Why you should care
Because Charlie Christian electrified Benny Goodman, swing and bebop.
Benny Goodman was running late for his Columbia recording session in a New York studio — rare for the swing bandleader, who was known to fire musicians for such behavior.
“Charlie, Charlie, let’s play the blues in B,” an engineer called out from the control room. That simple suggestion for a warmup tune to kill some time led to a legendary jam session to which jazzheads later gave the cheeky title “Waiting for Benny.” Trumpeter Cootie Williams, tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, pianist Johnny Guarnieri, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Dave Tough soon began to cook. But it was guitarist Charlie Christian, a wiry 24-year-old from Oklahoma City, who led the way, unleashing his improvisational genius on a big-body Gibson ES-150 electric guitar.
[Charlie Christian] played his guitar solos like a horn player.
Charles Dahan, Middle Tennessee State University
And then something magical happened at the 1:26 mark.
Christian changed key and dove into a riff that sank its hooks into the tune and never let go. Within a bar or two the other musicians were heading his way, and just like that, Charlie Christian created the Benny Goodman Sextet’s next song, “A Smo-o-oth One.” It was recorded at that session on March 13, 1941, but at a noticeably slower tempo than Christian’s dance floor–ready improvisation.
Decades later, in a 1982 interview for Guitar Player magazine that celebrated Christian’s influence, Goodman gushed: “His inventions, his harmonic structure — quite miraculous. Oh, gosh … he had everything!” What Christian didn’t have was the songwriting credit for “A Smo-o-oth One” — Goodman pocketed that and the royalties.
“Prior to Charlie Christian, the guitar was a rhythmic instrument in a jazz band,” says Charles Dahan, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University who has written about the enduring influence of the otherworldly axman. “By the time the guitar became amplified, Christian made it leap out of the ensemble as a solo instrument. It’s not just his tone that was great. He played his guitar solos like a horn player.”
[Benny Goodman] led the way for racial integration in the music business during the dark days of Jim Crow.
As for the relationship between Goodman and Christian, the dynamic wasn’t one-sided, notwithstanding songwriting credits. The relentless, hard-charging Goodman, born in Chicago in 1909 to poor yet proud Jewish immigrant parents, led the way for racial integration in the music business during the dark days of Jim Crow.
While battling it out on the charts against big-band rivals Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Goodman gave African-American musicians — Christian, Williams, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, pianist Teddy Wilson and others — access to a huge audience as he fired off a long string of hits, including “Moonglow,” “Avalon,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Sing Sing Sing” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”
Goodman was adamant about surrounding himself with the best players — regardless of race. “He hired the most talented musicians whether they were African-American or white,” says Dahan. ”The Benny Goodman Orchestra was essentially the biggest pop band in the world. So when an exceptional instrumentalist like Charlie Christian joins, [he suddenly finds himself] on the biggest platform in music.”
Goodman and Christian got off to a rocky start at a studio session in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 1939. Goodman’s brother-in-law, John Hammond, had set up the audition after pianist Mary Lou Williams told the producer and talent scout extraordinaire about Christian, calling the kid the greatest electric guitarist she had ever heard. A trip to Oklahoma City convinced Hammond, who saw Christian as the perfect kick in the backside for Goodman, who needed to energize his lethargic small groups after the departure of Teddy Wilson.
The flashy new jack showed up in a garish green suit, purple shirt, pointed yellow shoes and cowboy hat. In the middle of his first Columbia session, a busy Goodman took one look at the guitarist and ran back to the recording booth.
When the pair briefly played in unison on “Tea for Two,” Goodman remained unimpressed. According to Hammond, the impatient bandleader was “convinced that it was another of my pointless enthusiasms.” But that same night, the Benny Goodman Quintet was playing a show at the swank Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills. Hammond sneaked Christian and his amplifier on the bandstand and received a murderous stare from the headliner.
Goodman wanted to get it over with, so he called for “Rose Room,” thinking that Christian would be left in the dust. He was fantastically wrong. It was one of the three songs Christian initially learned when he took up the instrument. After the guitarist improvised for nearly an hour, an astonished Goodman signed him on.
Christian’s impact on Goodman’s music was immediate, giving the commercial favorite instant street cred. The 1939 jump blues climax “Flying High,” written by Goodman and Hampton, blew up dance halls coast to coast. The kid went from making five bucks a night in Oklahoma City to $150 a week. And he dominated every DownBeat and Metronome readers’ poll during his brief run with Goodman. Christian added his effortless lyricism to after-hours jam sessions at Harlem’s sacred jazz altar Minton’s Playhouse, where Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke were inventing bebop.
Tragically, Christian died from tuberculosis on March 2, 1942. He was only 25, but his influence on guitarists can still be heard in almost every genre — the blues (Sister Rosetta Tharpe), jazz (Wes Montgomery), country (Glen Campbell), rock (Jimi Hendrix), funk (Prince) and pop (John Mayer).
Dahan sums it up: “I can’t think of another act who was around for only three years as a recording artist who had a more profound effect on popular music.”
- Nickname: Charles (to family, friends and bandmates)
- Vitals: b. July 29, 1916, Bonham, Texas – d. March 2, 1942, New York City
- Instrument: Guitar
- Standards: “Flying Home” (1939), “Stardust” (1939), “Waiting for Benny” (1941), “Solo Flight” (1941)
- Quirks: Danced for coins as a kid in Oklahoma City; while touring, enjoyed playing pickup baseball games with waiters, busboys and members of other bands.
- Another take: Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian, directed by Gary Don Rhodes (1992)
- Nickname: King of Swing
- Vitals: b. May 30, 1909, Chicago – d. June 13, 1986, New York City
- Instrument: Clarinet
- Standards: “Sing Sing Sing” (1936), “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (1936), “Flying High” (1939)
- Quirks: Trained classically on clarinet for two years; in the late 1930s, led a trio, quartet, sextet and big band.
- Another take: The Benny Goodman Story, directed by Valentine Davies (1956)