Barney Kessel was a guitar innovator who came to prominence during the 1940s with the rise of bebop jazz. Like many players of his time, his primary influence was a young African-American guitarist named Charlie Christian who had joined Benny Goodman in 1939. Unlike most guitarists of the time, Christian relied on electric guitar, making its acoustic counterpoint seem passé to many young players. Christian, however, died of tuberculosis in 1942, and it would be left to electric guitarists like Kessel to explore the progressive chord patterns and emphatic pacing of be-bop jazz.
Kessel was born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and bought his first guitar at age 12. Two years later he joined a local band, and even though Muskogee was a small town, he found other musicians to jam with, after hours. "Barney absorbed the pulsating beat of jazz," wrote Nat Hentoff in the liner notes to The Poll Winners, "the way most of us absorbed the multiplication tables." An opportunity to play with idol Charlie Christian was a life-changing experience for Kessel, inspiring the young protégée to move to Los Angeles a year later. There he found work as a dishwasher while he searched for gigs. Soon Kessel landed a job with the Chico Marx Band, and over the next few years he played with Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and Hal McIntyre. He also appeared in Jammin' the Blues, an Oscar-nominated movie short.
Kessel's big break came in 1947 when he recorded with one of the innovators of be-bop, saxophonist Charlie Parker. The young guitarist's single note style, like that of Christian's, fit in well with the new musical sound, and Parker allowed him ample room to solo. This provided a launching pad that eventually landed Kessel a steady job with the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1952. Pianist Peterson was a leading light in early 1950s' jazz, and following the induction of its newest member, the trio departed on a 14-country tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Kessel also recorded with singer Julie London in 1955, including a celebrated rendition of "Cry Me a River" that became a popular standard.
Kessel recorded Easy Like for Contemporary Records in 1953, his first album as a leader. Over the next few years he recorded Kessel Plays Standards (1955), To Swing Or Not to Swing (1955), and Let's Cook (1957) for the label. "Guitarist Barney Kessel's string of recordings for Contemporary in the 1950s," wrote Yanow, "included some of the finest work of his career." In addition to these fine achievements, Kessel recorded a series of albums with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, including The Poll Winners (1957), The Poll Winners Ride Again (1958), and The Poll Winners Three! (1959). The albums were initiated when each of the players won Metronome, Downbeat, and Playboy polls in 1956. Stan Britt noted in the book Masters of Jazz Guitar that these albums did an excellent job of "showcasing the guitar trio format and demonstrating how well the guitar could substitute for piano in a jazz setting." Kessel also continued to win Downbeat 's Guitarist of the Year until the rise of Wes Montgomery in the 1960s.
Kessel recorded less frequently throughout most of the 1960s, but returned to a higher profile in 1968 to take his place on a European tour as a member of the Guitar Workshop (with George Benson, Larry Coryell, Jim Hall, and Elmer Snowden). In 1969 he moved to London, but returned to the United States in 1970 and busied himself with session work, including completing a soundtrack for an Elvis Presley movie. Kessel soon tired of studio work, however, and happily joined guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd for a tour of Australia in 1974. The trio became known as the Great Guitars, and would tour and record together for nearly 20 years. "Great Guitars' portentous name carries enormous expectations," wrote Yanow. "But with world-class talent like these three ... the music is usually worthy of the billing, genially swinging and harmonically erudite."
Kessel recorded a series of solo albums for Concord Records in the 1970s, including Barney Plays Kessel (1975) and Soaring (1976). One of his strongest efforts for the label was a reunion with the Poll Winners, 15 years after the trio's last recordings. Writing about The Poll Winners Straight Ahead, Yanow declared, "Overall this is the best all-around recording by the Poll Winners and is easily recommended to bop fans." Kessel also teamed up with guitarist Herb Ellis, a former member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, for Poor Butterfly in 1976, and recorded an unaccompanied album, Solo, in 1981. Later in the 1980s he released two more albums on Contemporary, Spontaneous Combustion (1987) and Red Hot and Blues (1988). In 1992, however, while on an Australian tour with the Great Guitars, Kessel suffered a major stroke that left him unable to perform.
For the Record . . .
Born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, OK.
Joined the Chico Marx Band, 1943; appeared in the film short Jammin' the Blues, 1944; played with Charles Barnet, 1944-45, and Artie Shaw, 1945; toured with Oscar Peterson Trio, 1952-53; recorded a series of albums as a leader for Contemporary, 1950s; recorded with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne as the Poll Winners, 1950s-1970s; worked as a studio musician, 1960s; recorded Limehouse Blues with Stephane Grappelli, 1969; joined Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd in the Great Guitars, 1973; recorded a series of albums for Concord, 1970s; recorded his final two solo albums, Spontaneous Combustion and Red Hot and Blues for Contemporary, 1987-88.
Addresses: Record company— Concord Records, 2450-A Stanwell Dr., Concord, CA 94520, website: http://www.concordrecords.com.
On June 25, 1997, a tribute was held in honor of Kessel at the Danny and Sylvia Kaye Playhouse in New York City. "It just might have been the most important night ever in jazz guitar history," remarked Cindy Benedetto in Jazz Guitar. Thirty guitar players were in attendance, including newcomers like Howard Alden and Jimmy Bruno, who had developed within the bop tradition. The Great Guitars also made an appearance, with Kessel's spot being filled by the great Tal Farlow. The highlight of the evening came when Kessel himself walked unassisted to the microphone and thanked his friends for the warm tribute. "The tribute was a very moving experience and I don't think anyone there that night will ever forget it," wrote Benedetto. "It's not likely that that many great guitarists will ever be reunited again in one night."
Easy Like, Contemporary, 1953.
Kessel Plays Standards, Contemporary, 1955.
To Swing Or Not to Swing, Contemporary, 1955.
Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By, Contemporary, 1956.
Let's Cook, Contemporary, 1957.
Barney Kessel Plays "Carmen," Contemporary, 1958.
Some Like It Hot, Contemporary, 1959.
Barney Kessel's Swingin' Party at Contemporary, Contemporary, 1960.
Workin' Out, Contemporary, 1961.
Autumn Leaves, Black Lion, 1968.
Feeling Free, Contemporary, 1969.
Limehouse Blues, Black Lion, 1969.
Yesterday, Black Lion, 1973.
Just Friends, Sonet, 1973.
Barney Plays Kessel, Concord, 1975.
Soaring, Concord, 1976.
Poor Butterfly, Concord, 1976.
Live at Sometime, Storyville, 1977.
Jellybeans, Concord, 1981.
Solo, Concord, 1981.
Spontaneous Combustion, Contemporary, 1987.
Red Hot and Blues, Contemporary, 1988.
(With Ray Brown and Shelly Manne) The Poll Winners, Contemporary, 1957.
(With Ray Brown and Shelly Manne) The Poll Winners Ride Again, Contemporary, 1958.
(With Ray Brown and Shelly Manne) Poll Winners Three!, Contemporary, 1959.
(With Ray Brown and Shelly Manne) Exploring the Scene, Contemporary, 1960.
(With Ray Brown and Shelly Manne) The Poll Winners Straight Ahead, Contemporary, 1975.
(With Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd) Great Guitars, Concord, 1976.
(With Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd) Great Guitars at Charlie's Georgetown, Concord, 1982.
Erlewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1998.
Osborne, Charles, editor, Masters of Jazz Guitar, Balafon, 1999.
"Kudos to Kessel," Jazz Guitar, http://www.jazzguitar.com/ (January 26, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes of The Poll Winners, Nat Hentoff, 1957.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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