Composed by Benny Goodman; head arrangement worked out by Benny Goodman and the members of his Sextet.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Sextet(*) for Columbia on January 15, 1941(**) in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Arthur Bernstein, bass; Count Basie, piano; Jo Jones, drums.
The story of Charlie Christian (1916-1942) is in equal measures about his incredible brilliance as a jazz improviser, his pioneering activities in making the electric guitar a solo instrument, his short time in the national spotlight and his tragic early death. (He died of tuberculosis.)
Christian’s story is inextricably intertwined with that of Benny Goodman. Historians, including me, have largely reported the ironic story in which jazz critic, talent-scout, producer, and gadfly John Hammond transported Christian from his home in Oklahoma City in the summer of 1939 to California so that he could audition for a busy and distracted Goodman, but have not delved more deeply into the background story. That story is very much about Goodman’s ongoing efforts throughout the first half of 1939 to find a musician who could play the electric guitar in a way that suited him, which is to say at virtuoso level, and with great swing, and make him a part of a Goodman small group.
I think that a large part of why Benny was seeking a new instrumental voice at this time was because his associate in the Benny Goodman Trio and later Quartet, pianist Teddy Wilson, had left the Goodman organization in early March of 1939. Teddy had been a part of Benny’s musical life full-time since early 1936, and he provided BG with an enormous amount of inspiration as both an accompanist and as a soloist. Goodman, who always responded to inspired playing by musicians around him, was looking for another source of inspiration.
Curiously, Benny did not seek to replace Wilson with another high-powered jazz piano virtuoso. At first, BG just moved the capable Jess Stacy, the pianist in his big band, into Wilson’s role in the small groups. Stacy was an excellent accompanist, and a fine jazz soloist, but for whatever reason, he did not particularly inspire Goodman at that particular time. Perhaps this was because Stacy, who had joined the Goodman organization in mid-1935, had simply been around too long by then. (Jess would depart in the summer of 1939.)
After Stacy left, Benny rather inexplicably hired Fletcher Henderson as the pianist for both the big band and small groups. Although Henderson was a great, pioneering swing arranger, he was not a great pianist either in the technical sense or as an improviser. Also, his accompaniments tended to be clunky and old-fashioned. Nevertheless, Fletcher remained a member of the Goodman organization well into the fall of 1939. He finally departed in early December, being replaced by the excellent Johnny Guarnieri. It seemed as though Benny had decided through much of 1939 to diminish the role of pianist in his musical presentations.
Concomitantly, Goodman was seeking to enlarge the role of what in 1939 was an almost entirely new instrumental sound in jazz, that of the electric guitar. There were a few feelers extended in this quest before Charlie Christian appeared on the BG scene in August of 1939. Benny briefly used Leonard Ware (January 1939), George Rose (early May 1939), and then Arnold Covarrubias (Covey) starting in early July 1939. Covey, who apparently played only acoustical guitar, remained as the big band’s guitarist into March of 1940. (Charlie Christian, BG and Arnold Covey are pictured together in late 1939, above right.)
“Breakfast Feud” is basically a blues in the key of B-flat, but it is so much more than that because of the superbly inspired and swinging guitar playing of Charlie Christian. Here I am presenting the version of “Breakfast Feud” that was included in the Columbia LP set Solo Flight – The Genius of Charlie Christian, G 30779, (1972). That version contains four different Christian solos derived from four different takes of “Breakfast Feud,” spliced together. There are several reasons why I am doing this. First and foremost, to present a lengthy, concentrated example of Charlie Christian’s playing, in superb sound. These multiple examples of Christian improvisations on the same tune, all of which are different, demonstrate his great creativity as a jazz soloist. Also, we must remember that in the brief period during which Charlie Christian’s playing was on display before a national audience (mid-1939 to mid-1941), the recordings he made were limited to being issued on ten-inch 78 rpm records that could hold no more than roughly three and a half minutes of music. Within those constraints, he was rarely allotted more than a sixteen bar solo. Here we have ninety-six bars of Charlie Christian’s playing in one place. (1)
What is also rather astonishing about these four improvised solos, is that they are all taken at the same tempo. This is an indication that Benny Goodman, who undoubtedly set the tempos for each of these four separate takes, was incredibly focused on what he thought was the best tempo for this music, and that his internal time clock was amazingly precise and locked-in from take to take.
It is also noteworthy that BG was using Count Basie on piano and Jo Jones on drums for this recording date. Basie and Jones, of course, had functioned as one-half of a perfect rhythm section in the Basie band for several years (along with Freddie Green on acoustical guitar and Walter Page on bass). Beyond that, Basie was a superb, stimulating accompanist for jazz soloists, and Jones was a subtle yet propulsive rhythmic force on his drums and cymbals. (2) These men, along with Benny’s regular bassist, the powerful Artie Bernstein, provide all of the soloists on this recording with inspired and inspiring accompaniment.
The arrangement we hear in this performance, such as it is, is a minimalist framework for a string of excellent, indeed exuberant, jazz solos. (At right: Georgie Auld, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Christian – early 1941.)
Cootie Williams is the first soloist. His playing, which often featured him using a pixie straight mute inside the bell of his trumpet, and a rubber plunger cup he expertly manipulated outside of it using his left hand, was always colorful. In the early months of Cootie’s association with BG, Benny used him often and well to spice up the performances of not only the Sextet, but also of the big band. Here Williams swings hard through two choruses.
