Jazz improvisation: Waitin’ for Benny

August 10, 2011 • 5:00 am

I can’t believe I found this on YouTube, as this specimen of jazz improvisation is pretty obscure.  A few days ago I put up the song “Rose Room” by Benny Goodman and his sextet, featuring Charlie Christian on the electric guitar.  Idly entering “Waiting for Benny” in the search engine, I found that that song was on YouTube as well.

I’m putting it up because it’s the only recording I know that shows the actual birth of a jazz melody during an improvised jam session.

On March 13, 1941, some members of Goodman’s group were waiting for the boss to arrive in the studio.  These included Cootie Wiiliams on trumpet (formerly a famous member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra), Georgie Auld on tenor sax, Johnny Guarnieri on piano, Artie Bernstein on bass, Dave Tough on drums, and Charlie Christian on guitar.  The engineers did a sound check while the group was warming up, and recorded it, capturing an amazing session.

Christian starts noodling around, and then, at 1:30 into the recording, comes up with a theme.  The other players riff on it (Cootie does great trumpet work) until the boss arrives five minutes in, when the engineer says, “Stand by—ten seconds.”  It’s is a superb example of how accomplished jazz musicians can put together a great piece on the spot.

The theme was later recorded and released by Goodman as a regular song: “A Smo-o-o-oth One,” which you can hear here. I have “Waitin’ for Benny” on the CD “Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar.”

I notice that Goodman gets credit for the composition of “A Smo-o-o-oth One,”, although he had almost nothing to do with it. He was famously a real s.o.b. as a boss.

Charlie Christian was an amazing guy, the first jazz musician, I think, to fully realize the possibilities of the electric guitar (Django Reinhardt is also famous for jazz guitar, but was more of a one-off). Christian was also a huge influence on bebop.  And he made all his contributions before he died of tuberculosis (exacerbated by wild living) at age 25.

Charlie Christian

21 thoughts on “Jazz improvisation: Waitin’ for Benny

  1. This is somewhat off-topic, but I have got to share this with people who can appreciate it. Yesterday, I stopped in to return some books at my local library branch, and I noticed that they had a book card with a sine reading, “Sale Books $1 Each”. I gave it the once-over, and didn’t find much of interest, but on one of the lower shelves was a set of music CD cases and a 5″x5″ hardcover book rubber-banded together. I picked it up, and it turned out to be a 16-cd set of the Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.

    Just to be sure, I asked the volunteer if it was $1.00 for the entire thing, and assured it was, I put the buck in the box.

    When I got home, I looked up the set on Amazon and was bowled over to find out that it was a limited edition, issued in 1993, and the price for a brand-new set was $185.89 and the lowest price for a used set was $139.00. I felt like I’d struck gold. Okay, I will now allow you to express your envy and congratulate me.

  2. I have no speakers or headset at work, so I’m always on the back foot on this stuff, since i can’t listen to it.

    Charlie Christian was instrumental* in popularizing the electric guitar. The Gibson company came out with their ES-150 electric guitar in the mid 1930s. Unamplified guitars were fine for accompaniment, or “comping”, but were completely buried under the horns when soloing. Christian was an early adopter of the ES-150, and that guitar and especially that early distinctive hexagonal pickup became associated with him, even though there was no endorsement deal between Christian and Gibson. There are a couple of companies that still manufacture hand-wound “Charlie Christian” pickups for guitarists desiring that great sound. You can see his weenie little amp in Jerry’s post from the other day. Probably under 10 watts and prone to distortion when turned up over 4 on the volume.

    *Sorry about that.

    1. A minor correction- The amplifier pictured is not the one that he is most known for using. The classic Christian amp is a Gibson EH-150 “Electric Hawaiian”. 15 watts and a 10″ speaker. This is also what Django used with Ellington.

  3. Django was (exclusively) an acoustic guitarist, of course. But a one-off? If that means unique, OK.

    Famous is the story where Segovia approaches him at a party, after having listened to his playing for a few minutes. Segovia asks where he can buy the music for that piece. Django laughs and says he has just been improvising.

    1. Django is legendary of course, but not precisely a one-off. Argentinean swing guitarist Oscar Aleman was a contemporary of Django’s in the Paris club scene and for my money just as innovative and technically virtuosic.

      1. I’m also not quite sure what you mean about Django being a one-off. Besides Oscar Aleman, there are a number of guitarists who try to emulate Django’s style, but most of the ones I’ve heard are proficient imitators who sound good, but don’t really move the ball forward. However, there’s a guy in Chicago by the name of Alfonso Pontecelli who plays music inspired by Django, but then does his own thing with it. He’s a regular at the Green Mill (a historical club worth visiting in it’s own right) and also plays at Katarina’s. He might also be a “one off”, but he’s great!


        Straying slightly off topic, here are some other fantastic gypsy musicians(not jazz)who deserve wider recognition…

        Tony Iordachi:


        Romica Puceanu:

    2. Reinhardt played electric guitar when he was with Duke Ellington after WWII. But the stuff we all think of as classic Django was all acoustic.

  4. It’s a nice story but I don’t buy it. Williams already knows the tune–including the last 2 bars, not just the riff–the very first time through, and the tenor nails it the second. Then they all know the changes for the bridge already.

    Charlie Christian helped invent bebop–he was present at the sessions at Minton’s in Harlem where Monk, Gillespie, and a few others laid the foundation for Bird to build upon. Great, great player.

    1. Very cute. 🙂

      That added major 6th in the final guitar strum was nice. Perhaps it was employed to echo the major 6th (Dorian inflection) contained in the original theme? OTOH, major triads w added major 6ths are pretty common final chords in jazz (the so-called Hollywood 6th).

      I’ve never heard so many portamenti.

      I wonder what they would’ve done to the second mvt?

      1. There are a few other versions with the same three people if you search youtube. I particularly love the bass-line Rheinhardt provides at 1’06. Rock on!
        I’m smitten with all the portamenti. Violin kittens: smooth delicat(e) and purring.

      1. That was very true to the original – just F****** amazing that he can do it on of all instruments a banjo.
        I think Bachs music wil do even on steeldrums. It’s so versatile, bendable and clear.

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