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Published on December 20th, 2011 | by Sam

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Going Deeper with Charlie Christian

Going Deeper with Jazz… Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian was one of the first major electric guitarists in jazz. His style was a clear influence on many of the players from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Christian was born in Texas in 1916 and moved to Oklahoma City as a child. He was taught to play jazz by one of his brother’s friends, but was still thought of as a blues player. His reputation as a jazz musician grew locally after playing great at a jam session. He was able to play with nationally touring artists like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum as they came through Oklahoma City. Mary Lou Williams suggested that John Hammond, famous record producer who uncovered many American artists, listen to Christian. After an audition Hammond recommended him to Benny Goodman.

Goodman’s band was one of the most famous and well respected bands in the swing era. It was one of the few interracial bands. Christian joined in 1939. His rise to the top of the jazz guitar world was meteoric, and by the following year he was winning polls and was elected as a Metronome All Star. He was also a part of Goodman’s sextet, one of the major small groups in the 1930s/40s. He died in 1941 from tuberculosis.

He was also considered one of fore-bearers if not one of the fathers of bebop. There are recordings of him jamming with Dizzy Gillespie among other bebop pioneers. His style definitely hints at the kind of change playing that bebop players use, though not as highly chromatic.

Influence

Charlie Christian had a major influence on jazz guitar. Prior to his playing with Goodman, many players were either playing banjo style chunk chords in big bands. There were very few players who used the guitar to play single note lines like horn players.

He had a very direct influence on a few jazz guitarists. Tiny Grimes, Oscar Moore (with Nat King Cole), Herb Ellis, and Barney Kessel are part of the first branch from the Christian tree.

The late 50s and 1960s players had a huge Christian influence, especially Wes Montgomery. Wes apparently learned to play jazz by copying Christian’s solos. Others would include Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Tal Farlow. Jim Hall has said that Christian’s solos inspired him to start playing jazz guitar.

Lennie Tristano even included him in his shortlist of between 9 and 12 improvisers who were the innovators of jazz.

His style went outside of jazz as you can hear his influence on blues players like T-Bone Walker, and even in western swing and country players. He is sort of the Rosetta Stone for 20th century guitar styles-they all seem to at some point trace back to Christian. Much of the music that became jazz, rock and roll, and country all shared roots especially early in the century. They eventually branched off, but Christian is easily traceable to the root of many twentieth century guitarists in American music.

When listening to Charlie Christian, his sense of rhythm and groove really stand out. Honestly I had to come around to him, it sounded very old fashioned to me my first hundred times checking him out! But as I listened even more it became clear that while some of his tunes may be older songs, his playing was as crisp and swinging as any player since.

Discography

The best single disc collection I have found is the Columbia “Genius of the Electric Guitar.”

It has his most important solos, like “Rose Room,” “Grand Slam,” and “Seven Come Eleven.” A box set was released several years ago which has 98 songs appearing chronologically. This set is essential for jazz guitar players, students, and fans. The sound quality is very clear and surprisingly good considering these have all been released on other compilations. A favorite moment of mine is Charlie’s chord solo on “Star Dust”-somewhat reminiscent of Django’s chord playing.

Links

http://home.roadrunner.com/~valdes/

One of the most complete Charlie Christian sites I’ve found. Tons of transcriptions, detailed discography, everything!

Rose Room transcription-done by me, check it out.

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