Charlie Christian Biography
Charlie Cristian's influence on the
development of jazz is indisputable, and in it's own way, incomparable. In a brief span of
approximately two years on the New York scene, he revolutionised the concept of jazz
guitar playing. Charlie brought the instrument out of its traditionally accepted place in
the rhythm section into its role as an exciting solo voice. His guitar style was able to
hold its own playing with and against trumpets, trombones, clarinets and saxophones.
Charlie was born in Dallas in 1919, raised in Oklahoma, and by 1934 was playing the bass with Alphonso Trent. Eddie Durham, a trombonist in Jimmy Lunceford's band who doubled on the guitar, and "Jim Daddy" Walker are credited with interesting Charlie in the guitar. Eddie recalled: "It was late in 1937, and I'll never forget the beat-up $5 guitar Charlie had. I never in my life heard a guy learn the guitar faster than he did."
By 1939 Charlie was the talk of the mid-west. Back with Al Trent's band he toured throughout the south and mid-west. With Al's sextet he blended his single string guitar with the trumpet and tenor sax for three part harmonic effects that were completely new in jazz. It was around this time that Mary Osborne entered a club in Bismark, North Dakota. She related that at first she thought she was hearing a tenor sax distorted by the amplifying system.. Looking around she realised that the sound was produced by Charlie playing single note solos on his electric guitar, and voicing them like a horn. Truly, this was an innovation in jazz.
Charlie stayed with Trent for around two more years playing his solos with an utterly relaxed even beat mainly in 8th notes. He was able to experiment with the more advanced harmonies and create his own improvisations around some of the better standard tunes. Rhythmically and harmonically, his ideas were suggestive of later became known as be-bop.
John Hammond heard Charlie and eventually persuaded Benny Goodman to give him a try. It is reported that Charlie arrived for the meeting wearing "a ten gallon hat, pointed yellow shoes, a bright green suit with a purple shirt and a string bow tie (!)". The sight was reported to be too much for Benny who immediately lost interest. However, at a performance that night while Benny was offstage, friends moved Charlie's amp onto the stand. When Benny came back, there was Charlie and one performer reported that they played "Rose Room" - and played it for 48 minutes! Charlie gave an inspired (and inspiring) performance. During the time he was with the band he seemed to bring a new excitement in Benny's playing.
Charlie went to New York with the Goodman band in September 1939. The next month, Benny played his second Carnegie Hall concert. He introduced Charlie on the sextet number, "Flying Home" saying "...with Charlie Christian on the electric guitar. I really think he is one of the most terrific musicians that has been produced in years".
For almost two years Charlie played dance dates, theatre engagements and recorded with Goodman's band. After hours Charlie played at jam sessions in small Harlem clubs. There, his ideas helped the evolution of a new jazz style which came to be known as be-bop and later "modern jazz". This was the collective creation of such other participating musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk.
During most of his life Charlie suffered from tuberculosis. In the summer of 1941 he suffered a relapse and was taken to Bellevue hospital. On March 2nd, 1942 he died in a Staten Island sanitarium.
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