Christian was an important early performer on the electric guitar and a key figure in the development of bebop and cool jazz. He gained national exposure as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra from August 1939 to June 1941. His single-string technique, combined with amplification, helped bring the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the forefront as a solo instrument. John Hammond and George T. Simoncalled Christian the best improvisational talent of the swing era. In the liner notes to the album Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian (Columbia, 1972), Gene Lees wrote that “Many critics and musicians consider that Christian was one of the founding fathers of bebop, or if not that, at least a precursor to it.”
Christian’s influence reached beyond jazz and swing. In 1990, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influence.
In 2006 Oklahoma City renamed a street in its Bricktown entertainment district “Charlie Christian Avenue” (Christian was raised in Oklahoma City and was one of many musicians who jammed along the city’s “Deep Deuce” section on N.E. Second Street).
In 1939, Christian auditioned for John Hammond, who recommended him to the bandleader Benny Goodman. Goodman was the fourth white bandleader to feature black musicians in his live band: the first was Jimmy Durante, for whom the clarinetist Achille Baquet played and recorded in Durante’s Original New Orleans Jazz Band (1918–1920); the second was the violinist Arthur Hand, who led The California Ramblers, which, from 1922 to 1925, included the trumpeter Bill Moore, who was billed as the Hot Hawaiian; the third was Ben Bernie, whose band from 1925 to 1928 also featured Moore. Goodman became the fourth by bringing in Teddy Wilson on piano in 1935 and Lionel Hampton on vibraphone in 1936. Goodman hired Christian to play with the newly formed Goodman Sextet in September 1939.