Charlie Christian / Swing Jazz

Charlie Christian

Charles Henry Christian (July 29, 1916 – March 2, 1942) was an American swing and jazz guitarist. He was among the first electric guitarists and was a key figure in the development of bebop and cool jazz. He gained national exposure as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra from August 1939 to June 1941. His single-string technique, combined with amplification, helped bring the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the forefront as a solo instrument. For this, he is often credited with leading to the development of the lead guitar role in musical ensembles and bands.

Christian was born in Bonham, Texas. His family moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when he was a small child. His parents were musicians. He had two brothers: Edward, born in 1906, and Clarence, born in 1911. Edward, Clarence, and Charlie were all taught music by their father, Clarence Henry Christian. Clarence Henry was struck blind by fever, and in order to support the family he and the boys worked as buskers, on what the Christians called "busts." He would have them lead him into the better neighborhoods, where they would perform for cash or goods. When Charles was old enough to go along, he first entertained by dancing. Later he learned to play the guitar, inheriting his father's instruments upon his death when Charles was 12.

He attended Douglass School in Oklahoma City, where he was further encouraged in music by an instructor, Zelia N. Breaux. Charles wanted to play tenor saxophone in the school band, but she insisted he try trumpet instead.As he believed playing the trumpet would disfigure his lip, he quit to pursue his interest in baseball, at which he excelled.

In a 1978 interview with biographer Craig McKinney, Clarence Christian said that in the 1920s and 1930s, Edward Christian led a band in Oklahoma City as a pianist and had a shaky relationship with the trumpeter James Simpson. Around 1931, Simpson instructed guitarist "Bigfoot" Ralph Hamilton to secretly school the younger Charles in jazz. Hamilton taught him to solo on three songs, "Rose Room", "Tea for Two", and "Sweet Georgia Brown". When the time was right, he took Charles to one of the many after-hours jam sessions along "Deep Deuce" in Oklahoma City, where Edward's band was performing, and after some encouragement, Edward allowed Charles to play. Edward was surprised that Charles knew the tunes, which were well received by the club.

Charles soon was performing locally and on the road throughout the Midwest, including states as far away as North Dakota and Minnesota. By 1936 he was playing electric guitar and had become a regional attraction. According to the record producer John Hammond, Christian jammed with many of the big-name performers traveling through Oklahoma City, including Teddy Wilson , Art Tatum, and Mary Lou Williams, the pianist for Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy.

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