

Benny Goodman reluctantly allowed Christian to sit in on one of his practice sessions, egged on by New York patrician John Hammond. Goodman called a rather complex and difficult tune, Rose Room, hoping that the young guitarist would stumble and fail. Charlie Christian played twenty innovative choruses on that tune, and Goodman hired him.

One of my favorite tunes from that era is Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. The words of the song are banal, but the melody always makes me feel sentimental. One of Benny Goodman’s tenor sax players during the late 1930s was Jerry Jerome. Christian and Jerome played together one magical evening at the Breakfast Club in Minneapolis; the date was September 24th, 1939. Thanks to Youtube’s archival tendencies, you can hear this rendition of “Stardust” here. I think it’s one of the best recorded renditions I’ve ever heard of that old tune.