Charlie Christian: Swing to Bop

I was transferring some old CDs onto my iPod the other day, and in the process of doing that I realized that in all the six years I’ve been running this blog I haven’t posted a single item about the great guitarist Charlie Christian, who did more than any other individual to promote the use of the electrical guitar and thus had an enormous influence on the development of  20th century music. The only reason I can think of why his is not a household name is that he died so young, in 1942, of tuberculosis, at the age of just 25.

Born in 1916, Charlie Christian came to prominence with Benny Goodman‘s orchestra during the 1930s. That in itself merits a remark. Benny Goodman was one of the first white bandleaders in the Swing Era to have black musicians in his band at a time when both musicians and audiences were generally racially segregated in the United States of America. Goodman deserves great credit for picking the best musicians he could find, regardless of the colour of their skin; Lionel Hampton is another prominent example. Bringing the young Charlie Christian into his band also testifies not only to his refusal to pander to racism, but also his willingness to experiment with new musical ideas, not least taking the guitarist out of the rhythm section and placing him as front-line soloist.

Here’s an excellent example of Charlie Christian playing with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra in 1939. I remember that my Dad wasn’t all that keen on Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing, which he regarded as “too clinical”. In fact many jazz writers also tend to refer to Benny Goodman’s playing as “unemotional”. I can’t agree. I admit that the band is a bit “slick”, but the clarinet on this track is absolutely sensational to me, and I find it a joy to listen to over and over again.  There’s also fine Cootie Williams on trumpet on this version of Fats Waller’s composition Honeysuckle Rose:

Commercial records from the 1930s were strictly limited by the available technology to 3 minutes’ duration, so Charlie Christian’s solo on that track  is necessarily brief.  You can hear much more of him on the historically important amateur recordings made during the early 1940s of late-night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City. This is an excerpt from a piece called Swing to Bop recorded in 1941, which shows how far Charlie Christian had advanced in just a couple of years. His improvised solo is way ahead of its time in the way it develops through an effortless string of musical ideas into an exploration of the harmonic possibilities of the chord sequence that I find absolutely sensational to listen to.

Not many people knew it at the time, because tracks like this weren’t made commercially available, but a musical revolution was brewing. Charlie Christian changed the course of jazz history, helping to usher in the bebop era, but his influence on rock-and-roll guitar is also incalculable.

Incidentally, I think Swing to Bop is actually the Count Basie tune Topsy in disguise, or at least the chords thereof. Listen to Topsy here and see if you agree..


One Response to “Charlie Christian: Swing to Bop”

  1. ” Charlie Christian, who did more than any other individual to promote the use of the electrical guitar and thus had an enormous influence on the development of 20th century music”

    I believe he was the first to play an “electric guitar solo” in the modern sense of the term.

    Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame claims that the 1970s extended guitar solo was inspired by singer Ian Gillan’s experience with a groupie: Gillan was with said groupie under Jon Lord’s grand piano on stage, enjoying himself immensely, while Blackmore had a solo. Wanting to savour the moment even more, he kept signalling to Blackmore to extend his solo. (Rick Wakeman once left Yes because Jon Anderson objected to him having a curry under his grand piano when he had an extended period with nothing to play (unusual for Wakeman with Yes), so stranger things have happened. To be fair, Wakeman had told his roadie to get him a curry after the show, but there was a misunderstanding and he brought it onto the stage.)

    Connection to astrophysics: I’m still reading Dennis Overbye’s excellent Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos where it is reported a) that Alex Szalay’s favourite film is This is Spinal Tap and b) that he actually lived that life. (In between working with Zel’dovich and becoming the go-to man for astrophysical big data, Szalay played in a rock band for a while.)

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