Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Barney Kessel Dies

Barney Kessel, one of the finest and most lyrical guitarists ever to emerge in jazz, died Thurs., May 6 in his San Diego home, of effects stemming from a cancerous brain tumor, which he was diagnosed with in 2001. He was 80.

Kessel had not been able to play music since May of 1992, when he suffered a stroke. He was far from forgotten, however. In addition to a long career in jazz that saw him record many sessions as a leader, as well as support jazz masters like Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Kessel played in rock, pop and radio, television and film. He backed singers Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson and Doris Day, among others, and was among the musicians who contributed to the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds.

But it was in jazz that Kessel left his biggest mark. Born in Muskogee, Okla. in 1923, Kessel began on guitar at an early age and by 16 had played with jazz-guitar giant Charlie Christian, who came to see the teenage Kessel perform in Oklahoma City. In the 1940s Kessel found work in the big bands of Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet. He was the only white musician featured in the 1944 documentary Jammin’ the Blues.

Kessel led his first sessions in 1953, recording Swing Guitars for Verve and Barney Kessel: Volume 1 for Contemporary. He recorded mostly for Contemporary throughout the ’50s, and during this time released the first installments of his classic Poll Winners series with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne.

While he continued to play jazz in the ’60s-releasing a handful of discs on the Black Lion label-Kessel focused more of his energy on Hollywood during that decade and worked as an arranger and freelance musician for radio, film and television. He made music for Steve Allen’s television shows and the program Hollywood Palace, and created jingles for Der Wiener Schnitzel and Rice Krispies. His session work saw him play on albums by stars like Fred Astaire, Barbra Streisand, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, as well as many pop records produced by Phil Spector.

In the’70s and ’80s Kessel put more energy into jazz and recorded a number of albums for Concord, including the live Great Guitars with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, and a 1987 quartet disc, Spontaneous Combustion, that featured pianist Monty Alexander.

Kessel was playing shows right up until he suffered a stroke in 1992, which left his memory intact, but left him unable to play guitar. Since then he has been honored with tribute and benefit concerts in the U.S. and Europe. He received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1996. In 1995 Kessel attended a memorial concert for Concord Records founder Carl Jefferson, where the guitarist walked on stage for the first time since his stroke, aided by a cane, and took a bow. Three years later, at the 1997 JVC Jazz Festival in New York, Kessel attended a tribute concert in his honor and spoke to the audience from the stage.

Kessel is survived his wife, Phyllis, two sons from a former marriage, three step-children and five grandchildren.

Funeral services are private and the burial will be held in western New York later this month. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Kessel’s memory to a favorite jazz foundation or jazz radio station.

Originally Published