Program : 
Swinging on a Riff: The Benny Goodman Sextet


Charlie Christian. Photo courtesy jazzwax.

On August 10th, 1939 the ‘King of Swing’ Benny Goodman was in a Los Angeles recording studio making his debut sides for Columbia Records. A young black guitar player walked in the door. Producer John Hammond described him as "a scared kid," wearing "a broad-brimmed Texas hat, very pointed yellow shoes, a green suit and a purple shirt." His name was Charlie Christian, 23 years old and fresh off the plane from his hometown, Oklahoma City. He had a guitar case in one hand and an amplifier in the other.


On first sight Goodman was not impressed with Christian, but later that night he couldn’t resist giving him a gig. John Hammond engineered a surprise audition for Christian on stage at Goodman’s club date. Irked to see the new guitarist on stage with him, Goodman signaled Christian to take a solo on “Rose Room”—thinking he would embarrass this ‘scared kid’ from Oklahoma. Charlie Christian’s spectacular solo stopped the show and the Benny Goodman Sextet was born.


Charlie Christian's innovative use of an amplifier while playing with the sextet allowed single-note guitar soloing to be heard in jazz as never before—and the guitar in its electrified form became an equal partner to horn soloists in jazz. Many original tunes recorded by the Benny Goodman Sextet were inspired by repeated melodic patterns, or "riffs," invented by Christian. This riff-based approach and Charlie Christian's fresh and original guitar solos set the Benny Goodman Sextet apart from other small jazz bands of the era.


Charlie Christian and Goodman Sextet reproduced from Solo Flight: The Charlie Christian Website with the permission of Leo Valdes.


This week on Riverwalk Jazz our guests are both lifelong devotees of the Benny Goodman Sextet. Former Jim Cullum Jazz Band clarinetist Allan Vaché and New Jersey-based tenor saxophonist Harry Allen join Cullum band clarinetist Ron Hockett on Swinging on a Riff: The Legacy of the Benny Goodman Sextet.


Photo credit for Home Page: Benny Goodman Sextet with members, clarinetist Goodman, guitarist Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams on trumpet, Georgie Auld on tenor sax, 1941.  Photo