October 17, 2023, we marked the 100th anniversary of Barney Kessel’s birth. JGT contributor Joe Barth shares archived interviews from the guitar community.
Joe Barth: I first met Barney in the early 1970s when I studied with him at a little music store in Hollywood, California. We stayed in touch over the years and after his stroke in 1992, I became a pastor to him up until his death in May of 2004. His wife Phyllis asked me to officiate at his graveside funeral near the Finger Lakes in Western New York. In this article, I draw upon my twenty-five years of speaking to great guitarists, some of whom have since passed away, about Barney. Much has been written about Barney so in this article I want you to hear from these guitarists themselves on the impact that Barney and his recordings have had on them.
How He Conceived His Solos
Howard Alden: On these recordings with Fred Astaire, and the ones he did with Billie Holiday, Barney played some of his most memorable solos. Of course, all of his solos are memorable in their own way. He had a great sound. And he could say so much. Even within just 16 bars.
Barney is one of my favorite players. I heard Barney a couple of times when I was younger. Then in 1991, I played with him in Florida. Barney was there with his trio and I was playing with Flip Phillips. Flip and Barney were old friends and he introduced us and Barney had his major stroke about a month after that. I got to know Barney better after his stroke. Whenever I played in San Diego I would visit with him and Phyllis.
As listen to this one solo I can hear how he absorbed so much of jazz history into his playing. Right there, you can hear some Lester Young and some “Sweets” Edison, some Charlie Parker, and some Charlie Christian. But, he doesn’t sound like any of those artists and it doesn’t sound like he is sticking pieces together. He has his own character. His time is so relaxed. He doesn’t seem to do anything for effect. Everything has meaning and direction. I just love it!
Marty Ashby: I have been influenced deeply by Barney with his chord melodies but also by how he could improvise with chord melodies in a way that was different than how Wes and the other guys were doing it. I am also drawn to his, what I call, stank factor where he was able to get into tempos and get gritty and take chances with them. His comping behind soloists with dyads rather than big full chords was great. Of course, he always swung really hard in everything he did.
Peter Bernstein: I really love what he did with Billie Holiday. He made such great statements in such a brief solo with her. I also really love his trio (Poll Winner) albums and also the one he did with Sonny Rollins on Contemporary Records. With his Charlie Christian roots, he was one of the first ones to take on the bebop sax players and do what they were doing on the guitar. He really influenced guys like Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney.
His Commitment to the Blues
John Abercrombie: Barney’s playing was very simple but very effective. Barney is so blues-drenched. Every chord can be applied to a blues scale. He could turn any tune into a blues. He, like Oscar Peterson, could find the blues and funk in any tune.
Barney was the first jazz guitarist I ever heard. Barney paved the transition for me because he was so bluesy. He is very sophisticated and complex, but you always had that blues aspect to his playing. He inspired me to play jazz guitar. If I hadn’t heard him I wouldn’t have heard the other jazz guitarists. He is still one of my favorites.
Ed Bickert: Barney was one of my favorites for years and years. There is a guy who really influenced a lot of guitar players, especially with those Poll Winner trio albums. In listening to him, he certainly taught me a few things. Many of the “ingredients” that made me what I am as a player came from him. He had a profound influence on me.
He had a very strong blues and country background coming from Tulsa. He is a very forceful kind of player, which is good and worked for him.
We never played together, but we did meet a few times at some Concord Records gatherings. He always mentioned how much he enjoyed my recordings. I would tell him how much he impacted me.
Rod Fleeman: When I just heard that bent note, I thought it had to be someone from Oklahoma (laughter). The person I hear in both Barney’s and Herb’s playing is Charlie Christian. It’s their Southwestern roots and I love Charlie Christian. I view the Kansas City guys with the Oklahoma guys to be this Southwestern bluesy sound with the bent notes and such. It all goes back to Charlie Christian. Barney, of course, has that plus his incredible chord vocabulary. I was just transcribing Barney’s arrangement of “Satin Doll” where what he plays is so tasty.
