Charlie Christian expanded the boundaries of jazz and left us an unsurpassed collection of early electric guitar recordings. A brilliant soloist, Charlie departed Oklahoma City in August 1939 to try out for Benny Goodman’s band. Playing the electric guitar, then a fairly new instrument, Christian quickly proved that he had the tone, imagination, and finesse to create long, flowing melodic lines that were equal to those of Goodman’s horn players, who were among the best in the country. Within weeks, the 23-year-old guitarist had recorded “Flying Home,” “Stardust,” “Rose Room,” “Seven Come Eleven,” and other classics with the Benny Goodman Sextet. He performed at that year’s Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall as part of the Benny Goodman Sextet and alongside Lester Young and Buck Clayton in the Kansas City Six.
Christian’s impact was immediate: By year’s end, he had won the first of three consecutive Best Guitarist awards from Downbeat magazine. Players across the country sought out his recordings and broadcasts with the Sextet and longed for a guitar like his Gibson ES-150. As Barney Kessel, one of Christian’s earliest and most successful disciples, wrote, “The music Charlie made changed the world. There have been very few people on any instrument since Charlie that have had his sense of time, his spacing of notes. He was years ahead of most of his contemporaries in terms of the lines he was playing, which involved certain chord changes that were non-existent until then. Charlie’s tone was the concept for what is being used today in jazz.”
During 1940 and early ’41, Christian continued to record influential songs such as “Till Tom Special,” “Gone With ‘What’ Wind,” “Wholly Cats,” “Air Mail Special,” “Breakfast Feud,” and his specialty number with the full Benny Goodman Orchestra, the magnificent “Solo Flight.” Another masterwork was his improvised “Blues in B,” with its five-chorus solo. After hours, Charlie often headed to Harlem to jam at Minton’s Playhouse, where Thelonius Monk and Kenny Clarke served as the house band and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins were regulars. It was here, witnesses insist, that the foundations of bebop were created. In May 1941, a young jazz enthusiast recorded Christian at Minton’s playing “Swing to Bop,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and other compositions. Two months later, the hard-partying guitarist, who’d been diagnosed in 1940 with tuberculosis, was admitted to Seaview Sanitarium on Staten Island, where he passed away on March 2, 1942.
As a special tribute, I wrote the March 1982 Guitar Player magazine cover story on Charlie Christian. Barney Kessel, a columnist for the magazine, wrote a sidebar about Charlie’s style. The article didn’t seem complete, though, without input from those who actually knew Christian. On a whim, I called an operator in Manhattan on November 20, 1981, and asked if she had any listings for Benjamin Goodman. She told me she had five “B. Goodman” listings, and I asked for those. On my second attempt, an elderly gentleman answered the phone.
I’m looking for Mr. Goodman, the bandleader.
This is Mr. Goodman, yes.
I’m writing an article on the 40th anniversary of Charlie Christian’s death . . .
Has it been that long, has it?
It will be 40 years in March.
Could I ask you a few questions about him?
Why not? Go ahead.
When you first heard of Charlie Christian, did you think an electric guitar could fit into your music?
[Long pause.] Well, I always played with guitar players before that – is that what you mean? With Dick McDonough and Carl Kress, so I don’t think that part of it was terribly unusual, except he was such an unusual player! And of course, it was electric, yes.
What distinguished Charlie’s style?
Well, he was unique! A brilliant musician. Inventive. Well, there’s nothing you could say about him more than that, you know. He was way ahead of his time, and a joy to listen to.
What were your first impressions when you met him?
Well, he wasn’t the most imposing figure in the world – is that what you mean? He was retired and reserved and thin. Of course, he might have been – well, I don’t know. Well, anyway, he was rather shy. He enjoyed a good laugh. But by gosh, when he sat down and played the guitar, he was something! Did you ever have a chance to talk to Mary Lou Williams about him?
No, I didn’t.
Oh, you didn’t. She knew him a long time ago, didn’t she? Do you remember her knowing him?
Yes, she’s the one who told John Hammond to go see him.
Oh, I see. I see.
There’s a story that you were playing at a club, and John Hammond put Charlie on the bandstand without your knowledge.
I don’t remember that [laughs]. In any event, it’s a nice story. I think that was in Beverly Hills, wasn’t it?
Do you know the name of the club?
I think it was Beverly Hills.
Hammond reported that you did a jam on “Rose Room” that went on for about 40 minutes.
I don’t remember that. I don’t remember how long it went.
Were you pretty sure you wanted Charlie in the band after that first time you played with him?
Oh, yeah. No doubt about that.
Did he fit in with the other guys right away?
You mean the rhythm section? Yes, of course. Everybody was delighted with him.
Was he easy to work with?
Would you say he was a schooled musician?
Well, I really don’t know about that, but it didn’t make any difference at all, did it? You mean did he read music? I don’t really remember that at all.
Did his playing change much while he was in your band?
I don’t think so. It didn’t have to, did it? [Laughs.] And after all, he was only with me a short time. He got ill pretty soon after that. I forget – what date was it he joined me?
I think he joined you in late ’39, and he died in ’42.
Yeah, so it wasn’t very long, you know. He played with me at the Paramount Theater and made quite a few records with me. I don’t think there was really much time for anything to change. Of course, he made all of the other records that were recorded up at Minton’s, didn’t he? He was an amazing player to listen to.
Did he have immediate impact on other guitar players?
Well, I think you’d have to ask guitar players about that! [Laughs.]
What about the guys who came into your band after Charlie left? Did they adopt his style?
[Long pause.] Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody ever sounded like him, really.
How popular was Charlie in his lifetime?
Well, he was very popular. With the public, you mean? Yes. He didn’t have enough time to really establish himself, so to speak, but he was an immediate success on concerts and records.
Well, that’s true, isn’t it? Yeah. But to me, he sounded quite different than that. He wasn’t as hectic as bebop, as far as I’m concerned. But I can see the influence that I can imagine that some people would say he had over bop. His inventions, his harmonic structure – quite miraculous. There was a phrase in – what was it? [Sings several measures of Christian’s “Air Mail Special” solo.] Remember the release? Yeah. [Sings some “Air Mail Special” riffs.] Those kinds of phrases – extraordinary!
What were Charlie’s strongest points musically?
Oh, gosh. He had everything!
Did he have any weak points?
Forty years later, Mr. Goodman, what do you think Charlie Christian contributed to jazz?
A great deal. A lot of people influenced by him, including me.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about him?
Well, I think he was great loss, and I’m delighted that you’re remembering him in this article. Thank you very much – I’m delighted to talk to you. And good luck!
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.