Born Oct. 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Okla., Barney Kessel first came across the guitar while passing a music store on his paper route. He liked its look and the fact that it came with a booklet, "How to Play the Guitar in Five Minutes," which he believed. Although it took a good deal more than five minutes, Kessel learned to pick guitar by copying western-swing musicians he heard on the radio. He left school at 14 to begin his professional career and soon began working professionally in Ellis Ezell's band as a teenager - a standout in 1937 not only because of his youth but also because he was the only white musician in an all-black band playing black clubs throughout Oklahoma.
Kessel soon began to refine his playing, dropping the emphasis on vibrato for a hard-swinging but cleaner sound, which was emanating from the black music scene in Kansas City, Mo. Within a year he had his first electric guitar - the only person, he once said, with the newfangled amplified instrument within a radius of 400 miles. His style became modeled closely on that of fellow Oklahoman Charlie Christian, the black guitarist who played to great acclaim with the racially integrated Benny Goodman Sextet. Christian first heard of Barney Kessel on a visit home. The pair soon met but when Mr. Kessel had the opportunity to play with Christian at a jazz jam session, he told The New York Times in 1991, the experience inspired him to develop a style of his own. "I realized that I had been methodically lifting his ideas from records," Kessel said. "What was I going to play? All I knew was his stuff. There were two guys playing like Charlie Christian. I knew I had to find myself."
With Christian's encouragement, Barney Kessel moved to Los Angeles in 1942 and was soon on the road with a band fronted by the comedian Chico Marx. Kessel cut his first sides with the Chico Marx Orchestra in 1943, which at the time was being directed by former bandleader Ben Pollack. He was also busy in 1943 as guitarist for Les Brown; cutting a V-disc in March and he can be heard playing two live performances with Brown on Fanfare lp 30-130; the first, from the Army base in Miami, Florida in August, and the second at the Hollywood Palladium in November.
In the summer of 1944 Barney Kessel joined the Charlie Barnet big band appearing on the August 3rd smash hit recording of Skyliner. Later the same month jazz impresario Norman Granz cast Kessel in the innovative Jammin' the Blues, a classic 1944 short feature that was nominated for an Academy Award. A music video before the genre existed, the artistic black-and-white film required Kessel, as the only white musician in the all-black cast, to dye his hands black and perform in the shadows.
In the fall of the same year he cut his first sides with the Artie Shaw Orchestra. Kessel recorded more than 70 sides with Shaw throughout 1945 and part of 1946. His lyrical guitar can be heard to best advantage in the confines of the 1945 Shaw small band called the Gramercy Five. On sides like Scuttlebut, The Grabtown Apple, The Gentle Grifter, and Hop Skip And Jump, Kessel’s jazz guitar swings melodically, reminiscent of the guitar of his early idol Charlie Christian who had died of tuberculosis in March of 1942.
In December of 1945 there were more recordings and live dates with the Charlie Barnet big band and for much of the following year a good portion of his recorded output was split between the big bands of Barnet, Shaw, and Benny Goodman. It was in the fall and winter of 1946 that Kessel worked for Goodman; his first performances on record with the bandleader coming from an Armed Forces Radio Services Magic Carpet broadcast from Culver City, California in early October. Around the same time Norman Granz called upon Kessel again and on October 7th he participated in a live Jazz At The Philharmonic concert from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles backing Billie Holiday.
Barney Kessel completed his last Benny Goodman Show performance, to be issued on a record, in January of 1947. The following month, in what may well be the biggest 180-degree turn in jazz history, he recorded four tunes with the Charlie Parker All Stars that included Carvin’ The Bird and Relaxin’ At Camarillo. It is not surprising that when interviewed by The Los Angeles Times about Mr. Kessel jazz critic Nat Hentoff said, "He was a guy who could sit in and play with everybody. He had what jazz players call 'big ears,' meaning he had a great capacity to listen and to respond musically to what he was hearing."
