The Story of Jazz Guitar

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While in its early days, jazz guitar was considered a rhythm instrument alongside the banjo of Dixieland. In 1940, Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
and his Gibson ES-150 changed that and elevated guitar to lead instrument status alongside the saxophone and trumpet—instruments that could acoustically cut through the sound of a piano-bass-drums rhythm section. Here, we encapsulate some of the progenitors of jazz guitar and their contributions to the music.

Chapter Index
  1. The Beginnings: Blind Lemon Jefferson
  2. Eddie Lang / Eddie Durham / Lonnie Johnson
  3. Django Reinhardt / Charlie Christian / Tiny Grimes
  4. Herb Ellis / Barney Kessel / Charlie Byrd
  5. Wes Montgomery / Kenny Burrell / Joe Pass / Jim Hall
  6. George Benson
  7. John McLaughlin / John Scofield / Mike Stern



The Beginnings: Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
1883 - 1929
vocalist
played the blues, the early blues in the 1920s and later, but he played long intricate solo lines to accompany his singing. These lines inspired his teenage guide of the time, T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker
1910 - 1975
guitar, electric
(later famous in the '40s as a jump/R&B player/singer) and, through him, Bobby King. If he was heard by jazz players, he must have had an influence. It is also likely that the "Spanish tinge" (a term used by Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
1890 - 1941
piano
to help explain the jazz of New Orleans) included Spanish guitar, with all its soloing: see for example the Spanish guitar composer Tarrega, active into the early 20th Century. Tarrega himself had been prone to running away from school as a child to hear gypsy music, so a possible gypsy element (pre- Django Reinhardt) may also have had an influence on the early jazz guitar.

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Eddie Lang / Eddie Durham / Lonnie Johnson



In any event, by the late-1920s-early-'30s two guitarists had become well known in jazz. The first was Eddie Lang

Eddie Lang
Eddie Lang
1902 - 1933
guitar
, famous for accompanying/playing with violinist Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti
Joe Venuti
1903 - 1978
violin
. Lang was also was an accompanist for Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
1903 - 1977
vocalist
. Although he died in 1933, his fame didn't and he is a jazz legend.

Here is a rare clip of Lang and Venuti, in color:



The American/Italian Lang also played with the black Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson
1899 - 1970
guitar
under a blues pseudonym, Blind Willie Dunn: Lonnie Johnson transcended genres, playing blues, folk blues and jazz, including a session with the early Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
Orchestra, where he is the featured soloist. Eddie Durham
Eddie Durham
Eddie Durham
1906 - 1987
multi-instrumentalist
was a little later: he was an arranger with Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
in the mid and late '30s. However, he is also known as the first utilizer of an electric guitar, though he did not solo to any extent. That was left to the incomparable Charlie Christian.

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Django Reinhardt / Charlie Christian / Tiny Grimes



In France in the early-'30s there was a young gypsy guitarist who had burnt two fingers of his fretting hand to the state of useless (?) appendages, in a caravan fire; Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
. Possibly still the most extraordinary guitarist to ever live, Reinhardt played American jazz tunes, with a few of his own also, such as "Swing 39" and the very famous slow tune "Nuages" ("Clouds").



While every person of intelligence who knows music knows Django Reinhardt, every jazz musician knows Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
. Possibly the inventor of modern jazz (because he was on record, in 1939 with Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
, before any of the others), his guitar style is very fluent and essentially not duplicable. It's too fluent. Despite his revolutionary music, like Eddie Lang he also died very young, in 1942 at the age of 25. This was when his great (eventual) successor, Wes Montgomery (see below), heard him as a nineteen year old and decided to play guitar.

Here is a clip of Christian's famous big band record "Solo Flight" with Benny Goodman's orchestra (1941):



Tiny Grimes
Tiny Grimes
Tiny Grimes
1916 - 1989
guitar
was not a very famous guitarist, but he backed/partnered Charlie Parker on his earliest ("indie") recordings in 1944. Soon many other guitarists also adopted the bebop style.

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Herb Ellis / Barney Kessel / Charlie Byrd



As bebop came to be replaced by cool jazz (Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
in New York and West Coast jazz), jazz guitar broadened into the musical mainstream. Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
1921 - 2010
guitar
, for example, was in the Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
Trio from 1952-'58 (replacing the Trio's earlier guitarist Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
1923 - 2004
guitar, electric
). Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
1925 - 1999
guitar
, (after studying with classical guitar maestro Andre Segovia, brought bossa nova to the world with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
on their 1962 album, Jazz Samba (Verve).

Later, all three of these guitarists would perform and record live at the Concord Jazz Festival and elsewhere as the Great Guitars unit, making many flowing recordings of classic jazz tunes.

A great Charlie Byrd album is Blue Byrd (Concord Jazz, 1978). He also recorded intricate solo versions of tunes including"Moonlight Serenade" and "Something."

Tal Farlow
Tal Farlow
Tal Farlow
1921 - 1998
guitar
was a very fast and fluid modern jazz guitarist who rose in the 1950s. In the clip below he talks about his influences and how jazz guitar existed in the earlier days. The tune played is Charlie Christian's "Airmail Special":





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Wes Montgomery / Kenny Burrell / Joe Pass / Jim Hall


By the end of January in 1960, Wes Montgomery

Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
had recorded his second album. Discovered a few months earlier at the age of 36, he changed jazz guitar by simply being extraordinary. For some people he is jazz guitar. Below, he plays Thelonious Monk's classic, "'Round Midnight":



Almost as famous, and almost as laid back, is Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
. A favorite guitarist of Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
, his Midnight Blue (Blue Note, 1960) is a midnight jazz classic, and much imitated. I still have to identify and levy deserved justice on the UCLA student organizer who did not schedule an accurate time listing of performers at a UCLA jazz and reggae festival in 2006, so that I and a Hollywood film editor I met at the festival both missed Burrell (he hardly ever plays). I did, however, see John Scofield:



Joe Pass
Joe Pass
Joe Pass
1929 - 1994
guitar
was a follow-on from the guitarists in group IV. Most famous as a solo performer, melody and chords blending in his brilliant style, he was an even bigger household name than Ellis, Byrd and Kessel. Indeed, he even physically resembled both Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt.



Jim Hall
Jim Hall
Jim Hall
1930 - 2013
guitar
came to prominence in the late-'50s-early- '60s playing with Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
1921 - 2008
clarinet
, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
and Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
. In this clip, with Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
, he plays fast clusters of notes that look towards George Benson:



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