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Barney Kessel

KESSEL, BARNEY (1923–2004), U.S. guitarist. Kessel grew up on the same Oklahoma plains that nurtured Charlie Christian, the first great electric guitarist, and it was to Christian that Kessel first looked as an influence. Kessel bought his first guitar at age 12 with money he had saved from his paper route and taught himself to play by listening to radio broadcasts and imitating what he heard. Within two years, he was playing in a local band, the only white musician in an all-black unit. In 1938 he spent a long weekend playing and jamming with Christian and his musical style was changed forever. Ironically, it was playing with Christian in a jam session that led him to pursue his own style. He told The New York Times, "I realized that I had been methodically lifting his ideas from records. What was I going to play? All I knew was his stuff…. I knew I had to find myself." With Christian's encouragement, Kessel moved to Los Angeles and in 1942 took a job with Chico Marx's band. He rapidly made a name for himself as a talented and versatile guitarist, playing with Benny *Goodman, Artie *Shaw, and Charlie Barnet. He became a mainstay of Norman *Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, appearing in the acclaimed 1944 short film Jammin' the Blues, and finally hooking up with the Oscar Peterson Trio in the early 1950s. It was this last gig that earned him his most significant reputation as a jazz guitarist, but he also began spending a lot of time playing studio jobs for the movies, television, and commercials, as well as on records. Kessel can be heard on an astonishing range of recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, from Liberace to the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra to Gene Autry. He continued to play jazz too, joining with fellow guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd in the 1970s to form the group Great Guitars. Kessel was silenced in 1992 by a stroke from which he never recovered and died of brain cancer.


P. Keepnews, "Barney Kessel, 80, a Guitarist with Legends of Jazz, Dies," in: New York Times (May 8, 2004); "Barney Kessel," in: Music Web Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, at:; "Barney Kessel," in: Times of London (May 13, 2004); "Musicians Gather to Perform at Benefit for Legendary Jazz Guitarist Barney Kessel," in: Down Beat (June, 19, 2002).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.