Benny follows Cootie, plays with a bubbly joy, keeping his solo (two choruses) in the juicy lower register of his clarinet. Wisely, Benny placed Count Basie’s cool, aphoristic piano solo, also two choruses, next. Then the fireworks begin. (At right – Charlie Christian and Georgie Auld – early 1941.)
The descending ensemble passage at the end of each chorus provides the springboard from which Christian bounds into his solos. It is remarkable how different each of these solos is from the others. All of them however, are cohesive musical statements that are played with authority and they swing mightily.
I have found that the writing of James Lincoln Collier in his biography of Benny Goodman often contains insights about Goodman’s music that are worthwhile. Here are some of his thoughts about the playing of Charlie Christian in the context of the Goodman Sextet: “Aside from bringing the electric guitar to national attention, he is best known for contributing ideas to the (incipient) bop movement which would begin to coalesce around 1942. For one thing, Christian used some of the upper notes of the chord–ninths and elevenths–more frequently than other jazz players. He was also prone to substitute a diminished chord for the dominant seventh in places. The boppers would eventually develop these practices to the point where chromatic alterations and the upper chord notes would be a major characteristic of the music. (***)
For a second thing, Christian liked to use long lines of unaccented eighth notes. This was in part due to the nature of his instrument. But it was also a matter of taste–Charlie Christian liked to run long lines. There is a surprising lack of syncopation in his work. This use of long lines of relatively uninflected notes also became a characteristic of bop.
(Also), Christian habitually phrased against the grain of a tune. Jazz musicians have always played asymmetrical phrases, but there is nonetheless a tendency to design a solo to match the two, four and eight bar segments most tunes are constructed of. Christian persistently played phrases of odd lengths–one of three and a half bars, followed by another of five, and then one or two–interjected at irregular points in the chorus. The use of disjunctive phrasing also was typical of bebop.
Finally, Christian frequently ended phrases on the second half of the last beat of a measure.This is the weakest point in a measure, and in most standard music ranging from the operas of Mozart to the worst material from Tin Pan Alley, phrases are ended at stronger points, often at the first beat of a measure.But this inclination to plunk down at a weak point also became a characteristic of bebop.
Charlie Christian was by no means the most important of the bebop fathers, nor was he essentially a bopper himself, although he undoubtedly would have been had he lived.” (3)
In addition to the brilliant solos played by Charlie Christian on this recording date, Benny Goodman also played with great panache. Indeed, BG’s level of inspired jazz on all of the various takes was very much on the same level as Christian’s, meaning it was sky-high.
It is difficult to overstate how important the Benny Goodman Sextet recordings featuring Charlie Christian were to beginning the process of the use of the electric guitar in jazz, popular music, and ultimately rock, where it is ubiquitous. Charlie Christian was the pioneer on that instrument, possessed of the right skills at the right time before the right people. He made the most of the opportunity presented to him by John Hammond and especially by Benny Goodman, and American music is richer because of that.
The recording presented here was digitally transferred and then remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(*) The group that made these recordings was comprised of seven musicians. The original Columbia 78 rpm disk that contained “Breakfast Feud” which was issued in 1941 (pictured above), carried the identification of the group as Benny Goodman …and His Sextet featuring Count Basie.
(**) All of the Charlie Christian guitar solos heard in the composite presented here were recorded on January 15, 1941. As best I can tell, that composite is made up of the intro and first chorus, Williams’s solo, Benny’s solo, Basie’s solo and Charlie Christian’s first chorus from the first take recorded on January 15, 1941, CO-29512-4. Christian’s second chorus is from the second take, CO-29512-3. His third chorus is from the fourth take that was issued by Columbia in 1941, CO-29512-2. Christian’s fourth chorus is the third take, CO-29512-1. The tenor saxophone solo by Georgie Auld on the composite and remainder of the performance also come from the fourth take.
(1) It appears that there are no less than eight separate full takes of “Breakfast Feud” extant, including three from December 19, 1940. That group had Ken Kersey on piano and Harry Jaeger on drums. For those who are interested in hearing all eight of these takes separately, they are included in the marvelous four CD set Charlie Christian – Genius of the Electric Guitar, Columbia Legacy B-2011 (2002). That set also includes most of the recordings Charlie Christian made with Benny Goodman, with excellent liner notes.
(2) At the time the recording presented here was made, Count Basie, despite having a great band, was suffering from the big band blues, meaning he was having big challenges keeping his band working. Benny Goodman, who always admired Basie’s magic at the piano, used Basie on a couple of recording dates at the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941 not only to partake in Basie’s playing, but also to help out a friend in need. Benny’s insistence that Basie’s name be displayed on the original Columbia record of “Breakfast Feud” is further evidence of BG’s kindness.
(***) It may be safely assumed that the informal playing sessions Christian had with the great pianist and arranger Mary Lou Williams while he was in New York had an effect on his thinking about harmony and chords. Christian had met and played with Williams in Oklahoma City while she was on tour with Andy Kirk’s band. This occurred before he was introduced to Benny Goodman by John Hammond. Williams is the person who suggested to Hammond in early 1939 that Christian was a great talent. She also was a continuing mentor and influence through the 1940s on the musicians who eventually developed the language of bebop, particularly Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
(3) Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, by James Lincoln Collier, (1989), 269.
Here is a link to a mind-blowing series of improvised choruses (three and a half minutes long) played by Charlie Christian on the swing era tune “Topsy.” This home-made recording was made on May 12, 1941, supposedy at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. The musicians who also play on this recording are Ken Kersey, piano, Nick Fenton, bass, and Kenny Clarke, drums. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ce9Jtl9D6FQ
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