Charlie Christian died in March, 1942. He would have turned 26 that July. The Texas-born musician started playing guitar as a boy in the slums of Oklahoma City where the family had moved when he was two years old. His fame came from a mere three years with Benny Goodman before tuberculosis took his life. Yet, as brief as his time was in the spotlight, this legendary guitarist is considered a pioneer of the electrified instrument. The accolades did come decades later. He was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1966 and to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Born to a Musical Family
Christian’s father was a blind guitarist and singer; his parents reportedly both accompanied silent movies at the local theatre. His two older brothers were also musicians and the whole family performed on the street to earn extra money.
During his early school years, Christian built and played what are called cigar-box guitars, using a cigar box as the body or resonator. Sometimes, the homemade instrument had fewer strings and no fretted neck.
One of the Early Blacks to Join White Bands
Jimmy Durante was the first bandleader to hire a black musician, clarinetist Achille Baquet, for his Original New Orleans Jazz Band. Goodman added Christian to his sextet in 1939 after previously hiring two other giants in jazz: pianist Teddy Wilson and future bandleader Lionel Hampton.
From Rhythm Section to Lead Instrument
Christian was unique in both his talent and his instrument. While the acoustic guitar had been relegated to the rhythm section, Christian played the relatively new electric guitar, in particular the Gibson ES150 that was introduced in 1936. The amped sound and his innovative style of playing totally changed the rhythm role of the guitar, turning it into a lead instrument. His single-string or single-note technique, as it’s referred to, elevated the guitar to solo status and, as young as he was, brought him prominence as a jazz virtuoso. He even performed at Carnegie Hall before he died.
His Influence Covers Multiple Genres
During his stint with Goodman, Christian played with jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie and in fact, is credited with the start of “cool jazz” or “bebop.” His blend of interest in jazz and country music along with his plugged-in guitar equally impacted future rock and rollers like Chuck Berry.
A Street Name and Another Great in an Unmarked Grave
He was initially buried in an unmarked grave in his birthplace of Bonham, Texas. In 1994, the Texas State Historical Commission had a headstone created for him in the Gates Hill Cemetery with an accompanying plaque that outlines his music career.
In 2006, a street in the Bricktown entertainment district of Oklahoma City was named in his honor, Charlie Christian Avenue.