Ralph Ellison began his essay on Charlie Christian on a note that must have resonated with filmmaker Ken Burns. “Jazz, like the country which gave it birth, is fecund in its inventiveness, swift and traumatic in its developments, and terribly wasteful of its resources.” Ellison’s 1958 review of the album, “The Charlie Christian Story,” brims with insight not only about the nation and its music, but Christian himself, whom the author of Invisible Man had known since boyhood. “I can recall no time when he was not admired for his skillful playing of stringed instruments,” wrote Ellison, who remembered young Charlie fashioning guitars out of cigar boxes and assorted materials.
Today is Christian’s 97th birthday anniversary. As one of the more evanescent figures in jazz, he barely managed to command the national spotlight for two years before tuberculosis, hastened by what Ellison called an “orgiastic” devotion to the jazz life, claimed him at age 25 in 1942. But by virtue of the instrument he played and the innovative way in which he established a jazz voice for the guitar, his posterity was assured. The long, saxophone-inspired lines that Christian played through an amplified acoustic guitar made him one of the most influential figures in modern music, and his impact was immediate on players like Oscar Moore, Tiny Grimes, Les Paul, Barney Kessel, and T-Bone Walker. But as Ellison notes, had he not left Oklahoma City at the urging of John Hammond and connected with Benny Goodman, he might have remained one of those local figures whose inventiveness is absorbed by others while leaving the originator “as anonymous as the creators of the architecture called Gothic.”
Christian heard guitarists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Bill Broonzy, and Django Reinhardt, but it was Lester Young who showed him the way. Ellison’s essay recounts how taken Christian was with Young when the tenor player arrived in Oklahoma City in 1929 and left few musicians “unstirred by the wild, original flights of his imagination.” Christian would have been only 13 at the time, but as Ellison observed, “Lester Young didn’t bring Charles Christian out of some dark nowhere. He was already out in the light…Then he heard Lester and that, I think, was all he needed.” A decade later, however, he was still obsessed with Young. As trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell told Goodman biographer Ross Firestone, “Charlie would sit there in the back of the bus, singing Lester’s solos over and over again.”
(October 28, 1940: Young, Jones, Clayton, Green, Goodman, Page, Christian, Basie)
One of the most prized recording sessions that Christian appeared on took place on October 28, 1940, fourteen months after the guitarist joined Goodman’s Sextet. It was a rehearsal session featuring Goodman and Christian with Count Basie’s Kansas City Six, including Young, Buck Clayton, and the rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. The five sides they recorded are among the greatest of Lester’s performances from this peak period, and everyone else is in excellent form too. There’s a dreamy, unhurried, chamber jazz quality to the music that’s befitting of two of the date’s titles, “Charlie’s Dream” and “Lester’s Dream.” Loren Schoenberg, in his notes to the Christian anthology, The Genius of the Electric Guitar, says, “All of the soloists play with a Zen-like intensity that makes it sound as though the instruments are playing themselves.”
Christian's passion is vividly captured in this photo taken at a jam session at an Oklahoma City venue, Ruby’s Grille, in 1940. Kansas City jazz legend Dick Wilson, a star of Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy, is at right on tenor saxophone. The others are local players Sam Hughes on alto and Leslie Sheffield at the piano.
We’ll hear the rehearsal session, and the Sextet date on November 7 which marked the debut of trumpeter Cootie Williams with Goodman, in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.