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The Enduring Musical Influence Of Electric Guitarist Charlie Christian

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The Enduring Musical Influence Of Electric Guitarist Charlie Christian

Music

The Enduring Musical Influence Of Electric Guitarist Charlie Christian

The Enduring Musical Influence Of Electric Guitarist Charlie Christian

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/487478670/487504760" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Born in 1916, Christian died when he was just 25 years old. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead calls him "the single greatest influence on a signature 20th-century instrument."

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This Friday marks the centennial of the birth of electric guitarist Charlie Christian, who was one of the most influential musicians of the last century. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SONG)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Charlie Christian was the single-greatest influence on the signature 20th century instrument, the electric guitar, even though he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years. He made most of his records in Benny Goodman's sextet, where he competed for space with other good soloists. In that band, he took beautifully crafted 30-second improvisations, serving up fresh variations on every take of a tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Charlie Christian had started on ukulele as a little kid in Oklahoma City and crossed paths early with Lester Young. That saxophonist profoundly influenced the guitarist's slingshot rhythms - the way he'd lag behind the beat and then spring ahead. Amplified slide guitarists in white western swing bands showed Christian how electric guitar could project. He wasn't the first electric picker who played on the frets. He dug Chicago pioneer George Barnes. But Christian had the most imposing sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Charlie Christian's timing was impeccable. His heavy, front-loaded attack underlined his aggressive beat and inspired untold jazz, blues, and rock-guitar players. Benny Goodman loved him but begged him to turn his amplifier down. Christian once explained, I like to hear myself. Like other great lead players, He was an adept rhythm guitarist - strumming like mad, riffing with precision or cutting against the grain.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Christian recorded with a few leaders besides Goodman, like vibist Lionel Hampton and blues singer Ida Cox. But he was curiously underexploited on those dates, mostly playing acoustic guitar in the background - his acoustic had bite, too. He even played a little guitar boogie woogie behind clarinetist Edmond Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SONG)

WHITEHEAD: The best Charlie Christian on record comes from jam sessions in Harlem in 1941. There, he and other young modernists, like Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke, laid the groundwork for the new music that Christian started calling bebop. His amped-up rhythms and offbeat accents fit right in. Sitting in Uptown is where Christian really got to stretch out. You can hear a lot of guitar's future coming, Chuck Berry included.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOMPIN AT THE SAVOY")

WHITEHEAD: Charlie Christian on Stompin' at the Savoy, May 1941. The following month he was hospitalized, suffering from tuberculosis. He died in hospital the following spring before he could hear the new music of bebop come to fruition and long before electric guitar conquered popular music and the full impact of his playing could be felt. Charlie Christian has left his mark on many thousands of musicians who never knew his name. That's about as influential as you can get.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SONG)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Friday marks the centennial of Charlie Christian's birth. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a dystopian novel he says captures the dark side of contemporary life. This is FRESH AIR.

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