Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 81 - Charlie Christianís Last Performance
Story filed December 31, 2003

Most jazz fans know Charlie Christian as the all-time master of the jazz guitar, a pioneer on the electric guitar who influenced generations of musicians. Most also know he died much too young at the age of 25. But, how many realize that the jazz legendís final public performance was in Northern Ohio?

It was at the Cedar Point Ballroom in Sandusky in June of 1941. Christian and the other members of the Benny Goodman Orchestra were kicking off the summer dance season with a six-night engagement at the Cedar Point Coliseum Ballroom. At the time, the big bands were a bigger attraction at the amusement park than the roller-coasters. According to Goodman biographer Russ Connor, "Christian became ill during a one-week gig." There was nothing in the Cleveland newspapers at the time, but I found an item in the Cleveland News saying Goodman switched the song line-up for his network radio broadcast at the last minute, apparently because of the illness of his star guitarist. Christian had been diagnosed with tuberculosis more than a year earlier. Biographer Ross Firestone wrote, "Charlie collapsed and was rushed back to New York where he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital." After his appearance at Cedar Point, Christian never again played in public.

Christian had burst on the national scene less than two years earlier after pianist Mary Lou Williams recommended him to Goodmanís record producer John Hammond, who arranged an audition that amazed Goodman. Christian almost immediately became a featured member of Goodmanís sextet.

Christian was with the Goodman Orchestra when it came to Cleveland in October of 1939 to play for a bizarre combination rodeo and swing concert at Cleveland Stadium. Seventeen people were injured when a rodeo bull got loose and jumped into the grandstand. The next day in New York, Christian and the Goodman sextet recorded the now classic "Seven Come Eleven."

The amazing young guitarist also took part in the historic 1939 Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. He performed with Goodman and with a group that included Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Freddie Greene, Walter Page and Jo Jones. Three months later, in March of 1940, Christian fell ill in Chicago. Goodman sent him to a doctor who discovered TB, but Christian went with the band to California for the next seven months. When they got back to New York in the fall of 1940, Christian frequently went uptown, after playing with the Goodman band at the Hotel Pennsylvania, and sat in with a group of young musicians during jam sessions at a Harlem club called Mintonís Playhouse. They were laying the groundwork for the new form of jazz called bebop.

Christian also continued to tour with the Goodman band. They came to Cleveland and played at the Trianon Ballroom at 9802 Euclid Avenue November 24, 1940.

At the end of December of 1940, Christian and the Goodman band played in Youngstown and returned to Cleveland for a private New Yearís Eve dance at The Country Club in Pepper Pike. While in Cleveland, Christian stayed at the Vendome Hotel and sent a note to his old friend, Mary Lou Williams, who was also in town with the Andy Kirk band playing at the Trianon Ballroom.

While battling tuberculosis, Christian continued to amaze the music world with his guitar.

A fairly unsophisticated young man, he continued to burn his musical candle at both ends, by recording and playing dances and concerts with Goodman, and jamming after-hours with the young bopsters in Harlem.

After Christian collapsed at Cedar Point, Goodman rushed him back to New York while the band completed its Cedar Point engagement and moved on to the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. After spending three weeks at Bellevue Hospital, Christian was transferred to the Seaview Hospital, a sanitarium on Staten Island. Goodman biographer Firestone quoted band member Jimmy Maxwell saying, "So-called friends would come by with an ounce of pot and some bottles and a couple of professional girls from uptown, thinking they were giving him a good time, when they were only speeding him along on the way out."

While Christian was at the sanitarium, Goodman and the other members of the band came to Cleveland, in January of 1942, to play a joint concert with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Music Hall at East 6th and St. Clair.

Christian had been at the sanitarium for almost eight months when he died of chronic pulmonary tuberculosis March 2, 1942 at the age of 25. Despite only two years in the national jazz spotlight, there is no question that Christian was one of the most influential musicians in jazz history, a musical god that all other jazz guitarists, including Clevelanders Bill de Arango, Fred Sharp and Jim Hall, tried to emulate.

Copyright 2003 Joe Mosbrook


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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrookís Cleveland Jazz History book is available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.