Oklahoma is possessed of a great many “halls of fame.” We’ve got ’em for journalists, educators, athletes, historians, musicians and — once upon a time before they changed the name of the building — cowboys.
The big kahuna, however, is the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, where you will find names of the obscenely wealthy and the politically powerful, even if you never heard of them. The occasional exceptions — writers, performers and the like — are tossed in for glitz and glitter and perhaps to suggest that money and power aren’t everything. Well, maybe they are. But before passing judgment, look at the surnames on the membership list. Surprisingly, no Christians are there.
No Charlie Christian, I should say.
There’s an annual event in Oklahoma named for him, so it isn’t as if nobody knows the name. Charlie Christian, the guitarist without whom American jazz would not have developed as it did. Charlie Christian, who invented the single-string solo on the amplified guitar, who named bebop by scat-singing the phrase as he played. Charlie Christian, who performed with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, and whose repertoire is always among the first to be available whenever the technology transitions from, say, 78 RPM to 33 1/3 RPM to compact disc to .mp3 to who-knows-what. Charlie Christian, the jazzy giant, the musical genius.
THAT Charlie Christian.
The question arises: Why isn’t he in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame?
Let’s see: He was black, but that can’t be it, because Ralph Ellison, Clara Luper, Alfre Woodard and now Kevin Durant are in it.
Well, then, he was born in Texas. But so was Gene Autry, and he’s in it. And, for the record, he couldn’t play the guitar worth squat.
OK, maybe it was the detail of substance abuse. That’s what killed Charlie Christian, although officially it was tuberculosis, contracted in the Oklahoma City tenement where he grew up.
Oklahoma jazzmen Wardell Gray and Chet Baker died on account of drugs, too, and they aren’t in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame either. But there’s Gene Autry again who was once so stoned that he fell off his horse before a large audience containing little kids who thought he was a hero. And there’s Mickey Mantle, but let’s not even start. As for Carl Albert, well, go find out what his “special assistant” had to say. Remember Suzi Park Thomson and Koreagate?
So, why isn’t Charlie Christian in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame?
Who knows? One supposes that the obscenely wealthy and the politically powerful do, so ask them. Or maybe there’s a quota system, and Charlie Christian is waiting in line, along with Oklahoman Jimmy Rushing who performed with Count Basie and who began his road to fame as a member of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils.
But it is difficult to understand the presence of Kristen Chenoweth and Blake Shelton, given those who are so conspicuous by their absence.
And if you think I couldn’t go on and on and on about Charlie Christian, think again.
Charlie Christian, who pioneered the electric guitar. Charlie Christian, who led the instrument out of the rhythm section and into the spotlight. Charlie Christian, whose influence stretched from Oklahoma around the globe.
Perhaps he and other legendary Oklahoma musicians — like Rushing and Baker — will be selected after 2016 nominations conclude March 4.
(Editor’s Note: In conjunction with the publication of this commentary, NonDoc has submitted a bare-bones form nominating Charlie Christian to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. The form notes that up to four letters of recommendation may be submitted in support, so if you are inclined, start writing. It is, after all, that thing we call Black History Month.)