Charlie Christian was amazing. I first heard him around 1941 or ’42, There were ten-cent vending machines then — like juke boxes, but with pictures. You put in a dime or quarter, and you could see the most popular people of the day. That’s how I first saw Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan. And that’s how I saw Charlie Christian.
I was still in Indianola, Mississippi at the time. To me, Charlie Christian was a master at diminished chords. A master at new ideas, too. And he was kind of like a governor on a tractor. I used to be a tractor driver, and if a tractor is bogging down in the mud, the governor will kick in and give it an extra boost.
Christian was the same way — when the band would hit the bridge, he would keep the whole thing flying, and get it really taking off. Barney Kessel plays a lot like him, but with ideas that are more of today.
Charlie didn’t fluff notes much, either. A lot of us slide into notes because we aren’t sure. Like if you want to hit a Bb, you hit a B and slide down into it, or hit an A and slide up. But Charlie Christian knew. He was so sure. It really bugs me when someone plays a little flat or a little sharp. All the notes that you play in my band have to relate to the actual pitch. Like if the pitch of C were one inch wide, you could play at the outer edge of that inch, or at the inner edge, but if you get even a tiny bit outside that inch it bothers me. I always play right in the center. I may slide up or down, but I always land in that center.