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Oklahoma Memories

Charlie Christian

2010-06-07

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"…the sounds of Charlie Christian playing…"

That is the sound of one of the premier guitarists of all time…Oklahoman Charlie Christian. In a short life of just twenty-five years, Charlie Christian forever impacted the world of music.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Charlie Christian was born in 1916 in Texas, but at the age of two his family moved to Oklahoma City. He followed the musical tradition of his older brothers and father and learned to play the trumpet before he was ten. By 12 he had switched to the guitar, making his own crude instrument from cigar boxes in a manual training class.

Charlie Christian attended Douglass High School and learned his music from the Deep Deuce, or Northeast Second Street, an incubator for many of the nation's jazz greats. In the 1930s he played string bass with the Alphonso Trent Band.

By 1936 he was traveling the Midwest with various bands, and in 1939, Charlie was in Los Angeles where John Hammond arranged an audition for Charlie with his brother-in-law Benny Goodman. Goodman had a reputation for hiring black musicians; Lionel Hampton on vibraphones among them. In a 1940 interview for Metronome Magazine, Charlie said that Goodman was not impressed with the audition; he was playing an acoustic guitar, but that night Hammond took Goodman to a jazz club where Charles was performing. An unhappy Goodman asked Charlie to play "Rose Room" feeling certain that Christian wouldn't know it. He did; he had been playing it for years. On October 2, 1939, "Rose Room" became one of the first studio tunes recorded by Charlie Christian after he joined the Benny Goodman Sextet.

"…the sounds of Charlie Christian playing…"

Over the next three years Charlie transformed the electric guitar from being used as a rhythm instrument to a lead instrument. He helped create a genre of jazz that became known as bebop. He worked with another young jazz guitarist, Barney Kessel, a fellow Oklahoman from Muskogee. Kessel later became one of the foremost jazz guitarists following Charlie's death. In three short years he elevated the electric guitar to the position in modern music that it holds now.

In the summer of 1941, while touring in the Midwest, he began showing severe signs of tuberculosis. He died on March 2, 1942, in New York, at the age of twenty-five. Even though he recorded for only three years, his influence has been felt by generations of musicians. He was inducted into the Down Beat magazine Jazz Hall of Fame in 1966, and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 in the Roots of Rock and Roll.

"…the sounds of Charlie Christian playing…"

For many years guitar collectors wondered what happened to the Gibson ES-250 that Charlie was holding in nearly all the photos of taken during his last years. Gibson only manufactured about 70 of that model. Finally, in 2002, a guitar collector and expert in Utah saw an ad in a magazine for a Gibson ES-250; he inquired and when checking the serial number on that guitar with records from the Gibson factory, he knew that he'd found the long-missing Charlie Christian guitar.

That very guitar is now on display at the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.