Charlie Christian: Genius of the Electric Guitar

Charlie Christian
Genius of the Electric Guitar

Just before the Conner McCloud lopped off the bad guys’ head at the end of The Highlander he managed to grunt, “there can be only one.” The sword came down, the sky crackled with lightning, I made that sucking sound at the end of my soda, the bad guy screamed in rage, and Hollywood once again made us feel that the world could be saved by one person. If that movie were really a subtle interpretation of jazz history, it would be Charlie Christian wielding his ax because he was the one. Just as the other Charlie, Parker that is, made every saxophonist who proceeded him feel his might, Christian’s ghost haunted every guitar that ever played jazz (and, arguably, quite a bit of rock) after he was gone. The fact that Christian did this in only a few years, is exactly why his story is the stuff of jazz legend.

Christian’s jazz odyssey started in 1939 when he left Oklahoma City to go west to California and play in Benny Goodman’s band. The problem was Benny knew nothing of this because the deal had been arranged by John Hammond (chalk another discovery up to his unbelievable roster of talent) at the behest of Mary Lou Williams. The first time Goodman saw Christian he thought it was a joke. Christian was hip despite his young age. In more ways than one, he had his own style. To prove it he was wearing a purple shirt and yellow shoes. Goodman glared at Hammond and launched into “Rose Room”, a song from the ’20s he was sure Christian wouldn’t know. But Christian took over 40 choruses and the song went on for about 43 minutes to the sheer delight of the audience (these were the days before Warhol doomed us to a mere 15 minutes of fame). Since the show was being broadcast, it wasn’t only Goodman who was mesmerized, but a legion of fans. In one fell swoop Christian had written his name in stone for all of jazz history.

Christian would later go on to play with other jazz greats, such as Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, and Lester Young. It was horn players that had a great impact on Christian’s playing, in particular Lester Young. Young is often not given his due for the vast influence he had on many young players, particularly Christian and Parker, who took Young’s ideas and transformed them into their own brilliant work. Christian was impressed by Young’s use of unusual chords and his guitar solos frequently sounded like another horn. Like Young, it was on unusual chords that Christian would center his solos.

The new 4 CD box set, Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar, is an essential addition to any respectable personal jazz collection. The set traces the Columbia recordings he made with the Benny Goodman Sextet and the Benny Goodman Orchestra from 1939 to 1941. Unfortunately, the recordings made during this short period of time are a good chunk of what Christian left the world. With the help of tuberculosis, as well as his taste for “combustible tea” and “chicks”, Charlie Christian left this world before he had even spent 26 years in it.

This box set, put out on Columbia/ Legacy Recordings, is far more than a mere introduction to Christian. It is an invitation to spend some time in the world of this soulful, fleet-fingered innovator. Christian has never sounded better than he does on this box set. Any respectable jazz collection should include a fair amount of Charlie Christian and this is the set to get. Hearing “Flying Home” and “Solo Flight” sound this good is simply addictive. Anyone with a five-disc changer should have one of these discs in at all times.

The set spans the entire lightning-flash evolution of Christian’s guitar playing. By the last disc, Christian’s anticipation of bop indicates that he had the potential for iconic status, such as Charlie Parker and later, Miles Davis enjoyed in their lifetimes and beyond, had he a longer period of creative output.

Most of Christian’s finest hours, unfortunately, may have never even been recorded. At one of the cornerstone’s of jazz, Minton’s Playhouse, he regularly sat in with Thelonius Sphere Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and others. Led by the eccentric Monk, these men formed a group devoted to chords that were not traditionally used in jazz at the time. The men believed the improvisational possibilities of jazz had been limited by the old basic triads and worked on new, and far more difficult ones they believed would take jazz a step further. Christian shone in this arena, which was far away from the shadow of Benny Goodman.

The last song on the last disc of this box set release gives a hint at that greatness as Christian takes center stage amongst the sextet at an extended jam session held in Goodman’s absence. With the invention of amplification, guitar had finally reached its potential as a lead instrument, before it had been largely drowned out by the louder horns. Charlie brought guitar to the head of the bandstand, and in so doing, carved out his throne as the Zeus of the guitar-God Mount Olympus.