The name Barney Kessel is virtually synonymous with "great guitarist." As Leonard Feather has written, "Kessel is not only as lyrical a guitarist as we have in jazz today, but also a rhythmic natural who can out swing any man in the house." But as Kessel points out, the instrument is merely the tool of the artist. "The music," he says, "is not in the guitar, it’s in the person." Whether in his earlier incarnations as a sideman (with Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Hampton Hawes, Stephane Grappelli, and others), a studio session player (for radio, television, and film), a member of the Great Guitars, or as the leader who made his return to Contemporary Records last year, Kessel has dedicated himself to getting the music out in the purest and most honest form possible.
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1923, Kessel became a guitarist by accident. "It was all by accident," he says. In 1935, he was selling newspapers on a street corner when he spotted a guitar in the pawn shop window behind him. "I liked its shape and color," he remembers, and he bought the guitar, an attractive red and yellow tassle cord, and a how-to-play book for one dollar. The novelty of strumming the open strings wore off after a few weeks and he stashed the instrument in a broom closet. But when his mother issued the mandate that he either play it or get rid of it, Barney rediscovered the guitar. Through a friend he found a free, government-sponsored course during the summer and spent the next three months learning how to play, four hours a day, six days a week. "I must tell you," he recalls, "I was in the bottom five of class of 35. I was very slow and my fingers bled when I tried to do certain chords, and the teacher once told my mother that I’d never make a guitar player."
"Stumbling and bumbling along," Kessel discovered jazz through the record collection of another friend. He was especially drawn to the big band music of Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, and Jimmie Lunceford. "At the age of about thirteen and a half," he remembers, "it was almost like a mist lifted. Something came into me like an insight and I seemed to get an internal awareness of what music was all about: what is important in music, what is the heart of the matter." From that understanding, Kessel was able to develop, "not only to be a guitar player, but to be a musician."
By the early 1940s, he had moved to Los Angeles. "I realized that I was not going to learn further skills and concepts about music in Oklahoma," he says, "and if I ever did learn them I was not going to be able to market them there." Los Angeles was a place where he could both extend his learning and get a job. Although he knew that New York might ultimately be a more fertile musical environment, it seemed too crowded and too covered with concrete. Upon arrival in Southern California, Kessel plunged into the jazz scene, playing in as many places as he could find and sitting in as often as he could.
Before long, people were aware of Barney Kessel. An obvious hallmark of his early career was his role in the Oscar Peterson Trio. But Kessel had been in Los Angeles for ten years and had already played with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Louis Bellson, Roy Eldridge, and others before joining Peterson in 1952. But his ten-month association with the great pianist resulted in dozens of recordings as well as the international exposure of Norman Granz’s "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tours. In 1953, Les Koenig recognized Kessel as a leader in his own right, and recorded the guitarist on a series of fine albums for Contemporary.
Through most of the 1960s, Kessel was in demand as a valuable studio musician. He had done radio work in the Forties and early Fifties, and continued to work extensively in films and television until 1969. At that point he decided it was time to put himself forward once again as a leader. A trip to London persuaded him to move there and be used that city as a base while he played clubs and concerts in Europe. Although it took a while to establish himself as a draw, Kessel avoided taking jobs as a sideman and eventually transformed his image from that of a "good guitarist" to that of a serious headliner.
His recording career continued to blossom in the 1970s, with albums on RCA, Sonet, Trio, and Concord, both under his own name and with the Great Guitars. After re-signing with the Contemporary label last year, Barney released Spontaneous Combustion, a vibrant recording with the Monty Alexander Trio. His newest album, Red Hot and Blues, finds him in the stellar company of Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Ben Riley.
Seven years ago, after living in London, Stockholm, and Annapolis, Maryland, Kessel found himself returning to his home state to reside in Oklahoma City.
In addition to his busy touring schedule, Kessel has produced guitar instruction books and tapes, and has conducted clinics, workshops, and seminars for aspiring musicians at home and abroad. Above all, he is concerned with sustaining a high level of quality, something that is all too easily slipping away in modern life. When things are made to sell at competitive prices, he points out, whether guitars or records, "it’s very rare that a company can offer quality." Just as guitars are no longer made with "love and integrity," he argues "performers don’t bare their souls and share their innermost musical thoughts with other people. There was a time," he says, "when you’d listen to a record, whether it was Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, or Duke Ellington, it was like a sound photograph of where they were at that time. You heard a documentation of their playing. Today, most people are out to make a hit record."
But far from basking in the past, Kessel focuses on the music he can make today and tomorrow. "I am 64," he says, "but I’m not saying, boy, you should have been around in the Forties. These are the best days of my life and I look forward, and people should know that I’m as enthused about music now as I have ever been."
Barney Kessel died May 6, 2004.