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Farewell Barney Kessel

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by ee-san, May 10, 2004.


  1. One of the greats...

    Barney Kessel, 80; Jazz Guitar Legend

    By Adam Bernstein
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, May 10, 2004; Page B06

    The guitarist Barney Kessel, who died of brain cancer May 6 at age 80, was playing a ballad at the Washington club Charlie's in 1982 when a dish dropped and several cubes of ice fell to the floor. After finishing the song, he told the audience: "Yesterday" was in the key of C, the dish fell in E natural and the ice was in D flat.

    Mr. Kessel, one of the last century's giants of jazz guitar, could be as warm and inviting with his music as he was with his humor. A devotee of the pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, who died in 1942 at age 25, Mr. Kessel soon became his recognized heir.

    He played with big and small bands led by the demanding clarinetist-bandleader Artie Shaw, learned bebop under saxophonist Charlie Parker, toured with the Oscar Peterson Trio and backed Fred Astaire on several soft, elegant versions of standards that the dancer had popularized on film. He also accompanied the smoky-voiced singer Julie London on her "Julie Is Her Name" album (1955), which featured the hit "Cry Me a River."

    For most of the 1950s, he led the polls in Down Beat, Metronome and Playboy magazines as the top-rated jazz guitarist, and he performed with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne in a trio called the Poll Winners.

    Recruited by producer Norman Granz, he was the only white musician to play in the film short "Jammin' the Blues" (1944). Out of concern for the racial sensitivities of southern audiences, he was hidden in shadow and his hands were dyed for a close-up.

    The movie was Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili's sensual salute to jazz that featured saxophonists Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet. Mr. Kessel ably accommodated the lyrical Young and the honking enthusiasm of Jacquet. He later traveled with Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concerts.

    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.

    Harry Sumrall, reviewing the concert for The Washington Post, said that one set featuring Mr. Kessel "was witty, urbane, utterly musical and, yes, dazzling."

    Mr. Kessel, who was born in Muskogee, Okla., first came across the guitar while passing a music store on his paper route. He liked its look and that it came with a booklet, "How to Play the Guitar in Five Minutes," which he believed.

    It was a starting point, anyway, as he 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 joined Ellis Ezell's all-black dance band, which toured statewide.

    "My father, who had emigrated from Hungary, had a shop where he sold shoes, and it was in a section of town between the white and black sections," Mr. Kessel told the New York Times in 1991. "Muskogee was a small town, and Ellis's father had a cleaning shop and it wasn't too far and I'd be sitting on fenders of cars playing music, so Ellis knew I was around, and interested."

    He refined 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. He also switched to the electric guitar, which made him a novelty in the region.

    Charlie Christian, the black guitarist who grew up in Oklahoma and played to great acclaim with the racially integrated Benny Goodman Sextet, heard of Mr. Kessel on a visit home. Mr. Kessel said the two wound up jamming for two days straight, which thrilled him but also showed him that his style had become too dependent on Christian's.

    Seeking other influences, he moved to Los Angeles in 1942 and found work in a band fronted by the comedian Chico Marx and led by Ben Pollack. That was followed by dates with the saxophonist-bandleader Charlie Barnet and then Artie Shaw, who selected the guitarist for his small Gramercy 5 group with trumpeter Roy Eldridge and pianist Dodo Marmarosa. His recordings with Shaw of "The Grabtown Grapple" and "Scuttlebutt" have been compared favorably with the earlier, small-group sessions by Christian and Goodman.

    Mr. Kessel led several small groups for the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label in the 1950s and also recorded with most of the major figures in jazz, including singer Anita O'Day, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, pianist Art Tatum and violinist Stephane Grappelli.

    Known for his versatility, he played for film and television soundtracks at recording studios in Hollywood. His work appeared on albums by Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher and the Beach Boys and in such films as "Cool Hand Luke" (1967).

    His performing career ended after he had a stroke in 1992. He died at his home in San Diego.

    Survivors include his fourth wife, Phyllis Van Doren.


    © 2004 The Washington Post Company