On this date in 1916, Charlie Christian was born. He was a Black musician who developed the modern jazz guitar style.
Christian was born in Dallas, and he and his family moved to Oklahoma City, where he began playing the guitar at age 12; by the time he turned 15, he had advanced to professional jobs. He graduated from Douglass High School and was taught by Zelia Breaux. Equally adept at stand-up bass, he worked in bands led by his brother, Alphonso Trent, and by Anna Mae Winburn, as well as running his jump band in Oklahoma City.
Christian caught producer John Hammond’s ear during a performance in Oklahoma City in July 1939. Hammond had heard of Christian through pianists Teddy Wilson and Mary Lou Williams, and he stopped by en route to Los Angeles. Impressed by Christian’s playing, Hammond told Benny Goodman about him and convinced him to ask Christian to join the band. Christian came to LA to play with Goodman at Victor Hugo’s, but, as the story goes, Goodman was initially uninterested in hiring Christian because the electric guitar was a relatively new instrument. A jam between the two players that evening revealed Christian’s skills and an impressed Goodman hired him.
Christian gained prominence in the jazz world as a member of Goodman’s sextet, effortlessly spinning melodic solos in both small group and big band sessions. On songs such as “Rose Room,” Christian’s talents were obvious. He became the first electric guitarist to explore the instrument’s soloing potential to good effect.
He would be well featured with Benny Goodman’s Sextet for the next two years. He jammed at Minton’s Playhouse with such up-and-coming players as Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Dizzy Gillespie. Tragically, he contracted tuberculosis in 1941 and died at 25 on March 2, 1942.
It would be 25 years before jazz guitarists finally moved beyond Charlie Christian’s work, which influenced players such as Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, and Barney Kessell, creating a jazz lineage for electric guitar that extends to the present with players such as George Benson, Jonathan Butler, Pat Metheny, and Kevin Eubanks.