I have always been drawn to someone with that blues bent. I remember getting those Poll Winner albums and being struck with the great ideas that Barney played. Herb and he are really two of my heroes. To me, they are the bridge between Charlie Christian and modern guitar carrying his tradition forward.
The Guitar Trio
John Abercrombie: Of course, his trio with Ray Brown and Shelley Manne was a huge influence on me. What I love the most is his work with Billie Holiday. He would get these short opportunities to solo on her songs and everyone he did with her is a classic.
His solos had all the filigree that a piano player might play. He was the only guitar player to use that. He was really trying to emulate a piano or sax player. He also had a strong sense of swing.
Marty Ashby: The thing that is so amazing about this is the arrangement. Everybody plays these tunes but this is such a fresh look at this music. Ray Brown told me that these were actual arrangements. Ray, Barney, and Shelly actually got together and worked out these arrangements. Players back then didn’t actually work out precise arrangements all that much. For a guitar trio, the writing on these recordings is just impeccable. It showcases each individual musician and showcases their qualities. It is through-composed, there are always intros and endings, and there are sometimes different changes for blowing over, it really is the epitome of guitar trio writing. I am just finishing a project where I analyzed about thirty of the fifty or so renditions from the five Poll Winner albums and as a tribute recorded ten of them that have something important to say to guitar players.
Gene Bertoncini: Barney with his special licks. Rambunctious, great stuff. Barney was one of my biggest influences, especially the Poll Winner albums. It was the idea that the guitar, bass, and drum trio could stand on its own. I always felt that the guitar could stand on its own in a trio setting. He inspired me to follow that path of trio-playing. Personally, I then went on to the guitar-bass duo and then solo. Barney came to hear me and told me “Sounds great just keep doing what you are doing.”
Randy Johnston: Another thing is that he really developed the guitar trio format. That was very brave of him. In the trio, the guitar is very exposed carrying the melody and comping for yourself. Barney did this traveling the playing with local rhythm sections. I have done that a bit as well and I can’t tell you how many times I was someplace in the world and the bass player or drummer would tell me about their experiences of playing with Barney. With a local rhythm section there is a lot of risk and not a lot of money, but not knowing the guys you have no idea what you are going to get until the first song. Barney loved playing so much that he was willing to do this his whole career. This is a very different experience than Pat Metheny or George Benson who travel with their bands and guitar techs. Barney just loved playing. He was a man of courage and did it wherever and with whomever the local players were.
Mark Whitfield: He was into sweeps here. Barney took on a hard job. Up to his time, people thought of the guitar as purely a rhythm section instrument. But Barney stepped forward and fronted a trio with the guitar. One had to have extreme virtuosity which, of course, Barney had. The guitar in that setting had to be as versatile as the piano and Barney was one, along with Johnny Smith and Joe Pass, who showed the world it was possible.
How He Conceived Music
Royce Campbell: Barney is one of the innovators of jazz guitar. Next to Charlie Christian, Barney was the one who moved the art form forward and continued to do so until Wes took over Barney’s throne. Barney was one of the first to really adapt the bebop style to the guitar. Some of Barney’s solos would be ones that I would put up with some of the great saxophone solos of the Bebop era.
Barney was one of the great accompanists of singers as the work he did with Julie London testifies to. He did a certain chordal thing that was unique. He is also a fine solo guitarist.
Steve Haberman: I focused on Barney during my Berklee years. I was trying to sort out jazz phrasing and I transcribed a number of Barney’s solos. His playing is so logical. From his Poll Winner albums, I got a feel of how to play in a trio setting in a traditional sense. His chords just worked so great. Different than what Pat Metheny would do in a trio. I learned from Barney how to play the guitar in a trio setting in a traditional sense. Barney really excelled in his solo playing. He seemed to do such great solo pieces as special in his other musical settings.
Peter Leitch: Barney is another one of the great individuals. He had such a great sound that came from his tone and what he played and the way he played it. He had a very personal approach to this idiom. The sound comes from one’s hands. So many of the younger guys seek to get their sound from effects and end up sounding like every other young guy.
