Legendary guitar player Charlie Christian will be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame this fall. The news was announced today during a luncheon at the Gaylord-Pickens Museum.
NonDoc is the nominating sponsor of Christian, having submitted applications on the musical legend’s behalf in each of the past three years.
BLAC director: ‘I thought it was long overdue’
Anita Arnold is the executive director of the Black Liberated Arts Center (BLAC), an OKC-based organization devoted to preserving and raising awareness about Oklahoma’s black artists.
“I was very excited,” Arnold told NonDoc after she learned Charlie Christian would be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. “I was really almost overwhelmed because I just didn’t expect it. It came as quite a surprise, and I thought it was long overdue because Charlie Christian is in every major music hall of fame in the world. We have embraced Charlie Christian down here in Oklahoma City for a long time.”
Arnold has been an enormous part of promoting Charlie Christian all these decades after his death. She has written a book about Christian and helped found the annual Charlie Christian Music Festival, which has returned to OKC after a brief stint in Lawton. This year’s festival will feature a June 1 jam session at Level III in Bricktown and a June 2 supper-club setting at the Montellano, 11200 N. Eastern Ave.
Musician: Charlie Christian a ‘true pioneer’
Charlie Christian was born in Bonham, Texas, in 1916 and moved to Oklahoma City early in life. He attended Douglass High School and began playing the guitar as a teenager, ultimately becoming such a notable player that he joined the Benny Goodman Sextet. Goodman was one of the first mass-marketed white musicians to integrate his band.
Christian is largely credited with developing the single-string guitar solo and helping transform the now-electrified guitar from a rhythm instrument to the focal point of modern American music. He also coined the term “bebop,” helping develop that form of jazz.
“The contributions Charlie Christian has made to music — especially regarding guitarists coming out of the background and into the spotlight — are too great to ignore,” said Jeff Mims, an Oklahoma City musician who wrote letters of support for Christian’s nomination. “Hearing that Charlie Christian will be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame is by far the best news I’ve heard this year. I am proud Oklahoma is finally recognizing this true pioneer.”
Arnold: ‘There was nothing much about Charlie Christian out there’
Arnold’s crusade to preserve the memory of Charlie Christian and honor his work led her to personally unearthing information about the musician that had not been chronicled elsewhere.
One year, in an attempt to raise funds for the Charlie Christian Music Festival, Arnold traveled to some of the nation’s most prominent museums in search of details about his life.
“As I dug into the research, there was nothing much about Charlie Christian out there. I had gone to the Kennedy Center in DC, and in their music library they had a paragraph in one book, and it was mostly wrong,” Arnold recalled. “I think they said he was born in Dallas, Texas, and actually he was born in Bonham. And they didn’t have his birthday right. Stuff like that. I thought, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’ So then I went to the Smithsonian Library and I looked up Charlie Christian, and they had maybe two paragraphs, and it was mostly wrong. And I thought, ‘My goodness, there’s just not very much out there!'”
Arnold collected information about Christian, eventually meeting his daughter and publishing a book about the musical legend. She said the Oklahoma Hall of Fame’s decision to induct Christian has made her “absolutely thrilled.”
“It’s something that makes me smile after all these years I’ve been at it — for 30 years — pushing Charlie Christian out there,” Arnold said. “That’s 76 years since his death that he’s finally made it to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. I think that’s monumental.”
Rep. George Young (D-OKC) wrote a letter of support for Christian’s OKHOF nomination this year. He agreed with Arnold and said he is honored to be part of the effort to recognize Charlie Christian’s worldwide influence.
“One of the great and amazing things about my getting acclimated to being an Oklahoman has been discovering the state’s rich African American history,” Young said. “Learning about the contribution of a Charlie Christian to the music world has been wonderful. What an honor it is to be part of recognizing the great Charlie Christian.”
Arnold said she hopes the induction fosters even more discussion about Christian in Oklahoma, especially among younger people.
“I look at it as a great opportunity,” she said. “Since the Hall of Fame has been doing some workshops about Charlie Christian, I hope all of that will not only continue but expand.”
Six other inductees announced
The Oklahoma Hall of Fame will also induct six other new members Thursday, Nov. 15, in Tulsa:
- Paul Allen, founder of Advance Food Co. in Enid.
- Mo Anderson, co-owner of Keller Williams Realty from Waukomis
- Ree Drummond, author and chef from Pawhuska
- David Rainbolt, executive chairman at BancFirst Corp. in Oklahoma City
- Jon R. Stuart, CEO of First Stuart Corporation in Tulsa
- Carrie Underwood, seven-time Grammy-winning singer from Checotah
Underwood had been chosen for induction in 2017 but was unable to attend the ceremony after she fell at home while walking her dogs.
(Correction: This article was updated at 2:15 p.m., Sunday, May 20, to note accurate details about the location of this year’s Charlie Christian Music Festival. NonDoc regrets the error.)