California jazz impresario Gene Norman was also a fan of the jazz guitar styling of Barney Kessel. During the 1940s Norman’s radio programs were among the most popular in the Los Angeles market. He started his successful concert series, Just Jazz, in 1947, becoming the key presenter of jazz in Southern California. Barney Kessel was called upon to participate in the California concerts numerous times during the year. Possibly the most memorable was held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on August 4th. This was the day a Lionel Hampton led Just Jazz All Stars, which included Kessel, played a mind-boggling version of Stardust to a delighted crowd. Other Barney Kessel highlights of 1947 include an exercise called From Dixieland To Bop, recorded with a group fronted by reedman Lucky Thompson and housing Benny Carter as sideman. Waxed the same year was an obscure Capitol Jazz session led by Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard that included Red Norvo on vibes and Arnold Ross on piano.
From 1948 to early in 1951 Kessel’s guitar can be heard mainly in a studio musician’s capacity while playing on a number of Mel Torme and Billy May records for Hollywood’s Capitol Records. In November of 1951 however Kessel became the first guitarist in a new trio fronted by a young Canadian pianist named Oscar Peterson. Together, with Ray Brown on bass, this trio began recording some memorable sides for Norman Granz’s newly formed Clef record label that have subsequently been released in CD form on Verve. In 1952 Mr. Kessel toured the world (14 countries) with the Oscar Peterson trio and as part of Granz’s traveling jazz show called Jazz At The Philharmonic. Through 1953 this incarnation of the Oscar Peterson trio, often augmented by other musicians, were recorded often both by themselves and as a swinging backdrop to star vocalists and soloists like Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Lester Young and others.
In 1953 Barney Kessel began his recording career as a leader with the first of a series of small-group albums for the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label. Between the years 1947 and 1960, Kessel was rated the No. 1 jazz guitarist in many of the music polls in Esquire, Down Beat, Metronome and Playboy magazines but he was still having a hard time paying the bills. To make ends meet he became a fixture in Hollywood's recording studios. In this parallel career he was heard on movie and television soundtracks, in television and radio commercials, as well as on records by Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke and others.
In addition to being one of the first guitarists to go electric, Kessel told The Los Angeles Times in 1990 that he also was the first to record without a piano - truly propelling the guitar from background rhythm duties into the limelight.
As arranger and guitarist on a Julie London lp called Julie Is Her Name, recorded between October of 1955 and January of 1956, Kessel said, "We used guitar and bass only, and it was the first time anyone had played guitar accompaniment for a vocalist to sound like an orchestra." Of the 13 songs recorded for the album on the Liberty record label by Kessel, bass man Ray Leatherwood, and Julie London, Cry Me A River became a huge success commercially.
For the remainder of the 1950s Kessel did studio work, which included performing in various Verve studio orchestras led by Buddy Bregman. These Bregman led bands provided a solid kick as a backdrop for vocalists like Anita O’ Day, Ella Fitzgerald and even Bing Crosby. During the later 1950s he recorded often with other West Coast jazz musicians and session leaders like Shorty Rogers and Benny Carter on a variety of labels.
In the early 1960s Mr. Kessel can be heard playing in studio orchestras that backed the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Errol Garner, Lou Rawls and Mel Torme. His talents were also realized in somewhat cozier confines backing Billie Holiday, Bobby Troup, and on a number of fantastic small group sessions on the aforementioned Contemporary label as leader himself.
Over the years, as either a leader or sideman, Kessel recorded more than 60 albums, primarily with the Verve or Contemporary labels, ranging from Barney Kessel Volumes I and II in the early 1950s through Red Hot and Blues and Kessel Plays Standards in the late 1980s.
Behind the scenes Barney Kessel was musical director of Bob Crosby's television variety show; wrote songs for and produced records for Ricky Nelson as a Verve executive; and played on the soundtracks of such motion pictures as Cool Hand Luke.
Kessel, a member of the Jazz Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, owned Barney Kessel's Music World in Hollywood from 1967 to 1970, employing some of the first guitar technicians and attracting John Lennon, George Harrison and Eric Clapton as customers.
In addition to writing music, Kessel wrote columns for Guitar Player magazine and instruction manuals including the 1967 "The Guitar: A Tutor."
In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Kessel, Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis formed the touring group the Great Guitars and performed jazz standards -- at high standards. "We want to present the guitars in as many ways as possible, to dazzle you," Mr. Kessel told an audience at Charlie's in 1980.
His performing career ended after he had a stroke in 1992. He died at his home in San Diego.
Survivors to the jazz guitar legend included his fourth wife, Phyllis Van Doren and his two sons, David and Dan.
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