Charlie Christian and the Bebop Movement
“Charlie Christian, like all other guitar players. There was no way out. That cat tore everybody’s head up …”
Wes Montgomery explaining what started his interest in guitars.
Three years. In three short years, this amiable, smiling quiet man quite literally changed jazz guitar and the way it was played for decades to come. Despite having a short lived career, what Charlie Christian accomplished in just three years in the spot-light remains a jaw dropping example of prime jazz guitar.
Now for most of us rock fans, jazz is a four-letter word. It conjures up images of our parents sipping Cosmopolitans’ at the club after a round of golf while a quiet, unassuming band plays ‘mellow’ tunes at a volume that allows for conversations about investment tips and portfolio management. Or perhaps, if you’re of a certain age, smoke filled clubs with beret wearing ‘beats’, all dressed in black while some erstwhile maniac screams performance poetry in front of an angular man playing low on a saxophone and another tapping out a primitive rhythm on a bongo. But jazz is an incredibly complex form of music (some contend that it is far more complicated to play than many classical pieces) with a deep and varied history. But despite where you sit at the table of this particular discussion, the one thing is for certain; jazz is American; purely and uniquely American.
Charlie Christian sprung from the heart of America in a place where one would not have thought of as having jazz roots, Oklahoma. Although born in Bonham, Texas (outside of Dallas, Texas), his family relocated to Oklahoma City when he was five years old. Charlie was the youngest of three children born to musician parents (Clarence Senior played trumpet while their mother, Willie Mae, played piano. To earn extra money they also composed and played musical accompaniments to silent movies playing in local theatres) and shared a musical talent with his older brothers Edward and Clarence. Clarence Senior, although blinded by a high fever as a young man, used to take his sons with him to busk on street corners. Clarence the younger played mandolin and violin and Edward worked the upright bass. Charlie played a rudimentary guitar most often times homemade out of cigar boxes and broom handles. Clarence Senior passed away when Charlie was only 12 years old and Charlie inherited his fathers’ guitar.
Charlie’s skills became evident early on and as he became enamored with the music of his day he began to absorb the influences around him at an astonishing rate. Although he learned the rudiments from his father as his interest grew he began taking guitar lessons from James Simpson, a trumpet player in his big brothers band as we'll as from Ralph ‘Big Foot Chuck’ Hamilton, a local guitar talent. There are stories that one of Charlie’s friends while he was a young man was future blues guitar legend T-Bone Walker who also studied guitar with Hamilton around the same time.
Writer and family friend Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man, Shadow and Act) noted that the range of Charlie’s influences were deep, wide-ranging and varied. One of those influences that seem to have turned up in Charlie’s work was saxophonist Lester Young. Christian became infatuated with Young’s notorious long ranging solo lines and worked them stylistically into his own work as a guitarist.
At this time the guitar had been relegated to primarily a background rhythm instrument on the bandstand. Even though there were several tremendous rhythm and lead players at the time (including the legendary Django Reinhardt who is universally acknowledged as one of the very few true masters of the guitar), the instrument simply wasn’t loud enough to compete in a big band setting and be a stand out instrument. Add to that the fact that compositions simply weren’t being written for an instrument that could not really be heard in a horn heavy band.
Christians first professional gig was when he in 1930 when he was 14 years old as he sat in with the Don Redman Orchestra at Honey Murphy’s Club in Oklahoma City. He played his solos on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘Tea For Two’ and Rose Room’ by holding his acoustic guitar up to the microphone. Word of this astounding performance spread so quickly that it actually reached his mother before Charlie made it home from the gig.
In the early thirties some enterprising guitarists were experimenting with amplifying their guitars, some mechanically (dobros, resonators) and others electrically. One such inventive type was a jazz guitarist named Eddie Durham. In 1937 Durham and Christian met and Durham taught Charlie what he knew about amplified guitars. Charlie took to it immediately.
