Barney Kessel Biography

17 October 1923, Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA, d. 6 May 2004, San Diego, California, USA. After playing in various bands (including one led by Chico, the piano-playing Marx brother), Kessel began to establish a name for himself on the west coast. He appeared in the Norman Granz -produced short film Jammin’ The Blues (1944), then played in various big bands of the late swing era. From the mid-40s he was in great demand for studio work, jazz record sessions, club and concert dates, and on tours with Jazz At The Philharmonic. Among the artists with whom he performed and recorded over the following 20 years were Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday and Harry Edison. By the mid-60s he was one of the best-known and most-recorded guitarists in jazz. He continued to tour and record in groups and as a solo artist, most notably for the Contemporary Records label. In the early 70s, Kessel teamed up with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd to perform as the group Great Guitars. This project continued to tour into the 80s, which saw Kessel as active as ever. He was incapacitated by a stroke in 1992 that ended his performing career but he recovered enough to teach. He died from a brain tumour at his home in San Diego in May 2004.

An exceptionally gifted musician with a very wide range, Kessel’s versatility had ensured that he was always in demand. In a jazz context he played in a boppish, post- Charlie Christian style, but had his own distinctive flavour. In the context of Great Guitars, he ably filled the mid-ground between Byrd’s latent classicism and Ellis’ blues-tinged swing. In person, Kessel had a swift and waspish sense of humour, a characteristic that often appeared in his music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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