Thursday, August 11, 2016

Charlie Christian Centennial

Charlie Christian
Last month the jazz world commemorated the Centennial of pioneer of the modern jazz guitar Charlie Christian (July 29, 1916 – March 2, 1942). Christian was an important early performer on the electric guitar and is considered a key figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz. Many critics believe that he alone is the link between swing and modern jazz.
Charlie Christian exposing his Gibson ES-150

Charlie Christian was born in Bonham, Texas, but grew up in Oklahoma City. His father was a blind guitarist and singer, his two elder brothers, Edward and Clarence, were musicians, and at the age of twelve Charlie was playing on a guitar that he had made from a cigar box. He was actually first trained on the trumpet which later was a huge contribution to his fluid single-note guitar style. Then, his father and brothers formed a quartet and Charlie got a real guitar. When he grew up, he became a much-admired local musician in Oklahoma, playing an amplified acoustic guitar as early as 1937.
Friends of Christian wishing good luck at his departure for Los Angeles, August 1939
Word of Charlie's skill as a guitar player reached record producer John Hammond, who arranged for Christian to travel to Los Angeles in August 1939 for an audition with Benny Goodman.
Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman
At first Goodman was negative and against engaging Christian but changed his mind after having challenged the young guitarist in a version of the jazz standard Rose Room that went on and on. Goodman was deeply impressed by Christian's playing, engaged him and soon featured him on weekly radio broadcasts and in recordings.
Benny Goodman sextet featuring Charlie Christian
Charlie was mainly featured with Benny Goodman's sextet and before the year was over he was a nationally prominent jazz soloist. Unfortunately his success was as brief as it was immediate. Charlie contracted tuberculosis in mid-1941 and died a few months later.
Charlie Christian playing his ES-150
Christian was among the first jazz guitarists to amplify his instrument in order to match the volume of wind instruments, and he was clearly the most brilliant soloist of his time on electric guitar. He was emulated by many swing-style players, and his posthumous impact on younger be bop guitarists was enormous. He was a regular participant in the Harlem jam sesseions at Minton's at which some of the bop pioneers gathered - in this setting Charlie further developed his playing style.
Charlie Christian playing his ES-250
Charlie Christian remains among the most creative soloists of the swing period, and his co-operate work with Goodman created compositions and memorable recordings that since have become standards in jazz. Below I'll insert some examples of Christian's recordings in order to commemorate his genius as a guitar player.
Charlie Christian was engaged by Goodman in August 1939 and the first studio recording in which he participated was made in New York October 2 for Columbia. Four sides were recorded featuring the BG sextet, two takes of Flying Home,  Rose Room and Stardust. Personnel are: Benny Goodman (cl), Lionel Hampton (vib), Fletcher Henderson (p), Charlie Christian (el g), Artie Bernstein (b) and Nick Fatool (dm). Already at this first recording date with BG Christian puts his personal imprint on the session displaying his mastery of both single string and chord solo technique as well as great improvisational skills.

One of the tunes that always will be associated with Charlie Christian and his collaboration with Benny Goodman and the sextet is Seven Come Eleven, first time studie recorded for Columbia November 29, 1939 by the same constellation as above.

Another great solo by Christian with the sextet is featured in Shivers, first time studio recorded for Columbia December 20, 1939, same personnel as previous sessions except Johnny Guarnieri (p) replaces Henderson

In the spring of 1940, Goodman reorganized his sextet, from now on a septet featuring Johnny Guarnieri  as regular pianist, but at some occasions replaced by Count Basie. Other new members were Georgie Auld (ts), Cootie Willims (tp) and Dave Tough (dm). One of the often heard and popular recordings by the septet featuring Charlie Christian is Air Mail Special

As mentioned above, towards the end of his all too short life Charlie Christian took part in jam sessions at Minton's, a Harlem club considered the birthplace of be bop and modern jazz. From these sessions recorded May 1941 by Jerry Newman, I'll insert a couple of examples to end this small presentation of Charlie Christian. Here is first a take of the swing standard Stompin' At The Savoy excelling Christian's marvellous improvisational skills

Honeysuckle Rose is a vehicle for more improvisational work by Christian, here re-named Up On Teddy's Hill

Charlie Christian's Centennial was celebrated in the Netherlands on June 3rd in a concert titled Remembering Charlie Christian in The Hague. Musicians featured were Adrian Ingram (guitar), Axel Hagen (guitar), Noah Nicoll (bass), Dick Verbeeck (drums). Compilation of the tunes played at the concert has been uploaded at YouTube in two parts, part 1, here, part 2, here

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