When Jazz Guitarists First Plugged In

Charlie Christian (1939). Photo by Charles B. Nadell. Public Domain.
Mary Osborne and Tal Farlow (1954). Photo by: Micheal Ochs Archives, Getty Images.

When Benny Goodman returned to the stage at the Victor Hugo Restaurant in Beverly Hills after his band's dinner break, he was surprised—and not a little annoyed—to see an interloper sitting in the guitarist's chair.

The newcomer, a skinny African American from Oklahoma City, was decked out in a green suit and purple shirt, a florescent tie knotted around his neck, and pointed yellow shoes on his feet. On his lap sat an iridescent Gibson ES-150 guitar, its black pickup a scar across its midsection, a twisted cord dangling impertinently from its lower bout. The boxy Gibson EH-150 amplifier next to his chair emitted a low unsettling hum.

1939 Gibson ES-150
1938 Gibson EH-150 amplifier
1939 Gibson ES-150 and 1938 EH-150 amp. Photos by Retrofret Vintage Guitars.

The bandleader had met the guitarist, a 23-year-old named Charlie Christian, earlier in the day when Goodman's brother-in-law, the impresario John Hammond, brought the youngster over to Columbia Studios in Hollywood. Benny had been unimpressed then, and he now realized that Hammond had set the kid up on stage during the break to force an audition.

With the 10:00 pm set about to begin and the house packed with eager swing fans, Goodman had no choice but to allow the garishly clad guitarist to sit in. He promptly called for 'Rose Room,' a tune of 1917 vintage that he was sure the Midwesterner wouldn't know. After three fleet choruses, Benny passed the lead over to Christian.

Turning up the gain on his electric Gibson, Christian improvised his way through a first chorus with stunning ease, demonstrating that he not only knew the tune but knew it well. His amplified sound had an uncanny horn-like timbre, and his phrases cut through the din of the rhythm section like a knife through butter. He took another chorus, building on the first, and then another. After 20 more, he brought his solo to a triumphant conclusion, electrifying the room with his electric guitar.

The audience, stunned, rewarded him with uproarious applause, and immediately following the set on that August evening in 1939, a chastened Benny Goodman hired Charlie Christian to complete the bandleader's newly formed sextet.

It was the guitarist's big break, and after years of touring in near anonymity with territory bands, he would soon be known nationally and internationally as a pioneer of the electric guitar, and one of jazz's greatest soloists. But while Charlie Christian was one of the first jazz musicians to play an amplified instrument, he wasn't the very first.

That honor might belong to Eddie Durham. Like Christian, Durham was born in Texas, and he had made his way to Kansas City, Missouri, after playing in his family's band and in various circus orchestras and minstrel show outfits. In KayCee, he joined Bennie Moten's dance orchestra, doubling on trombone and guitar. On the former instrument he had no trouble being heard, but the 11-piece band often drowned whatever sounds he could produce on guitar. He quickly realized he needed some way to increase the instrument's volume.

Eddie Durham playing a resonator on 1935's "Hittin' the Bottle"

Using a National resonator guitar, Durham found that by holding its metal diaphragm up to a microphone, he could amplify the instrument enough so that he could be heard over the band. But it was awkward having to jump up and come down to the PA mic at the front of the stage whenever it was time for a solo. So he soon rigged up his own mic and a small amp made from an old radio, which meant he could solo right from his seat.

By 1935, Durham was using a commercially-made pickup, a DeArmond bar-style "guitar microphone," clamped to an acoustic guitar. "I made an attachment where I could play into the sound system," Durham told Douglas Henry Daniels in the book One O'clock Jump. Durham was using that rig with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra when he encountered Charlie Christian in Oklahoma City in 1937.

He recalled that Christian wasn't playing guitar. The younger musician was playing piano, but when he heard what Eddie was doing, Christian decided to switch instruments. "He had big eyes to sound like a saxophone," Eddie continued, and he showed the Oklahoman a few tricks for getting a horn-like sound out of an electric instrument. "Man, I never saw a fellow learn so fast, nor have I ever seen anyone rise to the top so quickly," Durham said. "The next thing I knew, Christian was a star with the Benny Goodman band!"

