Vail Daily column: How a three-fingered Gypsy and electricity changed Jazz guitar forever
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. With an acoustic guitar, the vibration of the strings resonate in the body of the guitar and we “hear” the guitar. In an electric guitar, a pickup converts the vibration of the strings into electrical impulses and with the advances in electronics, all manner of sound can be created. 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 the today. Separated by an ocean and culture, each in his own way 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.
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Django was badly burned in a camp fire at the age of 18, losing the use of two fingers on his left hand. He overcame the disability by inventing a unique fingering technique and by the ’30s, he was touring internationally and 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 more than 80 years and propelled the guitar to the top of the world of jazz before the invention of the 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 of 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. Charlie 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 25, less than three years after joining Goodman.
John Pizzarelli, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo are three of the top jazz guitarists in the world today, each having been greatly influenced by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, as have generations of guitarists before them. Vail Jazz is pleased to present these jazz giants in Vail during the 20th anniversary Vail Jazz Festival.
Pizzarelli will be the guest soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater tonight. Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo will be sitting in at the “Jazz After” jam with members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday evening at Larkspur, playing at the Jazz @ Vail Square show on Thursday evening and performing on the Vail Jazz float in the July Fourth parade in Vail. For tickets to any of these jazz guitar performances, visit vailjazz.org.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org.