How a three-fingered man and electricity changed jazz forever
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
Long before the amplification and electrification of musical instruments, there was a simple truth: the louder you could play, the more likely you would be heard. In jazz, tubas overwhelmed basses, trumpets trumped guitars, and so on. Brass bands dominated in early jazz and guitars were like children of the day, they could be seen but were not to be heard.
Amplification leveled the playing field (pun intended). Amplify a bass and out goes the tuba, replaced by a more lyrical way of keeping time. Do the same for a guitar and it has a “voice” that can be heard alongside the other instruments in the band. Electrify the guitar or the bass and a star is born. And while the sound output of an instrument can be enhanced by amplification, the electrification of an instrument not only increases the potential volume of sound output, but in most cases, changes the sound the instrument is capable of making. An acoustic guitar has a sound that if properly amplified, still sounds like an acoustic instrument. An electric guitar can sound pretty much like anything you want it to sound like.
Initially the banjo was featured in small jazz ensembles, but over time the guitar replaced the banjo, joining the piano, drums and bass as a member of the rhythm section. The ability to strum a guitar in a rhythmic fashion allowed it to become an important instrument used to reinforce the beat and that is where the guitar sat for a long time. However, in the 1930s things began to change, brought about by two of the most important early jazz guitar players of today. Separated by an ocean and culture, each set in motion a dramatic shift in the role of the guitar in jazz. One was a three-fingered Gypsy from France, Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt, and the other, Charlie Christian, the African-American son of a blind itinerant blues singer from Texas. Neither of them could read music, but that didn’t matter. Django was badly burned in a campfire at the age of 18, losing the use of two fingers on his left hand. He overcame the disability by inventing a unique technique. By the 1930s, he was touring internationally, becoming one of the most important jazz guitarists of all time. As a founding member of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, he invented a style of jazz that has been played for over 80 years and propelled the guitar to the top of the world of jazz before the invention of the electric guitar.
Embracing Electric Guitar
Christian was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace the electric guitar as his instrument of choice. It is said that he was influenced by the use of the electric guitar in Western Swing music. Joining Benny Goodman as a member of his sextet in August 1939, it was rare for an African-American to play in a white band at the time, but Goodman had already broken the race barrier with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. Christian was a prodigious improviser and an important participant in the transitioning of jazz from swing to bebop. Using his single-string technique on an electric guitar to move the instrument to the front of the band, Christian helped change the direction of jazz forever. Unfortunately for the world, he died at age 25, less than three years after joining Goodman.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is re-adapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit vailjazz.org.
See something new at the 16th annual Vail Film Festival, screening over 40 films Thursday to Sunday.