I’m aware that there are far larger things to get annoyed about, and I am sure that my ire is both pointless and the result of forty years in college classrooms, where accuracy was not always evident in my students’ work. But I attempt to be accurate when it is possible. When someone offers a factual correction to something I’ve written, I might hiss through my teeth, but I change my text. So the biographical sketch of Charlie Christian that follows is irritating in many ways.
December 1, 2006 Edward Southerland
It is not too far a stretch to say that everybody who plays the electric guitar owes something to Charlie Christian.
He was born in Bonham in 1916, but when his father, a waiter, suddenly became blind in 1918, the family moved to Oklahoma City. Christian began his musical career on the cornet, but soon gave it up for his father’s favorite instrument, the guitar.
The guitar took the young man to Los Angeles where he met one of the country’s most influential jazz critics and writers, John Hamilton. Bowled over by Christian’s uncompromising talent, Hamilton took the young man to the Victor Hugo restaurant in L.A. to meet Benny Goodman on August 16, 1939. Without telling the band leader, Hamilton set Christian on the bandstand. Goodman had the band play “Roseland,” a number he thought the guitar man would not be able to follow, but follow he did. After one pass, Christian took a solo, and then another and after 18 breaks, each different from the others, he had a job with the King of Swing.
Despite his success, Christian’s legacy to jazz faded after he died of TB and pneumonia in 1942 at the age of 25. When he died, Christian was brought home to Bonham to be buried. A few years ago, a Japanese jazz lover traveled half way around the world to find the grave of this all but forgotten musician, and Charlie Christian was forgotten no more. There is an exhibit about Christian in the Fannin County Historical Museum, each year Oklahoma City hosts a jazz festival in his honor, and once again, the young man with guitar is celebrated by music lovers everywhere.
Over the years, the Red River Valley has contributed more than most know to the music of the land, particularly in jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll and Western swing. Everyone knows Reba McIntire, the Oklahoma girl with the big voice, and Sherman remembers native son Buck Owens with his own section of U.S. Highway 82. Decades before these stars became icons others blazed trails of their own. Texoma has had its fair share of contributors to the world of music. These are just a few.
This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Texoma Living!.
Reading it, I wondered if the author had asked a friend for some facts and had heard them incorrectly through a bad phone connection. I amuse myself by writing here that “John Hamilton” played trumpet with Fats Waller, and that “Roseland” was a dance hall of note in New York City.
If I could draw, I would create a cartoon of Charlie’s magical transportation: “The guitar took the young man to Los Angeles . . . ” I do not know what to say about this assertion: “Despite his success, Christian’s legacy to jazz faded after he died of TB and pneumonia in 1942 at the age of 25.”
At least this writer didn’t “get the impression” that Charlie was a heroin addict, and he doesn’t say that he was discovered at a late-night jam session . . . both examples taken from the recent prose of a Jazz Authority, nameless here.
You might ask, “Don’t you have anything better to do, Michael, than take pot shots at someone writing in a ‘regional’ magazine about a subject they can’t be expected to be an expert on? I would tell you, “Yes, I have much better things to do: you should see my kitchen counter. I have laundry that’s piling up, and I should be walking more, blogging less.”
But we know that the internet grants permanence to assertions, and assertions become granite: so a small inaccuracy, repeated and blurred through repetition, becomes a major falsehood — and in that way, it feels like an insult to the dead, who can no longer stand up (not that mild-mannered Charlie would have) and say, “Quit making up that crap about me. It isn’t true!”
In a world where so much source material is available for people who no longer need to leave their chairs, I’d hope that more care would be taken by writers who want to be taken seriously. Had Mr. Southerland been a student in a freshman writing class of mine, had he handed this essay in, I would have written “no” and perhaps even “No!” in the margins and returned the essay with “Please see me” on the bottom and asked him to revise it — sprinkling in some facts, rather like oregano and crushed red pepper on pizza — if he wanted a passing grade.
I won’t go so far as to hypothesize that slovenly “research” indicates a laziness of perception, which is a failure of analysis resulting in a civilization’s slide into darkness. But I won’t stop you if you want to pursue that notion.
The good news is that Charlie Christian’s “legacy” is not “faded.” Consider this precious 1941 artifact, where he’s gloriously present next to Dave Tough, Johnny Guarnieri, Artie Bernstein, Cootie Williams, and George Auld:
I will paraphrase Lord Byron to say, “Southerland and his ilk will be read when Christian and Goodman are forgotten. But not until then.”
May your happiness increase!