Christian was an important early performer on the electric guitar and a key figure in the development of bebop and cool jazz. He gained national exposure as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra from August 1939 to June 1941. His single-string technique, combined with amplification, helped bring the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the forefront as a solo instrument. John Hammond and George T. Simon called Christian the best improvisational talent of the swing era. In the liner notes to the album Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian (Columbia, 1972), Gene Lees wrote that "Many critics and musicians consider that Christian was one of the founding fathers of bebop, or if not that, at least a precursor to it."
Christian's influence reached beyond jazz and swing. In 1990, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influence.
In 2006 Oklahoma City renamed a street in its Bricktown entertainment district "Charlie Christian Avenue" (Christian was raised in Oklahoma City and was one of many musicians who jammed along the city's "Deep Deuce" section on N.E. Second Street).
Christian was born in Bonham, Texas. His family moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when he was a small child. His parents were musicians. He had two brothers, Edward, born in 1906, and Clarence, born in 1911. All three sons were taught music by their father, Clarence Henry Christian. Clarence Henry was struck blind by fever, and in order to support the family he and the boys worked as buskers, on what the Christians called "busts." He would have them lead him into the better neighborhoods, where they would perform for cash or goods. When Charles was old enough to go along, he first entertained by dancing. Later he learned to play the guitar, inheriting his father's instruments upon his death when Charles was 12.
He attended Douglass School in Oklahoma City, where he was further encouraged in music by an instructor, Zelia N. Breaux. Charles wanted to play tenor saxophone in the school band, but she insisted he try trumpet instead. As he believed playing the trumpet would disfigure his lip, he quit to pursue his interest in baseball, at which he excelled.
In a 1978 interview with Charlie Christian biographer Craig McKinney, Clarence Christian said that in the 1920s and '30s Edward Christian led a band in Oklahoma City as a pianist and had a shaky relationship with the trumpeter James Simpson. Around 1931, he took the guitarist "Bigfoot" Ralph Hamilton and began secretly schooling the younger Charles in jazz. They taught him to solo on three songs, "Rose Room", "Tea for Two", and "Sweet Georgia Brown". When the time was right they took him out to one of the many after-hours jam sessions along "Deep Deuce", Northeast Second Street, in Oklahoma City.
"Let Charles play one," they told Edward. "Ah, nobody wants to hear them old blues," Edward replied. After some encouragement, he allowed Charles to play. "What do you want to play?" he asked. All three songs were big in the early 1930s, and Edward was surprised that Charles knew them. After two encores, Charles had played all three, and Deep Deuce was in an uproar. He coolly dismissed himself from the jam session, and his mother had heard about it before he got home.
Charles fathered a daughter, Billie Jean Christian (December 23, 1932 – July 19, 2004) by Margretta Lorraine Downey of Oklahoma City.
Charles soon was performing locally and on the road throughout the Midwest, as far away as North Dakota and Minnesota. By 1936 he was playing electric guitar and had become a regional attraction. He jammed with many of the big-name performers traveling through Oklahoma City, including Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. Mary Lou Williams, the pianist for Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, told the record producer John Hammond about Christian.[8
In 1939, Christian auditioned for John Hammond, who recommended him to the bandleader Benny Goodman. Goodman was the fourth white bandleader to feature black musicians in his live band: the first was Jimmy Durante, for whom the clarinetist Achille Baquet played and recorded in Durante's Original New Orleans Jazz Band (1918–1920); the second was the violinist Arthur Hand, who led the California Ramblers, which, from 1922 to 1925, included the trumpeter Bill Moore, who was billed as the Hot Hawaiian; the third was Ben Bernie, whose band from 1925 to 1928 also featured Moore. Goodman became the fourth by bringing in Teddy Wilson on piano in 1935 and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone in 1936. Goodman hired Christian to play with the newly formed Goodman Sextet in September 1939.
It has been claimed that Goodman was initially uninterested in hiring Christian because the electric guitar was a relatively new instrument. Goodman had been exposed to the instrument with Floyd Smith and Leonard Ware, among others, none of whom had the ability of Christian. There is a report that Goodman unsuccessfully tried to buy out Floyd Smith's contract from Andy Kirk. However, Goodman was so impressed by Christian's playing that he hired him instead.
Christian, circa 1919 [20618.104.22.168 Frank Driggs Collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society]
There are several versions of the first meeting of Christian and Goodman on August 16, 1939. The encounter that afternoon at the recording studio had not gone well. Christian recalled in a 1940article in Metronome magazine, "I guess neither one of us liked what I played," but Hammond decided to try again—without consulting Goodman. (Christian says Goodman invited him to the show that evening.)
He installed Christian on the bandstand for that night's set at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Los Angeles. Displeased at the surprise, Goodman called 'Rose Room", a tune he assumed Christian would be unfamiliar with. Unknown to Goodman, Christian had been reared on the tune, and he came in with his first chorus of about twenty, all of them different, all unlike anything Goodman had heard before. That version of "Rose Room" lasted forty minutes. By its end, Christian was in the band. In the course of a few days, Christian went from making $2.50 a night to $150 a week.
Christian was placed in Goodman's new sextet, which included Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Bernstein and Nick Fatool. By February 1940 Christian dominated the jazz and swing guitar polls and was elected to the Metronome All Stars. In the spring of 1940 Goodman let most of his entourage go in a reorganization. He retained Christian, and in the fall of that year Goodman led a sextet with Christian, Count Basie, longtime Duke Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams, former Artie Shaw tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld and later drummer Dave Tough. This all-star band dominated the jazz polls in 1941, including another election to the Metronome All Stars for Christian. Johnny Guarnieri, who replaced Henderson in the first sextet, filled the piano chair in Basie's absence.
Christian was an important contributor to the music that became known as bop, or bebop. Some of the participants in those early after-hours affairs at Minton's Playhouse, where bebop was born, credit Christian with the name bebop, citing his humming of phrases as the onomatopoetic origin of the term.
Private recordings made in September 1939 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by Jerry Newhouse, a Goodman aficionado, capture the newly hired Christian while on the road with Goodman and feature Goodman's tenor sax player Jerry Jerome and then-local bassist Oscar Pettiford. Taking multiple solos, Christian shows much the same improvisational skills later captured on the Minton's and Monroe's recordings in 1941, suggesting that he had already matured as a musician. The Minneapolis recordings include "Stardust", "Tea for Two", and "I've Got Rhythm", the latter a favorite of bop composers and jammers.
An even more striking example is a series of recordings made at Minton's Playhouse, an after-hours club located in the Hotel Cecil, at 210 West 118th Street in Harlem, by Jerry Newman, a student at Columbia University, on a portable disk recorder in 1941, in which Christian was accompanied by Joe Guy on trumpet, Kenny Kersey on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums.
Christian's use of tension and release, a technique employed by Lester Young, Count Basie and later bop musicians, is also present on "Stompin' at the Savoy", included among the Newman recordings. The collection also includes recordings made in 1941 at Clark Monroe's Uptown House, another late-night jazz haunt in Harlem, with Oran "Hot Lips" Page. Other recordings include the tenor sax player Don Byas. The Minton's recordings were long rumored to feature "Dizzy" Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, but that has since been proved untrue, although both were regulars at the jam sessions, with Monk a regular in the Minton's house band.
Charlie Christian Avenue, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Kenny Clarke claimed that "Epistrophy" and "Rhythm-a-Ning" were compositions by Christian, which Christian played with Clarke and Thelonious Monk at Minton's jam sessions. The "Rhythm-a-Ning" line is heard on "Down on Teddy's Hill" and behind the introduction on "Guy's Got to Go" from the Newman recordings. It is also a line from Mary Lou Williams's "Walkin' and Swingin'".
Clarke said Christian first showed him the chords to "Epistrophy" on a ukulele. These recordings have been packaged under a number of different titles, including After Hours and The Immortal Charlie Christian. While the recording quality of many of these sessions is poor, they show Christian stretching out much longer than he could on the Benny Goodman sides. On the Minton's and Monroe's recordings, Christian can be heard taking multiple choruses on a single tune, playing long stretches of melodic ideas with ease.
Christian was just as adept with understatement as well. His work on the Goodman sextet sides "Soft Winds", "Till Tom Special", and "A Smo-o-o-oth One" show his use of few well-placed melodic notes. His work on the Sextet's recordings of the ballads "Stardust", "Memories of You", "Poor Butterfly", "I Surrender Dear" and "On the Alamo" and his work on "Profoundly Blue" with the Edmond Hall Celeste Quartet (1941) show hints of what was later called cool jazz. Although credited for very few, Christian composed many of the original tunes recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet.
In the late 1930s Christian contracted tuberculosis, and in early 1940 he was hospitalized for a short period in which the Goodman group was on hiatus because of Goodman's back trouble. Goodman was hospitalized in the summer of 1940 after a brief stay at Santa Catalina Island, California, where the band stayed when they were on the West Coast.
Christian returned home to Oklahoma City in late July 1940 and returned to New York City in September 1940. In early 1941, Christian resumed his hectic lifestyle, heading to Harlem for late-night jam sessions after finishing gigs with the Goodman Sextet and Orchestra in New York City. In June 1941 he was admitted to Seaview, a sanitarium on Staten Island in New York City. He was reported to be making progress, and Down Beat magazine reported in February 1942 that he and Cootie Williams were starting a band.
After a visit to the hospital that same month by the tap dancer and drummer Marion Joseph "Taps" Miller, Christian declined in health. He died March 2, 1942, at the age of 25. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham, Texas. A Texas State Historical Commission Marker and headstone were placed in Gates Hill Cemetery in 1994. The location of the historical marker and headstone was disputed, and in March 2013, Fannin County, Texas, recognized that the marker was in the wrong spot and that Christian is buried under the concrete slab.