Legendary musician, guitarist, influential jazz artist, composer, arranger, session player, record producer, one of the leading figures in West Coast jazz, later delving into hard bop, Barney Kessel is now generally considered by fans, critics and fellow musicians around the world to be arguably one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
Barney Kessel was truly everywhere as a musician. People, who had never heard of him, heard him play. If you listened to the popular radio shows in the 1950's you heard his guitar. When you saw a movie in the 1950's or 1960's you probably heard his guitar. In fact, he may have been one of the most recorded musicians in the history of recorded music.
Born Oct. 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Okla., Barney Kessel first came across the guitar while passing a music store on his paper route. He liked its look and the fact that it came with a booklet, How to Play the Guitar in Five Minutes, which he believed. Although it took a good deal more than five minutes, Kessel learned to pick guitar by copying western- swing musicians he heard on the radio. He left school at 14 to begin his professional career and soon began working professionally in Ellis Ezell's band as a teenager - a standout in 1937 not only because of his youth but also because he was the only white musician in an all-black band playing black clubs throughout Oklahoma.
Kessel soon began to refine his playing, dropping the emphasis on vibrato for a hard-swinging but cleaner sound, which was emanating from the black music scene in Kansas City, Mo. Within a year he had his first electric guitar - the only person, he once said, with the newfangled amplified instrument within a radius of 400 miles. His style became modeled closely on that of fellow Oklahoman Charlie Christian, the black guitarist who played to great acclaim with the racially integrated Benny Goodman Sextet. Christian first heard of Barney Kessel on a visit home. The pair soon met but when Kessel had the opportunity to play with Christian at a jazz jam session, he told The New York Times in 1991, the experience inspired him to develop a style of his own. I realized that I had been methodically lifting his ideas from records, Kessel said. What was I going to play? All I knew was his stuff. There were two guys playing like Charlie Christian. I knew I had to find myself.