Charles Henry Christian 1916~1942
August 1939, Los Angeles-bound an perhaps already stricken with TB – Charlie Christian aged 23 years shakes hands with Oklahoma City bandleader James Simpson. His older brother Eddie Christian stands alongside Charlie with his luggage and Guitar. But where is his Amp? – Is that an early amp in front of his case? Christian went from making $2.50 a night to making $150 a week.
He changed the guitar world. He changed it not so much as being a superb guitar player, but rather the music that he made. Anyone that would study him can see where all the other guitar players who came after him evolved, that they came from his fountainhead. They came from that and went their own way, according to their own tastes, but he was the Pioneer. He was as much a innovator as any latter giant that other people have come across and patterned themselves after.
His contributions were so strong in several departments. One is there have been very few people on any instrument that have come since him that have had his sense of time. His ability to play in time in the way that he played. The spacing of his notes. That’s one of the things. The other thing is he was years ahead of most of the people he was playing with in terms of the solo lines he was playing. They involved certain chord changes that were not considered in existence then.
If you listen to any of the blues that he played, you will hear in the line that he has adopted, harmonic changes that none of the others on the record are playing, not even the background. They are refreshing and they fit. He’s playing more chord changes in his lines, and very interesting ones, different to those that existed at the time. Any recording would be an example of that. In addition, his tone was more like the concept of what is being used today in jazz, and all along. It is more of a velvet sound. It’s just the antithesis of a rock and roll sound, or a pop rock or punk rock sound. It is more an electric guitar sound rather than an electronic guitar sound. A lot of people don’t understand this either. People think what sound they want now, and what Charlie Christian acheived then, was simply to amplify the natural sound of the guitar and just make the natural sound louder to push the instrument as a front line solist. It was a different sound entirely. The electric guitar as he played it had its own sound.
Charlie with the Gibson EH150 Amplifier
So we have 3 different sounds that we are talking about: One is the regular acoustic guitar where you put something on it, and it doesn’t change the sound – it only makes it louder. Another is the actual sound of an electric guitar coming through a particular pickup that sounds like an electric guitar, which is different. Then you have now got things that people are playing today in the genres of rock and pop, etcetera, which is really a more electronic sound. Charlie Christian’s tone was more horn-like. It’s more like the velvety sound of some of the saxophone players and trombone players. It was more like a horn. Many people that heard him play and didn’t know of him, hardly knew that they were listening to a guitarist. They didn’t know anything about it. They just were simply going to this club where he might be playing, and they’d hear the music from outside, and they didn’t know that there was such a thing as a soloist on electric guitar. Almost all of them thought that it was a tenor saxophone. – Barney Kessel
Charlie Christian died of TB in 1942 aged 25
Charlie with Benny Goodman and his acoustic Rhythm Guitarist
Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player? asked clarinettist Benny Goodman when producer John Hammond suggested he give Charlie Christian an audition in 1939. In its infancy at that time, the electric guitar became one of the defining sounds of 20th-century American music, in no small part thanks to Christian’s innovations on the instrument.
He had been suffering from Tuberculosis, which wasn’t found out until Benny (Goodman) got to Chicago. Charlie was coughing continuously, and Benny sent him to the Michael Reed Hospital, and that was when they found out that Charlie had already had TB. He was warned by the doctors to be terribly careful not to smoke and to get his rest. But he got to New York and there was never any rest. He played with the band – they worked the New York Hotels at the time – and then afterwards he would hang out at Minton’s up in Harlem, on 188th Street and 7th Avenue. He was up there all night. At the same time, Dizzy (Gillespie) used to hang out up there – Charlie came a year or so later. But anyway, the joint architects of bebop were probably Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, and Dizzy Gillespie. I saw Charlie about 3/4 days before he died, out at Seaview Hospital on Staten Island. That’s where Charlie died. Fortunately, his trained nurse out there was a good friend of mine. This was in the spring of 1942, and I was at my family’s house for dinner, I’ll never forget, and the nurse called me and said, “Please Come” – she didn’t think Charlie would last even a couple of more days. And she asked me to please get in touch with Benny and have Benny send some kind of a wire or send some fruit or something, to show him how much Benny stilled loved him. I don’t know whether Benny ever did or not. I have a feeling maybe he didn’t. Charlie did die within a couple of days. His funeral was up at the Mother Zion A.M.E. Church on 137th Street in New York City. We shipped the body to Oklahoma City. I made all the funeral arrangements, I remember. – John Hammond
Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt had little influence on Christian, but he was obviously familiar with some of his recordings. Guitarist Mary Osborne recalled hearing him play Django’s solo on “St Louis Blues” note for note, but then following it with his own ideas. Charlie’s fingers were long but perhaps not as long as Tal Farlow’s
What’s your opinion of the rumour that Charlie died after smoking a reefer while he was a patient in a TB ward?
Charlie with Gene Krupa
I don’t think so. Maybe. I think it was alcohol. The night he was in Jack’s, people were giving him drinks. When they wanted to hear him play, they sent a drink over to him, and he was just drinking one right after the other. I didn’t drink at that time, and I was wondering why he drank all the time. He didn’t need to be drinking. He started perspiring – the sweat was running off of his face. He was playing “Stardust,” and I thought then that he’s got to be sick. He was in bad way. Ben Webster came around and played with him half the night, and Charlie was still playin’. Then he went out in the streets and danced on the sidewalk. For a dancer, he was a helluva guitar player! He could dance. That’s what he was gonna be – a dancer. He didn’t want to be a guitar player; he wanted to dance. Sure! As soon as the music started, he wanted to dance. I don’t know if it was the alcohol or what, but that’s what he did. The waitress at the place I was working, Ethel, she irked him on. She’d buy him drinks, because he stood by the bar doing dance steps. I think the alcohol hastened his death.