Why can’t the mayor’s office understand that every creative movement in New York City of the 20th Century, from jazz to abstract expressionism to punk rock started in bars and after hours joints. We need such places. Nowadays, the city loves to harass and bust bars and clubs–for noise tickets, sending in undercover cops to try and bust a place for serving minors (God forbid a twenty year old has a beer), no smoking laws, etc. Fuckin’ idiot politicians…sorry, I’m way off the track already. The subject I’m trying to get to being one of my very favorite records– Charlie Christian Live At Minton’s, which captures the great jazz guitarist Charlie Christian in late night jams where he gets a chance to stretch out in a way he never could in any of the configurations of Benny Goodman’s bands that he played with.
If you’re not familiar with the name, Charlie Christian was one of the very first electric guitar players, he came out of Oklahoma, discovered by John Hammond who brought him to the attention of Benny Goodman who hired him, bringing him to fame at a young age.
I know he was an excellent musician, but I’ve never liked Benny Goodman’s playing. There’s something about his tone that sounds to me like he’s trying to squeeze a dime between his ass cheeks. Sadly, Christian contracted tuberculosis and died at age 24 (March 2, 1942) so most of his short recording career was spent with Benny Goodman playing in his big and small bands.
It was these Goodman groups that the majority of Christian’s legitimate recordings are recorded with.
Mintons was an afterhours club at 220 W. 118th Street in Harlem where musicians came to jam with the house band which was Kenny Clarke on drums, Nick Fenton on bass, Thelonious Monk on piano and Joe Guy on trumpet. If a crummy player got onstage they’d play at ridiculously fast tempos or in difficult keys to clear the air, this left more time for the best players of the era to work out their ideas in public. Charlie Christian played there so often he kept an extra amp at the place. Over a few nights in early May of 1941 a guy named Joe Newman brought a recording machine in and recorded Charlie Christian in these late night jam sessions.
They were recorded direct to acetate and these discs ended up with John Hammond whose wife sold them in 1974, five tracks would appeared on the bootleg album Charlie Christian At Minton’s. Later a sixth track (Down On Teddy’s Hill) surfaced and was issued on CD with the five existing tunes.
Sixty eight years later, these recordings sound totally modern. He hear the ideas that would later surface in be bop in their musical infancy, but don’t let that scare you, this is jazz that’s fun to listen to.
I love the way Christian, given the space to stretch out (which he never had with Goodman) uses repetition of short phrases at the beginning of his solos to build the tension before letting loose on the longer passages. I love the vibe of these recordings, the way his guitar cuts through the late night din, you almost feel like you’re there at Mintons at 5 AM, you can almost hear the cigarette smoke.
Listen to Swing To Bop, Christian’s most extended recorded workout, Goodman never let him explore like he does here, it might just be the peak of his short career. Or his swinging Stompin’ At The Savoy. The other tracks– Up On Teddy’s Hill, Guy’s Got To Go, and Lip Flips
show us a side of Christian that was only hinted at in most of his recordings with Goodman.
I love everything about this album, it never grows old.
As far as his other recordings go, they’re all worth hearing, like Bird and very few others, every note Charlie Christian ever played is worth a listen. On the Goodman studio sides his solos are usually limited to four bars, which is quite frustrating, but a few fragments survive where he can be heard stretching out, of these non-commercial recordings my favorite is this short impromptu jam– Blues In B which was played for the radio engineer so he could get his mike levels straight. Here Christian plays his ass off, not having to worry about incurring Goodman’s “withering glare”. I also include his blazing solo recorded with Goodman’s big band, at the Hollywood Bowl on this version of Flying Home, Christian drives the whole band. Another great moment is this live aircheck of Solo Flight (Chonk Charlie Chonk), another example of just how advanced the man was.
At one point, in ’41 Goodman decided he would give up his big band and form a group with Count Basie, using Basie’s rhythm section– Joe Jones (drums), Walter Page (bass) and Freddie Green (rhythm guitar), along with Lester Young on tenor sax and Buck Clayton on trumpet. A great idea, especially if Goodman fired himself! The group lasted one rehearsal, part of which was taped. Here are two examples– Lester’s Dream and Charlie’s Dream from said rehearsal. It’s almost as if Goodman does his best (or worst) to keep Christian and Young from exchanging ideas, even cutting off Christian’s solo in Charlie’s Dream just as he gets warmed up. Despite Goodman’s inexplicable inability to let this band this band really swing. we hear two of the greatest soloists in jazz history backed by one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time.
Would have, should have, could have, it’s the story of life….
We’ll never know how far Charlie Christian would have gone musically, but these late night recordings are his best, and for my money among the most essential jazz recordings ever made.
They were never issued legitimately, and to this day remain available only as a bootleg. Had he lived, lord knows what Charlie Christian would have sounded like in the ensuing decades, but I’d bet he would have been using distortion and feedback by the fifties. The Mintons tapes show him already using sustain and the amplifier’s harmonic and sonic overtones, something it took other jazz guitar players years to come around to.
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, a perfect day to lay around and listen to the same record over and over again, and I can’t think of a better jazz record for such a purpose than Charlie Christian Live At Minton’s. It’s a like having a table in a smoky club at be-bop’s inception anytime you feel like it. I guess this is my deluxe version, with those last four cuts thrown in. My present to you readers who don’t already have a copy.
Benny Goodman fans, please hold the hate mail. I tried to like him, but compared to Charlie Christian he sounds constipated. Just my opinion, which are like assholes….