Julian Luge: He embodies the reason why you would hire a guitar player. His touch is so great. He is tasteful. His lines were great. He swung so hard. He had that watery sensibility, he could just flow through the chord changes and play with so many different rhythm sections. Then there’s his tone. Many jazz guitarists have this dark kind of “thuddy” kind of tone but Barney has this little bit of treble and that gave me hope because that is how I also hear the guitar. With that kind of tone, you don’t have to play loud to stand out.
Anthony Wilson: I put Barney, Herb Ellis, and Joe Pass at the top of this certain pantheon. What I love most about Barney’s playing is the number of chances that he is willing to take. It is risky to do some of the things that he does intervalically and rhythmically. He is always taking chances. I also love the pointed sound he gets. He doesn’t go for the pristine, elegant, and round sound. It is quite pointed, almost percussive. So that chordal intro thing he does of the descending 4ths is quite hard-edged and I like that. I also just love his Poll Winner records. They are just killers to me. Both he and Herb have this rawness to their playing that probably comes from the area of the country that they are from. They are both steeped in the Charlie Christian tradition. They are always so swinging.
His Commitment to the Next Generation of Guitarists
Steve Abshire: I took one lesson from Barney. I went to his hotel room and got out my guitar and the first thing he did was pull out a pad of paper, put a circle on it, and begin to explain his philosophy of life, and his priorities, and then it got into music. I was there for about four hours. My brain was overloaded because he gave me so much information. My only regret was that I didn’t bring a tape recorder. He talked of how he would look at the guitar neck and see picture patterns of how he would play something on the third and fourth strings and be able to move it up to three frets and play it again. The guitar was so logical to him. We played one tune toward the end. After we played that one tune he said, “I guess I was just flapping my gums.”
One time I drove Herb and Barney from Annapolis to Washington DC and Herb was in the back seat, keeping kind of quiet, and Barney was in the front very talkative. Barney went on and on about growing up in Tulsa and how he had a job as a kid as the only usher and projectionist at the local movie theater. So he would see each movie thirty to forty times. His favorite films were those old Wolfman-Dracula films. He then did his impression of Bela Lugosi which was so funny I almost ran the car off the road (laughter).
The Great Guitars were scheduled in Annapolis sometime around 1980. A few days before their performance I got a call from Barney’s manager who told me that Barney was double booked and could I please sub for him at this performance. After picking my jaw off the ground, I of course said yes. I then got every Great Guitars record I had out and learned Barney’s part to about nine of their tunes as best as I could. You know Herb played the melody and Charlie was easy to point out because of his nylon strings and Barney always played the inner voices that tied the other two together. I was thrilled to do it but I also was so nervous. The first tune they did was “Where or When,” one of the tunes I learned, as we were playing Herb leaned over and said, “You have been doing your homework.” It was a lot of fun.
Joshua Breakstone: Barney Kessel is the greatest guitar player of them all. He has played with everyone in the history of jazz from Louis (Armstrong), to Billie (Holiday) to Charlie Parker to this we are hearing. If Barney only played his eight-bar solos on those Billie Holiday records he would forever be in jazz history. They are that musical.
Barney and I are the two guitar players that were signed to the Contemporary Record label. Barney told me “Your sound is the sound that I always wanted on the guitar.” When he would listen to me perform, he would sit right in front and just pay attention intently. If he was in town, every night I played and for both sets, he would listen to me. One time he was in my dressing room and I offered my guitar to him to play and check out. He said, “No, I don’t play anybody else’s guitar, I just play my own.” So, I had to step out of my dressing room for a few minutes and left Barney with my guitar. As I am walking back I hear all this great playing coming out of my room and I peek in and there’s Barney just playing up a storm on my guitar. So I backed up in the hallway and approached again making a little noise this time and when I got to the dressing room there was Barney sitting there with my guitar back in its case and the top closed (laughter).
