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Barney Kessel: 1923-2004
Barney Kessel

Born: October 17, 1923 in Muskogee, OK
Died: May 6, 2004 in San Diego, CA

Perennially popular guitarist

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins

Barney Kessel, one of jazz' most perennially popular guitarists and a ubiquitous fixture of 1960s studio sessions, died of a brain tumor on Thursday, May 6, 2004, at his home in San Diego, California. He was eighty years old.

Kessel was born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He studied guitar as a youth and was deeply inspired by the new electric guitar stylings of Charlie Christian. Kessel began working professionally at 14, in an otherwise all-black local dance band. In the early 1940s he got the chance to play with his idol, Christian, at a jam session. Embarrassed that he only knew how to ape Christian's repertoire and technique, Kessel resolved to develop his own personal style.

In 1942 Kessel came to Los Angeles and began working in comedian Chico Marx's band. He soon moved into the local jazz and swing circles, gigging with the bands of Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw (including the Gramercy Five) and Benny Goodman. His reputation for solid swing and impressive soloing grew, and by the 1950s Kessel was a perpetual poll-winner. He performed and recorded with such greats as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Art Tatum on his way to the top.

Kessel also worked frequently with producer Norman Granz. In 1944 Granz and photographer Gjon Mili made the short film "Jammin' the Blues" and hired Kessel as the guitarist. He went on to participate in Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic gatherings, and in 1952 he began working with Oscar Peterson's trio.

In 53 Kessel cut the first of many records as a leader for the Contemporary label (Easy Like, Vol. 1, with Buddy Collette and Bud Shank). His trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne was smartly dubbed The Poll Winners (1957, Contemporary). On various records he interpreted music from "Carmen", "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Hair". Surprisingly, Kessel infrequently led his own live concerts; it wasn't until 1983 that Kessel made his New York debut as a bandleader.

Like many jazzmen, Kessel found that the waning interest in jazz among the listening public was hurting his livelihood, so he moved into studio work. Besides backing Fred Astaire, Sam Cooke, Sinatra, Benny Carter, Liberace, the Beach Boys, Doris Day and other jazz and pop performers on recordings, Kessel kept busy with plenty of TV and film soundtracks.

In 1973 Kessel made a decisive move back into jazz with an unusual group. He joined forces with fellow guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd to form the Great Guitars, which toured worldwide and cut several recordings (beginning with The Great Guitars, 1974, Concord Jazz). He returned briefly to Oklahoma in the mid-1980s before moving to San Diego, where he remained until his death.

In 1992 Kessel's promising resurgence was stopped by a stroke. In 2001 his inoperable cancer was discovered.

Barney Kessel is survived by his wife, Phyllis; sons Dan of Hemet, Ca., and David of Pacific Grove, Ca.; stepson Christian Wand of L.A., stepdaughters Colette Wand Wirtschafter of Marysville, Ca., and Cleo Dougherty of Boonton, N.J.; and five grandchildren.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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With 4 reader comments, latest June 19, 2004