Christian Guitar

     Charlie Christian was born 100 years ago today.
     He was the most influential guitarist of the 20th century, though no one but musicians remembers him now.
     He was a great artist. He died of tuberculosis at 25.
     Today, as we glorify vile mediocrities around the clock, on TV-radio-internet-and-what-remains-of-our-newspapers, and dump billions of dollars on “musicians” who couldn’t carry a tune in a basket, let me say a few words about Charlie Christian.
     Born in Bonham, Texas, raised in Oklahoma City, Charlie made his first guitar from a cigar box. No way to stop a guy like that.
     Talent-spotter John Hammond insisted that Benny Goodman bring him on stage at a club date in a Los Angeles hotel in August 1939. Hammond said that Benny, who had no patience for fools, shot him a venomous look as Charlie Christian walked onto the stage in yellow pants and a green shirt and plugged in his guitar.
     Benny — the top musical act in the country — called “Rose Room,” a tricky little tune. But as Hammond said later, “Charlie had ears like radar.”
     Charlie played about 20 solo choruses, improvising in a style that was later named bebop. Benny hired him on the spot, bumping Charlie’s paycheck from $2.50 a night to $150 a week.
     Charlie Christian turned the musical world around before Charlie Parker did. Parker, our country’s greatest and most influential musical artist, outlived Charlie Christian by only 12 years. He died at 34.
     The world remembers Charlie Parker today, thanks in part to the recently released double CD, “Unheard Bird,” a terrific find, whose second disc is dominated by Latin tunes.
     Charlie Parker would have been a great artist without Charlie Christian. But on the centennial of the guitarist’s birth, in a country whose guitar-dominated music has captivated the world for 60 years, and sucked billions of dollars from all of us, it’s sad that virtually no one today, except for a few lonely musicians, remembers Charlie Christian, or listens to his music.
     I realize that in this time of global unrest — when the United States is staring at the real possibility that we may elect a fascist president — readers may howl that on a page devoted to legal news I devote space to a long-dead jazz musician.
     Surely, some readers will think, there are more important things to write about.
     I don’t think so.
     “Jazz is freedom,” Thelonious Monk said. “Think about that. You think about that.”
     One reason among many that the United States has become the most powerful country in the world is that even before we were powerful, the world loved us. For our freedoms, of course, but also for our creative artists.
     More than anyone else, Mark Twain did this. He made fun of everyone. He traveled around the world making people laugh, and think, and the world fell in love with the United States.
     Now we are the most powerful country in the world, and though billions of people around the world still like us, billions more hate us.
     Why is that?
     Could it be that we are crushing the creative spirit, around the world, with bombs, drones, torture, and so on? And that we are doing it here at home, above all in our black communities?
     Now, before my many right-wing friends fire up their email — oh, yes, I have right-wing friends, even in Texas — I know that China and Russia and every other country in the world does this too.
     But I thought that one reason we are so proud of our country is that we are not like every other country in the world. For instance, Charlie Christian was born here. He lived and died here — when he was 25.

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