Friday, July 29, 2016

Notes on Charlie Christian's centennial

Today it's the 100th anniversary of Charlie Christian's birthday. For a special 2h30m programme we've done (in Spanish) in El Club de Jazz, I've spent the last few months re-visiting his complete output (except for a very few items, such as Bill Savory's airchecks housed at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem). My playlist tells me that it's 239 tracks longabout 13 hours straightincluding the ones where Christian's presumed to play with Benny Goodman's orchestra. On top of that, I've listened to other guitar players (Bus Etri doing "Flying Home" in 1940, anyone?), plus a generous helping of string music from Texas and Oklahoma also known as Western Swing.

Charlie Christian at the Metronome All-Star session
February 7, 1940. Courtesy of Leo Valdés.

Because it is unavoidable that some of the same old stories will be regurgitated for the centennial, I've jotted down a few notes about CC:

  • He did put the electric guitar in the map, but there's no appreciable continuum from him to rock'n'roll, neither regarding sound, nor in music. Just check his mid-to-fast tempo blues playing ("Gone with What Wind" from April 6, 1940, "Jammin' in Four" from February 5, 1941, or "Benny's Bugle" from May 28, 1941—all are included in the podcast above).
  • Regarding lineage, Christian is at least as close, if not closer, to fellow guitar players of the region—namely "Western Swing" musicians—than to a perceived African-American lineage of guitarists. Music prevails over skin pigmentation, and there were back alleys and radio—both Western Swingers and Christian did broadcast on local radio.
  • Regarding geography, give it up for Oklahoma! For all the prestige granted to Kansas City, MO, you have to wonder whether Count Basie's orchestra was really a KC or an OK band. Besides Walter Page's weight on Bennie Moten's last session and then the Basie band, the personnel in the one 78 RPM plate waxed by Walter Page's Blue Devils includes future Basie sidemen Jimmy Rushing, Dan Minor, and Page. Other members of the orchestra through the years include Basie himself (listed as composer of "Squabblin'", in the podcast), Basie's first bari Jack Washington, and Lester Young. Other Kansas City luminaries like 'Hot Lips' Page and Buster Smith (Charlie Parker's mentor) are on that 78 too.
  • Christian was a complete original. Heard in the context of other guitar players from before, during, and after his career, his style is completely distinctive (those eight notes, his disregard for the bar line, the substitutions, the up and down phrasing, ...). As usual, it depends on how close we look at the music.
  • Discussions about who was first to record a regular (not lap-steel) electric guitar seem pointless: access to a recording facility in the 1930s in the Midwest is too arbitrary a filter. It is much more interesting to observe the general trend to make guitars louder, with or without electricity, and what was actually played with the instruments. Case in point: Floyd Smith recorded with an electric guitar with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in St. Louis in August 1937, but he didn't take any advantage of it. 
  • The fact that electric lap-steel pioneer Bob Dunn also played trombone is relevant regarding his January 28, 1935 showcase, "Takin' Off" (in the podcast). It is electric, it is loud, it swings, and its phrasing feels somewhere between a wind and a string instrument.
  • Going back to the fainter racial barriers among musicians, and if you still want to discuss who was first on a regular electric guitar, do check Zeke Campbell's playing on the Light Dough Crustboys' "Blue Guitars" from June 12, 1937 (in the podcast).
  • Regarding his place in the jazz pantheon, it would also be fair to say that Christian was HUGE in his time. He tried with Benny Goodman on August 16, 1939; three days later, on August 19 he did his first broadcast, on NBC; from then on, he would be featured in Goodman's radio broadcasts; on October 6 and December 24, still in 1939, he played Carnegie Hall; he won all Downbeat and Metronome polls while with Goodman. My point is that, for about two years, Charlie Christian was the most visible African-American instrumentalist of his generation, both for white and black audiences.
  • Christian and bebop. He was not a bebop player in the sense of, as Dan Morgenstern said once, "bebop" being really "Charlie Parker music", but it would be fair to say Christian set a ball rolling. He should be viewed in the context of jazz played for listening, much as Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum were doing before he appeared.

Almost all the music I've mentioned is available, amidst a lot of verbiage in Spanish, on the Club de Jazz podcast.

More Charlie Christian in this very blog and its Spanish twin.

And last but not at all least, for all Christianites who've missed Leo Valdés website, it's back (after seven years!) in this new address:

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