Christian, Charlie

Christian, Charlie (Charles Henry Christian), 1916–42, African-American jazz guitarist, b. Bonham, Tex. The son of a singer-guitarist father and pianist mother, he grew up in Oklahoma City, where he began playing professionally at 15. By 1937, Christian had begun to play an electrically amplified guitar, and he soon transformed it into a staple of the jazz ensemble, elevating it from a largely rhythm-section role into a full-fledged solo instrument. In 1939 he jammed with Benny Goodman, who hired him on the spot; as a member of the Goodman Sextet he soon became one of America's best-known jazz guitarists. An inventive improviser, Christian had a uniquely clean, fluid sound, produced in hornlike solos often played on a single string. Essentially a swing player, he also was one of the pioneers of bop, experimenting with the form in legendary sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. In 1941 Christian contracted tuberculosis and the following year he died, ending a brief but brilliant career at age 25.

See biography by P. Broadbent (1996); G. D. Rhodes, dir., Solo Flight (video documentary, 1997).

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