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Charlie Christian

Biography

Charlie Christian
Driggs/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

As the musician who took the guitar out of the rhythm section and made it a lead instrument, Charlie Christian had a profound influence on both jazz and rock & roll.

Christian's recording career spanned only three years. He was discovered playing in a jazz band in Oklahoma City by John Hammond in 1939. Benny Goodman brought him to New York to play with his sextet and his orchestra, and it was with Goodman that Christian revolutionized jazz guitar. The newly introduced electrified guitar gave the instrument an authoritative volume and tonal range it had never had before, and Christian's innovative single-string picking technique made the guitar a solo voice equal to the trumpet and the saxophone. Additionally, as one of the participants in after-hours jam sessions with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke, Christian was one of the originators of bebop, which became the dominant force in jazz after his death. He developed tuberculosis in 1940 and was hospitalized in the summer of 1941. He spent the last six months of his life in the hospital.

This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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