Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar

Charlie Christian
The Genius of the Electric Guitar

Charlie Christian’s shadow is a steep one—and it presents some challenges. For one thing, as listeners in the 21st century, it’s hard to fully appreciate that Christian operated in a world where an underdeveloped vocabulary limited the expressive capacity of the electric guitar. Christian might not have been the first electric guitarist but he was likely its greatest early stylist and so, looking backward, we’re left comparing something with next to nothing. Like Louis Armstrong before him, Christian’s great innovation is the way that he poured a whole warehouse of highly imaginative, richly evocative, and technically brilliant sounds and techniques into his instrument’s vernacular, helping to create a new kind of language. But unlike Armstrong, Christian died at age 25: He had to pack it all into a tragically short career. That we’re still picking out traces of his influence is just the most obvious sign of his radiance; it’s in the crackling energy of these recordings, though, that his genius expresses itself most fully.

Charlie Christian came from the middle of the country. He was born in rural Texas and raised in Oklahoma City. He got his earliest experiences performing alongside his blind father on the streets of OKC, eventually becoming a regular on its “Deep Deuce” nightclub scene. Here Christian established his reputation, playing with many of the jazz performers traveling through, and made some crucial contacts. Among these, Mary Lou Williams, who passed Christian’s name along to Columbia Records maven John Hammond, who put Christian in contact with Benny Goodman. Hence these recordings. The bulk of the material on The Genius of the Electric Guitar comes from Christian’s work with the Benny Goodman Sextet, a sideline to Goodman’s larger swing orchestra and a playground for some of the period’s greatest talent—Lionel Hampton, Cootie Williams, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton, among others.

As Peter Broadbent explains in a brilliant set of liner notes, Christian’s sensibilities were shaped by the steel guitars he heard in the area’s western swing bands and he absorbed the ringing, rich tones of Texas Playboy Leon McAuliffe and the cascading, surging virtuosity of Bob Dunn (Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies). Even more influential was Lester Young, whom Christian jammed with on occasion, thought about often, and recorded with once, in a 1939 session with Count Basie’s Kansas City Six. From Young, Christian seems to have learned how to resist the temptation towards unnecessary adornment. But, following Young’s example further, you can hear the guitarist pushing out beyond his role as a timekeeper, carving out his own corners in the songs with fluid, rounded lines. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison famously describes Louis Armstrong’s trumpet as “bend[ing] that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound”. Christian does something similar with his instrument’s histories on street corners and minstrel stages, with ballads and the blues—he remakes the guitar according to his own sensibility, allowing it to speak with an innovative lyricism. (Ellison, who grew up with Christian in Oklahoma City, wrote a fine appreciation of the guitarist called “The Charlie Christian Story”—you can find it in his first essay collection, Shadow and Act.)

Technique wasn’t all that Christian brought to his classic recordings: His tools played an essential role in the sound he developed. Christian played a Gibson ES150, an early hollow-body archtop, with a single-coil pickup riding right up under the neck, and when paired with the EH150 amp—a rig designed for use by steel guitarists who had to cut above the din of noisy barrooms—the result was a tone that could be thin and biting, and occasionally nervy, but also silvery and smooth. The rhythm part that opens “Shivers” is a good example: Christian pushes the strings into a syncopated pattern that is more about kinetic propulsion than it is about electric projection. In other words, in coming to terms with Christian’s genius of the electric guitar, we can also sense how close his tools are to prototypes. It probably goes without saying but if you bring a contemporary set of reference points about the electric guitar to bear on these recordings, it might begin to feel like the instrument’s electricity is as much a matter of the player’s will as it is technology. “AC/DC Current” could be a sly way of acknowledging as much, threading a snaky guitar line alongside Goodman’s incandescent clarinet and Hampton’s beaming vibraphone. The electricity we’re hearing originates as much in playing as it does the equipment.

Of course, one of the reasons that Christian’s stock has stayed so high for so long is that his development of the vocabulary of the electric guitar always leaned into the future, and not just within the jazz idiom. Take “Poor Butterfly”: Christian’s solo lasts just over fifteen seconds but it shows a masterful approach to spacing and timing as he hides out behind the beat in one measure and rushes out ahead of it in the next. It’s a brief, shining wonder, and in it, fans of the Band might hear a prediction of Robbie Robertson’s choked, economic solo from “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”—it makes use of the same blend of patient intensity and economy. On the jazz front, Christian’s appearances with the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in 1940—a band that included a young Thelonious Monk—ensured that the bebop that sprung from those performances bore the guitarist’s imprint. For bop pioneers like Charlie Parker, Christian’s creative approach to soloing was an early touchstone, and so his lineage extends in that direction as well.

Highlights abound on this set: “Solo Flight”, “Flying Home”, “Memories of You”, “Gone with What Wind”. Throughout the performances, Christian embroiders the songs with lines that are both modest and intricate, a composite of the impulses we like to associate with both the blues and the classical tradition. And the standards for the Goodman small group are high, higher actually than this reviewer ever realized. So much so that one of this collection’s unintended strengths is its role as a primer of Goodman’s small group work and the virtues it unveils. Goodman the composer (or arranger—it’s believed that Christian actually wrote most of the tunes presented here), Goodman the soloist, Goodman the bandleader: excelling in every role. You often hear the claim that Goodman’s greatest innovation, however, was his willingness to surround himself with the best players he could find, regardless of race or background. And it doesn’t take long listening to these recordings in this particular iteration to realize that Christian likely was the best around.

Critics often argue that the essence of jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation, lies in its ability to stage the creation of art as the art object itself. Since jazz performances resist the notion of a definitive version of a song that recording tacitly promotes, jazz recordings can be at cross-purposes with the spirit of the music itself. One remedy to this potential problem is aided by the CD reissue, which makes it possible to present multiple versions of the same song, to offer up alternate takes containing different performances to showcase jazz as art in action. That’s the case here. The Genius of the Electric Guitar is loaded with both master takes and alternates of all varieties: V-disc recordings, rehearsal takes, false starts, and outtakes.

By delving deep into Christian’s tenure with Goodman and spreading it across four discs, this set offers a rich, fully modeled portrait. Yet one of the set’s difficulties stems from this very virtue. The collection’s raft full of alternate takes present many minor revelations but the sheer volume of duplicate titles might prove intimidating to non-completists. (For instance, disc three contains no fewer than nine separate takes of “Breakfast Feud.”) You can’t fault the set for its thoroughness though. The fuller the picture of Christian the better, since an untimely death casts him as the rare artist whose legacy is at once endlessly influential and tragically unfinished. What that means, of course, is that the final word on Charlie Christian will never be spoken, and when we try to tack his legacy down, it darts away as deftly, as lightly, as one of his trademark runs between the changes. For this reason, The Genius of the Electric Guitar is an essential release for music fans of all stripes because it proves what instinct suggests—the best introduction to Christian’s work is also the most comprehensive.

RATING 9 / 10