19 November 2012

Further Tales from the Rural Electrification Files

Of course, Les Paul gets all the credit for having invented the electric guitar; which is true if you're talking about the electric guitar as we know it -- the common solid-bodied variety. But as to who first had the idea of rigging a standard acoustic idea with juice and amplifier, accounts differ. Charlie Christian wasn't the first to pick up an electrically amplified acoustic model, but history has him down as being the person to popularize it; as the one who proved that it could serve as a lead instrument in a large ensemble.

For those who might not know him, Charlie Christian was a guitarist who notably worked with jazz swingster Benny Goodman. During the height of the swing craze, Goodman’s manager John Hammond talked him into taking the bold step of "integrating" his band. To this end, Hammond brought in the talents of other artists he managed or had worked with – Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Cootie Williams, and eventually Christian. Hammond had come across Christian in Oklahoma City as he traveling throughout the Midwest looking for fresh talent. He was supposedly skeptical about the novelty of the electric guitar that Christian was playing, but was wowed by the kid's sound and technique. Hammond not only thought it work in a loud ensemble like Goodman’s, but the also thought Christian possessed exception skills as an improviser.

According to one version of the story, Hammond had to sneak Christian into Goodman's band. He’d paid for the train ticket to bring Christian into L.A. from Oklahoma to meet and audition for Goodman; introducing the two during an afternoon rehearsal and telling Goodman that he wanted the kid to play in the band at that evening’s gig. Thing was, Christain had arrived wearing what was his own (mis)impression of how city-slickers dressed – something very loud and ridiculous, something along the order of a purple suit, a big hat, with a bright yellow shirt and socks, and a pair of shoes that only added to the chromatic nightmare. Goodman reputedly gave the kid a once-over glance, shot Hammond a scowl that said, “You gotta be kidding me,” then walked away shaking his head. But at that evening’s performance, Hammond snuck Christian onto the stage, planting him just out of Goodman’s sight. When Goodman discovered what was going on, he was determined to make the night a rough one for Christian – throwing him every curveball he could come up with the make Christian choke, goof, embarrass himself, with the hope of making the kid skulk back to Oklahoma in shame by night’s end. But apparently Christian proved that he could hang, meeting each challenge and going it one better. After which Goodman made him a permanent member of the band.

Or so one version of the story had it, as once told by someone who claimed to have been there to witness the whole thing. Naturally, some embellishment might have been involved in the telling. What is know more certainly is that Charlie Christian quickly grew musically restless. Yeah, he'd laid some great material with Goodman; but seeking means of branching even further out, he eventually found himself sometimes jamming with a number of other musicians at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. As it turned out, among those other musicians were Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and what they were up to into those late-night sessions would eventually develop into some "next isht" in the evolution of jazz – the origins of bebop. Unfortunately, Christian wouldn’t be around to see it come to full fruition. Having lived with tuberculosis for several years, the illness finally tightened its grasp on him during the winter of 1942, killing him at the age of 25.

(John Hammond, on the other hand, had a very long and illustrious career as a impressario, discovering and managing all sort of big-name musical talent. It was he who, some years later, plucked a young Bob Dylan out of the Greenwich Village folk scene and give him his first recording contract with Columbia Records.)

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