Charlie Christian, who helped establish the electric guitar as a frontline instrument in jazz, was born on this day (July 29) in Bonham, Texas, in 1916. After a period of busking on the streets of Oklahoma, where his family moved shortly after his birth, Christian experienced a big break when he was noticed by clarinetist Benny Goodman, who formally asked the guitarist to join his band in 1939. Among their earliest recordings together was the tune “Solo Flight,” a breezy swing piece that would establish Christian as one of the earliest guitar heroes in jazz. Using new technologies for amplification, Christian pioneered the technique of constructing fluid, single-note lines on the guitar, similar to what one might hear from a trumpet, clarinet or saxophone. In doing so, he became a major — thought often unheralded — force in the development of bebop and other contemporary jazz genres.
Sadly, Christian wouldn’t live to see the fruits of his musical contributions. He died in 1942 — almost one year to the date the “Solo Flight” recording was made — at just 25 years old. An inspiration to Wes Montgomery, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker and countless others, Christian’s influence continues to reverberate today. And not just in jazz. In 1990, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a testament to his outsize impact on the direction of popular music.