JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


How was the guitar liberated from the big band rhythm section?

In the 1930s, the guitar was a part of the rhythm section. It did not solo except on very rare occasions. Mostly it was there to help sort of bind the drums, the bass, and the piano with a constant strumming. [Giddins demonstrates.] Basically, recapitulating what the bass player was doing but with richer chords.

A number of guitarists in 1930s started - became very accomplished soloists. Eddie Lang in the 1920s was a great soloist. But the problem they had with the big bands was that they couldn't be heard. There just was no way that the guitar could surmount the rest of the orchestra. I mean, you put them right up to the microphone but it still sounded sort of weak; until they started figuring out how to electrify using a solid- body guitar and putting amps onto it. And the first guy who really broke that ground was - he wasn't the first guy to play an electric guitar but the first guy to do it with genius and popularize it was Charlie Christian.

Charlie Christian was a young musician from Oklahoma. He was heard by Mary Lou Williams and John Hammond and some others and thanks to Hammond he auditioned for Benny Goodman. Goodman thought Hammond was nuts - "Who needs a guitar player? We already have a guitar player in the band." Anyway, he walks in at the rehearsal and Christian's all set up with his big amplifier, and he blew Goodman's mind. And so Charlie Christian became - until his early death in his 20s - became a major factor in the Benny Goodman sextet. And also played concertos that Goodman created for him, where the sound of the guitar surmounted the orchestra.

Well, once Christian opened that door the guitar disappeared from the rhythm section. Who needed it? And it became one of the great solo instruments. And then suddenly you have, you know, the generations of great jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall and on and on and on.