Christian, still based out of the mid-west, began to hook up with various local touring bands alternating between playing guitar and bass. After touring through Minnesota, Nebraska and Wyoming, Charlie found himself back in Oklahoma in 1939. Local pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams heard Charlie play (stunned as she watched and heard Charlie play Django’s solo on ‘St. Louis Blues’ note for note) and was completely blown away by his inventive horn-like approach to his single string solos. She immediately contacted promoter and talent hunter John Hammond Sr. Hammond, with his incredibly keen ear for talent (think Dylan, Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Stevie Ray Vaughn), stopped in Oklahoma on his way to Los Angeles for a recording date with Benny Goodman to hear Christian play. Hammond, much like Williams and everyone else who had the chance to hear Charlie play, found him ‘unbelievable’ and convinced a notoriously recalcitrant and cranky Goodman to give Charlie an audition.
There are many stories about the initial audition and what followed but according to Christian himself in a 1940 interview in Metronome Magazine, “I guess neither one of us liked what played,” he said of he August 1939 audition. There are stories that Christian showed up for the audition dressed ‘garishly’ (I have not been able to find out what he was wearing but suffice it to say, it didn’t sit well with Goodman who thought Charlie to be a ‘hick’ and a ‘rube’).
Christian said that despite not doing well on the initial audition, Goodman invited him to the show that evening at the Victor Hugo Restaurant in Los Angeles. Hammond decided to sneak Christian onto the bandstand unbeknownst to Goodman. The bandleader was not pleased at the surprise and decided to call for ‘Rose Room’, a song he felt that Charlie would not know. But Charlie had been playing the song for years and when the band struck up, Charlie jumped right in at the chorus. The band ran through twenty choruses and Christian played differing versions each time and each one seemed even better than the one before. The song went on for over forty minutes! By the end of the song, Christian was in the band.
By 1940 Charlie Christian was riding the top of the polls as the king of jazz and swing guitar players as well as being named to the Metronome All-Stars. Goodman, a famously mercurial bandleader cut the majority of the band in a reorganization move but he made sure to keep Charlie. Goodman’s next move was the formation of a new sextet featuring Charlie, Count Basie and trumpeter Cootie Williams. It was another stunning success as the sextet again topped the polls and again Charlie was named to the Metronome All-Stars. Charlie had become a bona fide star.
But Charlie felt that he had energy to burn that equaled his love for being on the bandstand. Famed jazz bassist John ‘Milt’ Hinton had opened a club called, naturally, Hinton’s, at the Hotel Cecil on 118th Street in Harlem. Charlie would often times finish a full set or a day in the studio with Goodman’s Sextet and then head up-town to play at Minton’s. Minton’s had become a favored haunt of both local and visiting jazz men and Charlie quickly became a fixture at the joint during the after hours jams that would often times extend until 4 AM. It was at Minton’s that Charlie got to play with some of the most impressive names in jazz- Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Thelonius Monk and the young Charlie Parker. It was during these late night jams where the formation for bebop began.
It got to the point where Christian was such a regular at Minton’s that the manager Teddy Hill (also a world class jazz musician in his own right) bought Christian an amp to leave at the club so he wouldn’t have to lug his own up-town every night.
But it was the hectic pace coupled with his various addictions (marijuana, tobacco and alcohol) that seemed to bring about the quick end to the lightning rod career of Charlie Christian. In 1940, Charlie was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was advised by his doctor to slow down his pace. But Christian ignored the advice of his doctors and actually accelerated his pace both on and off the bandstand. Christian was immensely popular and found himself surrounded with admiring women and ‘friends’ and the party continued long into the wee hours of the morning, every morning.
By July 1941 he had been committed to the Seaview Sanitarium on Staten Island in New York. Succumbing to the culmination of tuberculosis and exhaustion, Charlie Christian developed pneumonia and died on March 2, 1942 at the age of 25.
But there are very few jazz and guitar fans who do not acknowledge the absolute influence that Charlie Christian had on jazz and, in essence, guitar music in general well beyond his life time. In three very short years, the young man from Oklahoma set the jazz world on fire, developed a unique technique for his solos and will be remembered as a pioneering electric guitarist. Joe Pass said of Christian “I first heard Charlie Christian in about 1942 - on record - I never did hear him live. His sound was just great. How, with a little amplifier without any gimmicks or anything, he gets that sound! Today we have all this equipment; all special kinds of pickups and amplifiers ... and still can't get that sound! I think it has to do with the person that's playing …”
And if jazz is veritable musical feast, he was a true master chef. There is no doubt about it. Charlie Christian could cook.