Django Reinhardt might be the patron saint of all jazz guitarists, but for many of those who built careers on playing electric guitars, Charlie Christian was the inspiration. And even though he had a very short career and has been gone for nearly 70 years, he is still revered by many.
The Texas-born (but Oklahoma-raised) Christian wasn’t the first jazz guitarist to go electric. Most music historians say that was Eddie Durham, who had some success in the late 1930s as part of the Kansas City Five. But Christian studied with Durham and then took his mentor’s specialty to another level, turning it into a fluent swing style that fit perfectly into the big band era.
Christian was one of three brothers whose blind father had taught them music and performed with them as street musicians. As an adult he’d bounced around a bit, but his breakout moment came in 1939 when he joined Benny Goodman’s band — although there are several versions of how that came about.
One story is that it was the result of an audition arranged by the well-known music insider John Hammond, but another version has it that Hammond risked Goodman’s well-known crankiness by taking it upon himself to install Christian in the band just before a show. And at least one account offered the opinion that Goodman wasn’t particularly fond of even having a guitar in a swing band to begin with. That variation would seem to support another part of the story, one that I like. Goodman supposedly pointed to Christian to take a solo on “Rose Room” — sort of as a dare — and the result dazzled everyone. In any case, Charlie Christian became a regular member of the band and also of the Benny Goodman Sextet (and that song became one of the group’s best-known).
Unfortunately, Christian’s career would be cut tragically short. After just two years in the limelight he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and although he fought it for several months he died in 1942 — just 25 years old.