Barney Kessel

'The best guitarist in the world'

Barney Kessel, guitarist and bandleader: born Muskogee, Oklahoma 17 October 1923; four times married (two sons); died San Diego, California 6 May 2004.

"Barney Kessel is incredible. He's just amazing . . . Nobody can play guitar like that," said John Lennon. George Harrison agreed. "Barney Kessel is definitely the best guitar player in the world."

Kessel also played on some of Elvis Presley's records and on four soundtracks for the singer's Hollywood films. Jazz enthusiasts, however, would regard those comments and events as aberrant: for them this was a great artist stooping to earn his living.

The guitar, unlike the trumpet or the saxophones, is a cosmopolitan instrument and there are few boundaries between the styles and idioms of its exponents. So it is the more telling when it can be said that Kessel was indeed one of the most accomplished guitarists of the 20th century. He spoke from a position of strength and his comments on jazz and his fellow guitarists were unusually caustic but always in truth as he saw it.

"There's nothing in my heart that wants to attack people personally," he said on one occasion,

but I can't be running round acting like the people who are watching the king wearing the emperor's new clothes. I don't hear what I would call jazz. It's almost like a newsletter comes out each month with the latest licks, and they're all subscribing to the magazine.

Kessel had fallen into the same trap when as a boy he had based his style on the black guitar player Charlie Christian, a man who had by the late Thirties broken away from conventional jazz and was anticipating the Bebop of the Forties.

As a boy amazed at his luck in meeting the legendary Christian and playing with him at a jam session, Kessel was none the less distressed then to realise that he knew nothing but the ideas that he had copied from Christian's records. It was at that point that he started to develop his own style.

His long career spanned half a century and he was amongst the first "modern" jazz guitarists that many of us heard. This was when a year later his 1945 recording of his own composition "Atom Buster" came out in Britain as one side of a Parlophone 78. We'd never heard before of the bandleader on the other side of the disc, either - Charlie Mingus.

When he was 12 Kessel took up the guitar, selling newspapers to pay for his first instrument. Two years later he was the only white musician in a black band in Muskogee.

Christian persuaded Kessel to move to Los Angeles in 1942, and a year later he was playing there in the Ben Pollack band, an orchestra fronted by the comedian Chico Marx. In 1944 Gijon Mili directed the atmospheric short film Jammin' the Blues and Norman Granz, who produced the film, brought Kessel in to play guitar alongside Lester Young and the other jazz stars. Once again Kessel was the only white player in a black band. In the film only his hands, dyed black for the occasion, are visible.

Already an outstanding player, Kessel rose quickly to the top of his profession and over the next few years worked for Charlie Barnet, Hal McIntyre and, most notably, Artie Shaw. Kessel was with Charlie Parker on some much celebrated recordings in 1947, these on their own assuring him a place in history.

In the late Forties he worked in the Hollywood studios, appearing regularly on radio and occasionally in concert for Granz. In 1952 he joined Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic unit that included Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Oscar Peterson and other top-ranking jazz musicians for a European tour. They became the first American jazz group to play in Britain, Granz evading the Ministry of Labour's ban on American musicians by making the two concerts at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, into charity events to aid contemporary East Anglian flood relief.

In the concerts Kessel played as part of Oscar Peterson's Trio, and he toured with the pianist for the following year. On his return as an established star he began recording in Los Angeles as leader of a fine series of West Coast jazz groups for the Contemporary label. These matchless albums remain much sought after the world over.

Granz used him frequently in the recording studios to back Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and the myriad of jazz giants that he had under contract. Some of the voice and guitar duets that Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan recorded with Kessel became classics of the genre.

Kessel was musical director for Bob Crosby's television show in 1954 and worked for a year supervising the popular music recorded for Granz's Verve label.

This was the beginning of an incredible output. Kessel continued to freelance in the studios, recording with the Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Liberace, Julie London and other top line artists. He played for innumerable television shows including Hollywood Palace and The Man from UNCLE, The Odd Couple and Love, American Style.

He toured Europe again and eventually moved to live in London in 1969, working from there for 14 months. He went back to the Los Angeles studios after that, but continued to visit Europe and tour Australia, New Zealand and Japan both as a solo player and as a member of Great Guitars, a group that he formed with his fellow virtuosi Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd in 1973. He made innumerable albums for other leaders and under his own name - the latter included some virtuoso solo albums. In the mid-Eighties he recorded a series of 60 programmes for radio on the history of jazz.

Kessel's books for students included The Guitar: a tutor (1967), Guitar Improvisation (1985) and in 1992 14 Original Guitar Solos, a book of his improvisations.

He moved to live in San Diego in 1989 and married Phyllis Van Doren in 1992, but four months later he suffered the first of a series of strokes and was forced to stop playing. He worked on his autobiography and continued to take guitar students. He became bedridden in 2001 when the brain tumour that finally ended his life was first diagnosed.

Steve Voce

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