Wholly Cats! Charlie Christian’s Contribution to Modern Music

March 18, 2012 by  

Swing jazz was all the rage in the late 1930s. Big bands could be heard every night on one live radio broadcast after another. The big stars were the tenor sax players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young—likewise piano players like Count Basie, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and scores more. Bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glen Miller, and others dominated the airwaves.

Pity the poor guitar players. The best contemporary acoustic guitar design only permitted the big band rhythm guitar to be felt, rather than heard, for the most part, so players were stuck in the rhythm section (usually piano, guitar, bass, drums) without a hope in heck of soloing, like Count Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Green, who sat in the rhythm guitar chair for 50 years, chomping out rhythm chords, four-to-the-bar. To do so required near superhuman strength, as the few amplifiers out there were underpowered, unreliable, and mainly unwelcome by fellow musicians. Professional-grade instruments from makers like Gibson, Epiphone, D’Angelico, Stromberg, and others were built for one thing: to be as loud as possible, usually without consideration for the player’s comfort. They were huge–some as wide as 19 inches at the lower bout. Inflexible bronze strings were often used, with incredibly high string height (the distance between the string and the fretboard—also known as “action”). These elements made for very loud guitars (some called them cannons), but the players needed to constantly exercise their left hand and maintain thick calluses so the strings would not cut their fingertips. At the end of a long night, even with thick calluses, rhythm guitar players’ fingers were usually grooved, numb, and often cut and bloody.

Freddie Green tried using an amplifier, but every time he took a solo, the rhythmic pulse of the band fell apart. Various band members saw this problem and took steps to fix it. Power cords were cut, tubes went missing in action (yes, in those days, those primitive glass bottles with the dull glow provided the motive force—usually about 10 watts worth), or the amp just disappeared between shows. In disgust, Freddie sold the amp and returned to straight rhythm playing and all was again well with the rhythm section. He never again took a solo with the Basie band, though some rare recordings showed him to be a fine soloist, deeply steeped in the blues tradition.

This was the way of the big band guitarist until players like Les Paul began experimenting with electrifying the guitar in the early-mid 1930s, to use it as a strictly lead voice. Other players, like Teddy Bunn followed suit. Unfortunately, none of these players really were able to find the “sound” and playing style to really bring the instrument up front. It wasn’t until 1939 when jazz starmaker John Hammond, heir to a large piece of the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, discovered a 23 year old black guitarist in Oklahoma, named Charlie Christian, who played a Gibson ES-150 “electric” guitar in a style that just blew him away. This was the sound Hammond was looking for. Instead of a rhythm voice, Christian played his guitar in a style that emulated tenor sax player Lester Young. The increased sustain of an amplified guitar permitted longer lines and even with the little 10 watt amplifier, could cut through the horn section of the loudest big band. That, coupled with Christian’s style, which was an amalgamation of western swing, blues and jazz sounds, made him a unique voice. The new electric guitars were also a lot easier to play, as they did not require heavy strings and high “action” (string height) to play loudly.

Hammond was so impressed, he brought Christian to Los Angeles to audition for the Benny Goodman big band. Unfortunately, Charlie was dressed in a rather loud outfit that turned Benny off completely, so Christian was dismissed without playing a single note. Hammond was not to be denied. That evening, the Goodman big band was playing a live radio broadcast at a large ballroom. Hammond obtained a band uniform for Christian, and snuck Charlie and his amplifier on stage. Goodman came on, and saw Christian with the band and gave him the famous “ray”. He decided to take care of this hick from Oklahoma right away. He called for the tune “Rose Room”, and after a few choruses, handed it off to Charlie. What happened next was electrifying. Charlie played chorus after chorus, new musical ideas coming fast and furious with each chorus. Benny joined in, and the tune went on for dozens of choruses. This magical event went on for nearly 20 minutes. The crowd went nuts, and Charlie had a job.

Christian toured with the band off and on, with occasional breaks for treatment of a nagging case of tuberculosis. When the Goodman band was playing in New York, Charlie was finally able to truly find his voice and his element in the after hours Harlem club, Minton’s. Here, with still-unknown players like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and others, bebop was invented. So, by day, Christian played with the Goodman Orchestra, and by night, he helped invent the language of modern jazz, later known as bebop, with Dizzy, Monk, Bird, and countless others.

His health was precarious due to his burning the candle at both ends, working hard and playing hard, not allowing himself to recover from recurring bouts of tuberculosis, and by late 1941, had to check into a sanitarium to recover his health. Unfortunately, many of his musician friends brought booze, drugs, and women with them to visit Charlie at all hours, and his health continued to decline. He died in early 1942, at the impossibly young age of 25.

Fortunately, Charlie Christian was well-recorded during his brief career, and many of his performances were broadcast over network radio. It was in the maturing medium of radio that a whole new group of up-and-coming guitarists heard him and changed their entire approach to playing. This new kind of playing spawned important postwar players like Barney Kessel, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow, Sal Salvador, Jimmy Raney, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Gourley, Joe Pass, and countless others, whose recorded legacy is a part of music collections around the world. More than that, Charlie Christian’s electric guitar playing influenced scores of rock and roll and electric blues players from the 1950s to the present.

Many Charlie Christian recordings are available from places like Amazon.com, emusic.com, as are the recordings of the other players mentioned in this article.