Charlie Christian: A Fitting Tribute
Bonham Daily Favorite, April 17, 1994
This week's column will take a brief respite from the Indian wars to dwell on some more modern history. A special event is coming up in Bonham on April 23 honoring one of Bonham's more famous sons and his accomplishments.
For more than 52 years Charles Henry Christian has lain in an unmarked grave in a grassy spot at Gates Hill Cemetery. Charlie Christian, jazx guitarist extraordinare, changed the face of American jazz in the early 1940*s as he burst on the scene with meteoric brilliance and then quickly burned out.
Frank Tirro, music historian, commented that Christian's legacy to the American music scene was "the small stack of superb swing solos he recorded with Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton."
Charlie Christian was born on a hot summer day July 29, 1916 in the Tanktown section of Bonham. His father was Clarence Christian who worked as a waiter in the dining room of the Alexander Hotel and led a small orchestra which played for cotillions and parties in and around Bonham.
His mother, Willie Mae Christian, is remembered for her sweet soprano voice as she sang in the choir at Bradford Chapel, A.M.E. Church. Two older brothers were also talented musicians.
In 1918, after a series of illnesses had left him sightless, Clarence Christian moved the family to Oklahoma City. Despite his. loss of vision, Clarence. Christian took much pride and pleasure in his artistry on the guitar which doubtless was a xbajor influence on young Charlie. .
Christian’s musical debut came with his fathers' strolling band which featured the father on guitar, Edward Christian on mandolin, Clarence, Jr. on violin, and young Charlie providing rhythm accompaniment as “board beater.”
When Clarence Christian died in 1926, Charlie's interest in music waned as a new passion for baseball took its place. Others who had witnessed Christian's budding talent continued to urge continuation of his musical studies. Oklahoma City School music director Zelia M. Breaux encouraged him to take up a new instrument,
the trumpet. For a time Charlie took to the brass and played in the school band.
His developing proficiency with the trumpet not withstanding, Charlie continued to show a preference for the guitar and began to study with Ralph “Big Foot Chuck* Hamilton. The instructor’s style was based on the then prevalent chord technique. Many musicologists believe that it was during this period of instruction that Christian developed his own style of single-string performance.
Family lore holds that Christian's professional debut came at age 14 when he sat in with the Don Redmond Orchestra at Honey Murphey's Club in Oklahoma City. On three of the band’s arrangements, “Sweet Georgia Brown," “Tea For Two, “ and “Rose Room” Charlie was allowed to solo.
Over the next several years Christian appeared professionally with several groups throughout the Mid-West. His interest in the amplified guitar began to develop during this period and he began to experiment with the new sound much to the disapproval of many jazz purists.
As his reputation began to grow he was heard by several influential persons in the jazz world, In 1939 Mary Lou Williams heard him perform and recommended him to New York promoter John Hammond.
Hammond arranged an audition for the young guitarist and became excited by the innovative approach of the exciting musician. He immediately arranged for an audition with the Benny Goodman organization.
Benny Goodman and his orchestra were appearing at the French Garden Room, in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1839 and on August 18th Charlie Christian arrived for an audition with the master. John Hammond had done his job building up the new and relatively unknown guitarist.
Probably believing that his attire was the epitome of West Coast jazz elegance, Charlie showed up for the audition a dressed in a somewhat fleshy manner. The conservative Goodman was reportedly so put off by the young man's appearance that he scarcely paid any attention to the audition and at the conclusion made no comment.
However, several members of the Goodman aggregation, who were present, were so impressed by the artistry which they had witnessed that they conspired to. get Christian on the bandstand during an intermission the band's appearance at the French Garden Room.
Goodman allowed the musician to stay and called for the band's arrangement of 'Rose Room." Legend has it that Goodman became so enthralled by Christian's playing that he had the band continue with the number for over forty minutes giving Christian the opportunity to prove himself with a series of solo riffs..Almost overnight Christian became the new discovery or the jazz world,
Sadly the fates intervened and Christian's explosion on the music scene was to be short lived. Over the next year and a half he recorded with the Goodman Sextet, appeared in radio performances and at sold out Goodman concerts. John Hammond produced a "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall., which featured Christian, and he appeared in concert performances with Goodman and Count Basie.
June, 1941 he entered Bellview Hospital in New York City suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, an illness which had plagued him for most of his life. In a month he was transferred to Seaview Sanitarium on State island for treatment. On the morning of March 3, 1942, Charles Henry Christian died few months short of his 26th birthday.
Funeral services ware conducted at the Calvary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City on March 7th. His body was sent to his birthplace at Bonham, Texas where local services were conducted at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Christian was interred at Gates Hill Cemetery not far from the home where he was born. Still remembered by long-time Bonham residents was the enormous floral tribute, shaped like a guitar, which was sent by Benny Goodman.
His memory is kept alive in the city where his talent flourished. Oklahoma City each year in the Spring stages the "Charlie Christian Jazz Festival on Second Street." The festival has been an annual event since. 1983.
In 1992, "Solo Flight," a thirty minute documentary film on the life and music of Charlie Christian, conceived, written, produced and directed by young Oklahoma filmmaker Garydon Rhodes was premiered at the Fannin County Museum of History.
At 12 noon on Saturday, April 23, 1994, Charlie Christian's unmarked grave will receive both a tombstone and a Texas Historical Marker. [See photos at the Fannin County Historical Commission website.]
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas