Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Charles Henry Christian

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Charles Henry Christian was born to musical parents in Bonham, Texas, on July 29, 1916. His father, Clarence James, played trumpet, and his mother, Willie Mae, played piano. They are known to have played professionally in silent-movie theaters. Charlie had two elder brothers–Edward (born 1906), who was a fine pianist, and Clarence (born 1911), who occasionally played string bass and violin.

In 1918 Clarence, Charlie's father, became blind following an unknown illness. As a direct result the family moved from Bonham to live in Oklahoma City. Charlie started first grade in 1923 at Douglass School but apparently didn't attend school too often, preferring to earn money on the streets playing his ukulele.

He spent the Depression years playing in a variety of bands and at diverse locations. In 1930 Charlie played at Honey Murphey's Club with members of his brother Edward's band, together with members of McKinney's Cotton Pickers Orchestra, which included Don Redman. By 1932 Charlie had left school and become a full-time musician, playing wherever he could to earn a living but mostly with his brother Edward's band, which varied between four and thirteen pieces. T-Bone Walker tells of coming to Oklahoma City in 1933 with the Lawson Brooks Band and playing with Charlie on the streets as a duo. They had a bass and guitar and would play, sing, and dance together. When T-Bone had to leave town suddenly, Charlie took his place in the band. By 1935 Charlie was a regular member of the Rhymaires Orchestra, which was featured at the Ritz Ballroom, broadcasting weekly over local radio. In 1936 Charlie played at the Texas Centennial celebrations, from which he returned with the Alphonso Trent Band. During the winter of 1936–37 Charlie played with the Trent band in Casper, Wyoming, and at a lengthy engagement in Deadwood, South Dakota. From the summer of 1937 on, Charlie was featured on electric guitar with the Anna Mae Winburn Orchestra. The band, based in Omaha, Nebraska, traveled extensively, going as far afield as Illinois and Minnesota in 1938. Charlie also played a residency with the Alphonso Trent Sextet in Bismarck, North Dakota, in the summer of 1938.

Charlie's big break came in July 1939 when, following a recommendation by Mary Lou Williams, John Hammond of Columbia Records, on his way to oversee a Benny Goodman recording session in Los Angeles, stopped in Oklahoma City to audition Charlie and his sextet. A short time later Charlie received a telegram from Hammond telling him to come to Los Angeles to play with Benny Goodman. Fortunately for the world of jazz, Charlie became a featured member of the Goodman Sextet, recording regularly and being heard weekly on radio broadcasts transmitted throughout the United States. After the reopening of Minton's Playhouse in October 1940, Charlie was co-opted into the house band and played almost every evening, following his work with Goodman, with such bebop luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke.

In July 1941 Charlie was hospitalized with a recurrence of tuberculosis. He died in Seaview Sanitarium on Staten Island on March 2, 1942. With his tragic early death, jazz lost one of its great innovators, the man who brought the electric guitar into the forefront of popular music.

Peter Broadbent Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, United Kingdom

Broadbent, Peter. Charlie Christian. Blaydon UK: Ashley Mark, 2002.

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