Another time I was touring in England and I heard that Barney was playing in a suburb of London. It was a long way out but my friend and I took numerous trains and walked in the rain to get to this club. When we got there the place was empty except for two people. I didn’t want to embarrass Barney by coming into a place where only two people were listening to him. My friend insisted we go in and as we did, he was starting to take his break. Greeting Barney, I said ” Don’t play a second set for just two people and us. Barney insisted on playing and for the next few minutes, he played some of the greatest jazz guitar I have ever heard. He just poured himself into the music. It was great. I wish I would have recorded it. When he finished I said, “Thank you for the guitar lesson ‘Daddy’.”
No one comes close to the feel that Barney had on the guitar. The blues just oozes out everything he plays. His sense of swing and the feel he achieved was just great. He is a huge influence on me but my sound and how I approach playing is my own and I don’t think I sound like him at all.
Ron Eschete’: I loved his chord melodies on those Poll Winner albums. Very different than George Van Eps. Barney was very influential in my playing. His chords, intros and endings were so pronounced. I didn’t play with Barney much. Kenny Burrell was to do a concert with Jimmy Raney at the Union Hall in Orange County but Kenny either broke or sprained his arm and couldn’t do it. So, I got a call to sub for Kenny and Barney came down and sat in, and what a thrill for this twenty-three-year-old kid to play with Barney and Jimmy. Jimmy was so gracious to me.
He was one of the jazz guitarists to get a degree of popularity because of his accompaniment of Julie London. He was a wonderful accompanist. I love his chord extensions. Who could outswing Barney Kessel?
Rodney Jones: He was the very first jazz guitarist I ever heard. I was in the throes of Jimi Hendrix and on the radio, I heard Barney play “Summertime” went back to my room and tried to play what I just heard on the radio but I couldn’t. I then realized that Barney had the same strings and frets that I did but I could not do what he did. (laughter) Barney went on to be a mentor and a friend. He is a pillar to everything I do on the guitar. I love his swing, chordal, and rhythmic things. He is really underrated today by younger players who look more to Wes Montgomery but they need to know his playing better. I listened to his Poll Winner over and over and tried to play some of those solos. When I played with Dizzy Gillespie I met Barney for the first time, later we would hang out when he was in town. A few times when his guitar needed work he would borrow one of my guitars for his gig.
He did a masterclass when I taught at the Manhattan School of Music and I carried his guitar and got everything ready for him. A student asked me why I was carrying his guitar and I said “Out of respect.” Barney has forgotten more jazz guitar than I will ever know. He is one of the living Masters of this instrument. Every young jazz guitarist should listen to Barney for his sense of swing, his chordal approach, his feeling, harmonic innovation, and his ability to accompany a singer. He has influenced me in so many ways. Know Barney Kessel, know Rodney Jones.
The Sense of Joy Expressed in His Playing
Steve Abshire: Barney is another player where you can just hear depth in his playing. I was always struck with the joy and energy in his playing yet also a real sense of warmth. Barney told me that he always held his pick with his thumb and first two fingers and the extra flesh of two fingers gave him that extra warmth that I hear.
Another thing I noticed about Barney whenever I saw him perform is that he would occasionally hunch his shoulders and turn his feet inward and then play this line that was so musically deep. I saw him do this time and time again. The line wasn’t necessarily fast but it had so much musical substance and was so well placed in the song.
Randy Johnston: I like him. He is one of my favorites. Like George, he has that bluesy thing going on that is very soulful and emotional but in his own way. It is not like listening to cold-blooded jazz guitar that I hear a lot of. When I lived in Florida, I remember hearing him play with a local rhythm section. He had a lot of spirit and was really into playing with this expressive joy.
Larry Luger: I could tell as soon as he soloed. See how he sounds and phrases. Who could make a record with Charlie Parker? It was such new music back then. Think about it. What were the guitar books teaching back then? “Red River Valley,” open D major chord and he took solos after Charlie Parker back then. His sense of swing and personal approach was so great. He single-handedly conceived the guitar trio with those Poll Winner albums. I play two guitar trio gigs every week and Barney is my inspiration.
