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Tribute to Tradition

Focus, Drive, Imagination and Dedication… Barney Kessel

Frank Hamilton

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Jazz Guitar Today Pays Tribute to Barney Kessel

Part of our agenda at Jazz Guitar Today is to pay tribute to tradition.  JGT contributor and historian Frank Hamilton shares this personal experiences and thoughts on Barney Kessel.  We also added a Barney Kessel lesson where he gives some great advice – enjoy.

There will be argument among guitar players as to who is the ‘swingingest’ guitar player in jazz.  I’ll put my money on Barney Kessel.

I know, there’s Wes and Joe and countless others who swing but for me every note that Barney played had bounce.

He became famous world-wide wherever he toured because he picked up his own sidemen in different countries saving him money to spend hauling a band across Europe and Asia.

His reputation was mainly known among jazz guitar players and when he visited his home town of Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he was born on October 17 in 1923, it was traditionally Roy Clark and Chet Atkins territory.  Barney related the experience to me that when he reunited with old friends from the rural part of the world they asked him, “Son, when are you gonna’ learn to play the geetar?”

I worked for him in 1967 through 1970 as a guitar teacher at his brief but happy Music World, a store that was located on Yucca and Vine Streets in Hollywood. His sense of humor extended to a nominal affinity and a big kick out attending a local Irish restaurant named Blarney Castle.

Though Barney envisioned himself as a business man, the day to day store operation was handled by a fine clarinetist named Jacques Robinson, a short dapper, fastidious man with a thin black mustache and orderly personality.  Barney presided over the establishment but was mostly busy with gigs and not there a lot of the time.

He had foresight bringing the go-to legendary repairman Milt Owen into the store.  Music celebs in Hollywood sent their repairs to Milt. On the second floor, he had his own tools and work space of the store with autographed pictures of Django and other guitar notables that he had serviced throughout the years hanging on the wall.

Barney was an prolific player. His discography is extensive but some of his best can be heard on the old Bird albums for Ross Russell’s Dial Records.  When I knew him, Barney was a straight arrow not given to excessive drinking and no drugs.  How could work with Bird? Bird taught us all a valuable lesson, “Don’t do as I do, do as you do.”  This went for lifestyle as well as music.

Barney had a unique way of playing, chord melody solos interspersed with single-string lines and was fully integrated into be-bop, and Bird appreciated that no one could play quite like him.

Barney was well-grounded in harmony and could come up with startling chord changes.

Even as a sophisticated jazz musician, he appreciated different musical styles.      He joked happily about his time playing sessions for Elvis once illustrating for me the boogaloo beat that he played behind Elvis.

Barney’s former heroes included Charlie Christian and Eddie Lang and like Lang was a consummate tasteful accompanist.  You can hear this in his album with Julie London.  He made, “Cry Me A River” happen for her even as she swore at herself for screwing up her vocals but sounded smooth with Barney’s memorable back-up.

Although a teen-ager could have played music for the pop market, mentioned in the movie about session musicians, The “Wrecking Crew”, Barney could play it better than any teenager. He was in demand as a ‘round the clock session player with the top crooners and rockers of the Fifties and Sixties.

Initially impressed by Emmet Chapman’s innovation, the tapping guitar, called the “Stick” finding its way into contemporary jazz and rock styles, in working with Chapman, Barney was disappointed that Chapman kept forgetting chord changes.


Barney could score sessions, be a successful A&R man and write film scores.  He was an amiable personality and brought to everyone jovial fun and light-heartedness  He was a diplomat which you needed to be to work with and feed some of those famous popular egos.

Though technically skilled, he had an unmistakable feel, something you find in African-American jazz players, a roots kind of thing that must go back to his early days in Oklahoma.  A mixture of down-home humility and a musical work ethic made him sometimes critical of other players whom he didn’t feel matched their potential.

Every Friday afternoon, there was a session at Music World with Barney and the formidable Howard Roberts…

jamming in the main room which made it difficult for me to teach in my little boxy studio because I wanted to be out there listening.  The two friends spent much of their time during the week criticizing each other’s playing but when they got together, they harmonized well, making warm and friendly music.  Howard was different than Barney; I’d call him more linear in style and less bouncy, but a great creative jazz player nonetheless.  With their drive and imagination, it would be impossible for them to be together in the same room for very long.

They were both great teachers, Barney conveying in no nonsense terms how to play guitar through books and seminars and Howard as the catalyst for the Guitar Institute of Technology which he helped found in 1977.

I lost track of Barney when I left Music World, but his vitality, humor, and amiability stayed with me and I was saddened when we lost him in 2004.  I think of the players he influenced and I find similar bounce and drive in the playing of my buddy, Jim Fox.

 If Barney had not been one of the best players on the scene, Oscar Peterson and Bird wouldn’t have worked with him.

Like Lang, and Christian, Barney enriched the musical life of so many guitar players by opening up the possibilities of the instrument through his chord voicings, re-harmonizations, rhythmic chordal solos and exciting melodic ideas. His focus, drive, imagination and dedication were inspirational to me and others who were fortunate to have worked with him.

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