Tuesday, July 11, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 021: Charlie Christian: Solo Flight

Charlie Christian was the first great electric guitar soloist in jazz. Born in Texas and growing in Oklahoma City, he cut his teeth listening to the great string bands and territory bands. He learned music through the medium of the black public schools, a crucial resource for upcoming musicians in the age of segregation.

It’s a little hard to know when or why he started playing the guitar in single note lines (probably using his thumb), because most of his teachers would have been fingerstyle players. My guess is that he listened—hard—to players like Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, both of whom where playing harmonically-sophisticated single-note lines on blues and simple jazz changes. But no one else was playing the electric guitar in this fashion, using the new instruments expanded volume, sustain, and (especially) receptivity to slurring to play lines that were more reminiscent of the territory bands’ saxophonists than of earlier guitarists. Certainly OK City was a great place to be working on this approach, as it was a major center for the touring bands which were the laboratories for many of the innovations in swing and later in bebop.

Charlie was already a legend around OK City by his teens, and came to the attention of the omnivorous producer John Hammond, who before and after Charlie would be instrumental in the careers of everyone from Billie Holliday to Count Basie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. In 1939 Hammond got Charlie out to LA for a hearing with Benny Goodman but Goodman, a notorious asshole who had nevertheless been one of the first (at Hammond’s insistence) to hire black musicians for his small group, blew off the audition. Hammond countered by sneaking Christian on-stage at the Victor Hugo restaurant. Goodman responded with a typical cutting-contest ploy, calling a tune (Rose Room) whose difficult changes he assumed would best Christian. Charlie listened to two choruses and came in for his solo—and played twenty choruses, effectively throwing the challenge back in Goodman’s face.

Christian became a national star with the Goodman sextet, and also helped to birth bebop in after-hours sessions in Harlem—there are actually private tapes of Christian jamming with Dizzy Gillespie (see # 011).

But Solo Flight--a collection of formal and informal (including some great live) recordings done with the Goodman big band and small-group, and in various informal swing-based jam sessions (check out the fantastic interplay with Lionel Hampton, also of the Goodman sextet)--is the first Christian I heard, a double LP set that Larry “Guitar” Baeder —formerly of the Jay McShann band and self-described as the “only Jewish guitar player from Kansas City”—insisted I buy. He had me transcribe Seven Come Eleven and Rose Room, but every track on this disc is phenomenal. Christian set a remarkably effective template for jazz guitar: he’s basically a blues player, with a blues player’s fantastic phrasing, vocal quality, tone, and sense of time, but with a jazz player’s sense of harmony and ability to fit his lines over chord changes. Taken by themselves out of context, many of his lines sound like straightahead blues, but he had a marvelous command of that vocabulary and, obviously, huge ears. Learning those solos was a fantastic lesson in fluidity, economy, and harmonic linearity—the ability to play beautiful, singable lines through complex chords.

There’s a straight-line progression from Charlie to Wes Montgomery (who went to school on Christian) to Pat Metheny (who went to school on Wes)—all of them Midwestern boys, interestingly.

He died of TB and pneumonia at age 25. At least we’ve got the recordings.

Jesus, what a different world jazz would be if he’d lived.

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