I met Barney when he was playing with Herb Ellis at this little club in the Village. You could tell those two guys were having such fun whenever they played. Jazz is based on dance music that moved people and Barney celebrated that every time he played. There was an outpouring of joy every time he played. He had such humor in his playing.
Talk about harmonic sophistication. Listen to the album he made with Lester Young and the Oscar Peterson Trio. He had a great ear. Barney isn’t just one of the greatest guitar players in jazz history, he is one of the greatest musicians in jazz history. He also was one of the nicest and funniest guys around.
Who He Was as a Person
Jim Hall: I heard Barney with Artie Shaw’s band in Cleveland at the Palace Theater and what a kick. The first two solos I learned and memorized were by Charlie Christian and the other was one of Barney’s. When I graduated from college in Cleveland, I then went out to Los Angeles and I was in this rehearsal band at the Musician’s Union that my friend Joe Donnally led. Really good studio guys would come in and play these charts. One day Barney came in and sat right in front of me. I had never met him. I was so nervous I could barely hold my guitar pick as I was playing (laughter). We then became close friends after that. We did a tour together in Europe. I loved his sense of humor. He was just great.
We were in Japan together one time. We played someplace where they had an orchestra. Barney, being the people person, he was, wanted so desperately to talk to these people, but because of the language difference, couldn’t. So he was trying to communicate to them through card tricks (laughter). It was sadly ironic that Barney would have a stroke, where he couldn’t speak as well anymore.
Barney was one of my main attractions to the guitar when I was young. He is not all that much older than me. He was precocious, I guess, like Charlie Christian. I never really heard him play like this. It sounds amazing. It is a different side to Barney. I recognize the great time feeling. He had such great swing and a wonderful harmonic sense. In my perspective, Barney is up there with Wes Montgomery.
John Pisano: Barney was a funny guy. In those days there would always be four or five guitar players on a session and I would always run into Barney in a session. Later, I was playing at Donte’s and Barney was there all night listening to me. Afterward, he came up to me and said “John, I really like the way you play and would you work with me.” So some dates were scheduled. About the time we were to do the dates, Peggy Lee called me from Chicago and said she had fired three guitar players and would I please come and play with her. So, I went to Chicago and wasn’t able to play with Barney.
After Charlie Byrd died we did a memorial concert for him and Barney was able to come with his wife even though he had his stroke. Barney took jazz guitar to new levels in rhythmic playing. He used such interesting chord melodies.
Jack Wilkins: Barney is one of the big influences in my life. What I loved about Barney was his humor. He had such a great way of coming up with these arrangements. He swung so hard. The first thing I heard of Barney’s was with Sonny Rollins and he did this incredible solo on “How High the Moon.” This was the early 1960s. So I went out and bought all his Poll Winner albums. Those albums showed us what the guitar trio could really do. They were very full-sounding.
He like, Tal Farlow and a few others, was one of the first early guitar players to do some really interesting chord solos. They were chord guys.
I was able to get to know him personally, though I never played with him.
The Special Magic of the Guitar Trio – New West Guitars
New JGT Lesson: Davy Mooney Explores Playing “Guitar Trio”
How To Approach Note Soloing, Part 1
Thorell Fine Guitars
New Unreleased Recordings From Wes Montgomery With The Wynton Kelly Trio
New JGT Lesson: Davy Mooney Explores Playing “Guitar Trio”
New Vince Lewis Arrangement, “As Time Goes By”
Thorell Fine Guitars
How To Make Your Practicing More Musical
What Should I Be Working On?
Thorell Fine Guitars
Ryan Thorell is known for world-class original guitars collected and coveted by some of the best musicians around the planet...
For over 20 years, Philadelphia, PA-based luthier Bill Comins has been dedicated to refining a line of instruments with the...
Theo Scharpach builds Fine Archtops and Classical concert guitars from his shop in the Netherlands. Theo Scharpach is recognized as...