Christian Charlie Christian’s importance as an electric-guitar pioneer is widely acknowledged and particularly astonishing given the brevity of his professional career—which ended abruptly with his untimely death in 1942 at age 25. Chicago-based jazz guitarists John McLean and Mike Allemana led a tribute to the visionary jazzman at the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival, after which they shared a few personal observations on Christian’s singular contributions to the art form.
Allemana: Perhaps the most impressive thing about Charlie Christian is that when jazz guitarists came up from the late 1940s on, they had Charlie and maybe a couple of other guitarists to model their approach on. But Charlie had no models. He was making everything up on the fly. The work he did during those two primary years of his career was really transformative. He changed everything. And, not least of all, he brought the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the spotlight as a soloing instrument.
McLean: If you listen seriously to the few recordings of Charlie that are available, you can hear that his main influence was tenor saxophonist Lester Young. So, the characteristics of Lester’s playing—like his advanced rhythmic concepts and interesting intervallic relationships to the chord progression—is all there in Charlie’s playing. Also, a lot of people don’t realize that Charlie was directly interacting with all of the legends of the bebop era. John Scofield once said that Miles Davis told him that Charlie Parker told him that Charlie Christian was as responsible as anybody for the inception of the basic harmonic and rhythmic concepts that we know today as bebop.
Allemana: Another thing people sometimes don’t fully appreciate is the rhythmic sophistication and sense of space in his playing. Also, I believe it was Barney Kessel who said that Charlie played the best bridges. If you notice, his solos were constructed with a lot of conscious effort—paying close attention to melodic phrasing and how he got around the harmony—but on the bridges, he would stretch out a lot more. I think a lot of cats miss the way he played on bridges.
McLean: They were making 78s, so you just played the riff, and then everybody got one chorus. Among the few recordings of Charlie are session outtakes where you get to hear them run down multiple takes. When you listen to a lot of consecutive versions of the same tune, even very fine musicians like Georgie Auld play the same thing every time. It’s only Charlie and Benny Goodman that you can feel pushing things on every single take. They’re like, “Come on. Bring it!”