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Charlie Christian - Jazz Immortal

The original genius of the electric guitar, Charlie Christian (1916-1942) hit the big time in 1939 when talent scout and record producer John Hammond and bassist Artie Bernstein smuggled him on stage at a Beverly Hills hotel to get the attention of band leader Benny Goodman. Following an astonishing 90 minute improvisation on the tune "Rose Room", Goodman hired him on the spot for his sextet.

Christian was by some accounts the first to develop the long lines and ambitious harmonic progressions of bop, and his greatest contributions, in terms of music history, are considered to be from the Minton's jams in New York out of which bebop emerged. He became a fixture there on Monday evenings, and "after hours" on most other nights of the week. Some participants in those sessions also credit Christian with the word bebop, citing his humming of phrases as the onomatopoetic origin of the term. According to jazz writer Gunther Schuller, he practically "lived at Minton's in the last year of his life [1941], playing night after night in the prolonged jam sessions that would end only at the four o'clock closing and permitted a musician to play as many choruses as he had the imagination and stamina for. There can be little doubt that among the younger musicians who sat in in [at the club], Christian was at the time the most advanced, the most original, and musically the most mature - even more than Gillespie and Monk."

In March 1942, he succumbed to the tuberculosis he had contracted in the late 1930s, no doubt compounded by the nocturnal lifestyle of his final years. Schuller concludes: "At the time of his death Christian was on the threshold of becoming a major voice, perhaps, had he lived, THE major voice in shaping the new language of jazz." Scott Yanow (Allmusic) writes that "virtually every jazz guitarist that emerged during 1940-65 sounded like a relative of Charlie Christian. Although technically a swing stylist, his musical vocabulary was studied and emulated by the bop players, and when one listens to players ranging from Tiny Grimes, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, the dominant influence of Christian is obvious. It would be 25 years [after his death] before jazz guitarists finally moved beyond Charlie Christian."

A handful of Christian's performances at Minton's were captured for posterity by Jerry Newman [see previous post], most notably his nine-chorus solo (in two parts) on the standard "Topsy", retitled "Swing to Bop", widely regarded as his "crowning glory" and still one of the greatest jazz guitar solos ever recorded. First issued on Newman's own "Esoteric" record label in 1951, these performances are currently available on the album "After Hours", including some additional tracks from Monroe's Uptown House with Gillespie the same year.

Sources: Gunther Schuller, Brian Priestley, Scott DeVeaux, Scott Yanow


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