Saturday, July 29, 2017

Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian, who played guitar in Benny Goodman's band, would have turned 101 today. He died of tuberculosis in 1942, at age 25.

If you were asked to quickly write up a list of the most influential guitarists off the top of your head, you’d have to include Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. You might also say Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Eddie van Halen.

But would you think of Charlie Christian?

The great jazz guitarist Jim Hall said that when he started playing guitar, listening to a recording of Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman was his “spiritual awakening.” He also influenced Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

But in “Waiting for Benny,” we hear Charlie Christian in 1941 playing licks not far from what Chuck Berry would start playing in the mid-‘50s. (See the first comment.)

That recording is on the Charlie Christian album appropriately titled The Genius of the Electric Guitar, which I can't recommend enough.

This is a poor-quality recording which unfortunately has a few seconds where the volume goes way down, but you can hear the influence of Chuck Berry even more clearly here:

From an NPR profile on him:

Charlie Christian was the single-greatest influence on the signature 20th century instrument, the electric guitar, even though he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years. He made most of his records in Benny Goodman's sextet, where he competed for space with other good soloists. In that band, he took beautifully crafted 30-second improvisations, serving up fresh variations on every take of a tune. . . .

Amplified slide guitarists in white western swing bands showed Christian how electric guitar could project. He wasn't the first electric picker who played on the frets. He dug Chicago pioneer George Barnes. But Christian had the most imposing sound.

Charlie Christian's timing was impeccable. His heavy, front-loaded attack underlined his aggressive beat and inspired untold jazz, blues, and rock-guitar players. Benny Goodman loved him but begged him to turn his amplifier down. Christian once explained, I like to hear myself. Like other great lead players, He was an adept rhythm guitarist - strumming like mad, riffing with precision or cutting against the grain. . . .

He died in hospital the following spring before he could hear the new music of bebop come to fruition and long before electric guitar conquered popular music and the full impact of his playing could be felt. Charlie Christian has left his mark on many thousands of musicians who never knew his name. That's about as influential as you can get.
My favorite solo by him is in "Rose Room" starting at 1:00. Not his most technically impressive, but every note is perfectly chosen.

By today’s standards, his facility with the electric guitar is fine but not outstanding. But he’s widely regarded as the most enduring of the instrument’s original pioneers. For his influence on both jazz and rock music, I’d rank Charlie Christian among the most important guitarists of all time. And certainly one of the most tragic losses.