Sunday, July 24, 2011


In 1940, 16-year-old Barney Kessel met and jammed with Charlie Christian, back home in Oklahoma City during a break from the Benny Goodman Sextet. Forty years later, I asked Barney if he’d be willing to talk about Charlie. Barney not only agreed, but spoke non-stop – and with great insight and enthusiasm – for nearly an hour. He covered many, many aspects of Charlie’s personality, technique, tone, recordings, and legacy.

At the outset of our conversation, Kessel revealed, “Charlie Christian’s contribution to the electric guitar was as big as Thomas Edison’s contributions and Benjamin Franklin’s contributions in terms of changing the direction of the world. He changed the guitar world. He changed it not so much as being a superb guitar player, but rather the music that he made. And anyone that would study him can see where all the other guitar players who came after him evolved, that they came from his fountainhead. He was as much a way-shower as any philosophical giant that other people have come along and patterned themselves after.”

In another passage, Kessel praised Christian’s harmonic knowledge: “He was years ahead of most of the people he was playing with in terms of the lines he was playing. They involved certain chord changes that were not existent then. If you listen to any of the blues that he played, you will hear in the line that he has spelled out harmonic changes that none of the others on the record are playing, not even the background. And yet they’re refreshing and they fit, but he’s playing more chord changes in his lines, and also interesting ones, different ones than existed at the time.”

Regarding Charlie’s tone, Kessel said, “It’s more like the velvety sound of some of the saxophone players and trombone players. As a matter of fact, many people that heard him play that didn’t know him didn’t even know that they were listening to a guitar. They didn’t know anything about it. They just were simply going to this club where he might be playing, and they’d hear the music from outside, and they didn’t know that there was such a thing as an electric guitar. They’d think it was somehow a rather slightly percussive tenor sax, maybe even someone that is slap-tonguing it a little bit.”

What set Charlie apart from his predecessors, Kessel observed, was that unlike players like George Van Eps, Allan Reuss, Dick McDonough, and Carl Kress, Christian had no background in playing banjo. Instead, Barney said, his major influence was Lester Young. “When I hear Charlie Christian, I don’t think of him as a guitar player. I think of him as a person who possessed a great amount of feeling for expressing jazz, and he happened to choose the guitar.”

Barney reveals a wealth of other info about Charlie Christian and his contemporaries, as well as astute insights in what it means to be a musician. If you’d like to see the complete interview, published for the first time in its entirety, it’s at Barney Kessel Interview: On Meeting and Jamming With Charlie Christian.

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