Before Charlie Christian hooked up with the King of Swing in Beverly Hills, though, he spent time on the road with the Alphonse Trent Orchestra, a small group based out of Kansas City. While Trent was performing in Bismarck, North Dakota, a young woman came to see the band, having heard about the guitarist who was amazing audiences with his amplified sound.

Seventeen-year-old Mary Osborne thought she was hearing a tenor saxophone soloing when she first entered the club, but then realized that the sound was coming from Christian's plugged-in Gibson.

"I remember hearing some of the figures Charlie played in his solos," Osborne told Al Avakian and Bob Prince for their liner notes to the 1955 album Charlie Christian With The Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra. "They were exactly the same things that Benny recorded later as 'Flying Home,' 'Gone With "What" Wind,' 'Seven Come Eleven,' and all the others."

MAry Osborne performing on the Jazz Party TV show, 1958

Osborne was so inspired by Christian's playing that she sought him out after the gig, and they briefly jammed together while Christian offered her tips on technique and shared musical ideas. He also told her where in town she could find a Gibson ES-150 and amp like his, and when Osborne visited the store a few days later, she found the guitar displayed in the window with a sign that read "As played by Charlie Christian, featured in the Al Trent Sextet."

Osborne was soon good enough on electric guitar that she joined pianist Winifred McDonnell's trio and toured extensively in North Dakota and Minnesota before heading east to Philadelphia and eventually New York City. It was there in 1941 that she gigged at Minton's Playhouse on 118th Street in Harlem, meeting and playing with the jazz greats Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Art Tatum and jamming with the bop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Later, she recorded with all four, inspiring critic Leonard Feather to call her a pioneer of modern jazz guitar and describing her as having an "exceptional beat" and an "aggressively swinging style."

Of all the great electric guitarists to come out of the jazz crucible of the American Midwest in the '30s, Floyd Smith is perhaps the least well known. Born in St. Louis in 1917, Smith received his first musical instruction on ukulele but then switched to banjo, joining the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in his late teens and playing with that band for several years.

By the mid-'30s, Smith was playing guitar, using an acoustic D'Angelico Excel for rhythm and soloing on a Vega electric. In 1939, when he joined Andy Kirk's famed Kansas City swing band, the Twelve Clouds Of Joy, he added another electric instrument to his arsenal—a Gibson EH-150 lap-steel guitar.

Though lap-steels had been used in Texas swing-style country music since the mid-'30s, Smith was the first to adapt the instrument to the jazz idiom. Not everyone was a fan of the steel's fluid, slurry sound—John Hammond called it "ghastly"—but Floyd used it to good effect on more than a few Kirk selections, scoring a national hit for Kirk's Clouds Of Joy with 'Floyd's Guitar Blues,' recorded shortly after he joined the band.

Floyd Smith playing lap steel on Andy Kirk's "Floyd's Guitar Blues"

Following his departure from the Clouds in the mid '40s, Smith worked with Coleman Hawkins, Horace Henderson, Illinois Jacquet, and many others, primarily on steel. In later years, though, he set aside his EH-150 and performed with the jazz organist Wild Bill Davis using a National Glenwood electric.

Electricity inevitably elevated the humble guitar to a position of prominence in jazz. It was Eddie Durham who first pioneered its transition to an electric instrument, thus enabling big-band players to solo audibly, and it was Floyd Smith who demonstrated the lap-steel's jazz capabilities. Charlie Christian and his disciple Mary Osborne went on to show that it was possible to improvise on an electric guitar with a virtuosity rivaling that of the best jazz horn soloists.

Today, jazz guitarists invariably plug in, using archtop and solidbody instruments played through a variety of amplifiers and effects to continue to expand the music's possibilities. Those possibilities, however, got their start in Kansas City nearly 90 years ago.

About the author: David Dann is a music historian, writer, and amateur musician who is the author of Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life In The Blues. For three decades, he was host of Crosscurrents, a jazz-and-blues radio program heard over WJFF in New York. He has also written about rare jazz recordings for his blog, Gems Of Jazz, at gemsofjazz.blogspot.com. His extensive archive of recorded jazz has supplied material to the Smithsonian Institution and to New York's Museum of Modern Art. Dann also maintains a trove of jazz ephemera, and he currently resides in New York's Catskills.

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