May 11, 2004 by

Barney Kessel


Categories: Hollywood, Musicians

bkessel.jpgBarney Kessel, a legendary jazz guitarist, died on May 6 of brain cancer. He was 80.
Kessel was working his childhood paper route when he saw a guitar in the window of a music store. It came with the booklet, “How to Play the Guitar in Five Minutes,” a concept he found appealing, so he purchased the instrument and taught himself how to play it. The Oklahoma native dropped out of high school at 14, and began touring with Ellis Ezell’s all-black dance band.
At 20, Kessel moved to Los Angeles and found work touring with Chico Marx, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. He gained a reputation for versatility and was the only white artist to appear in the acclaimed 1944 jazz film, “Jammin’ the Blues.”
Over the next two decades, Kessel became a sought-after studio musician. He accompanied singers like Billie Holiday and Julie London, and played alongside rock ‘n roll greats like Elvis Presley and the Righteous Brothers. He wrote guitar manuals, released numerous albums and developed a lengthy resume of contributions to film and television soundtracks, including “I Spy” and “Cool Hand Luke.”
Frequently voted the most popular jazz guitarist in various magazine polls, Kessel also earned rave reviews from both critics and colleagues. In the 1960s, George Harrison noted: “Barney Kessel is definitely the best guitar player in this world, or any other world.” Harry Sumrall, a critic for the Washington Post, once described Kessel as “witty, urbane, utterly musical and, yes, dazzling.”
In 1973, Kessel joined forces with fellow jazz guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd to form the Great Guitars. The trio spent 10 years wowing audiences in the world’s finest jazz clubs. Kessel’s performing career ended in 1992 when he was incapacitated by a stroke. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1999.

25 Responses to Barney Kessel



  2. jamie colpitts

    Barney has been my idol since I started playing in a ten piece band in 1949. Since then I have played in many combos and currently play in a five piece group called Jazz Generation
    One of the most memorable times is when Barney played at the Moncton Jazz Festival 1989 and I had the good fortune to have spent an hour with him one on one and later jammed with him .Truly Barney was a GIANT and my Hero.
    Jamie Colpitts
    Moncton NB Canada

  3. pierangelo marchetto

    Ho saputo solo ieri della scomparsa del sig.Berney kessel.Porgo le mie condoglianze alla famiglia ,per la perdita della persona che mi ha fatto con la sua bravura conoscere e
    d amare il jazz .Con affetto pierangelo.

  4. Brian McInally

    Whay a loss, I had the plreasure of seeing him in 1990 with Charlie Byrd and MArtin Taylor, as The Great Guitars, and in the first half he was great, in the seconmd half of the show. HE LIFTED OFF. What a player , What a swinger, May your god let you rest wherever you are.

  5. Joe Parker

    I knew Barney but not as well as my father. My father, Coble(Red)Parker taught Barney a few things in his formitive years in Muskogee and they stayed in touch throughout there lives. I have many private recordings of them playing together at my fathers home. The interaction and banter between them is wonderful. The stories told, be they truth or lies, makes me wish I were there too. Barney on stage is everything that everyone has ever told, but in private he was light years beyond that. The world is a sadder place without the likes of people like them but what a jam session we are all going to be privy to some day.
    Dad said, never call him by his nicname but somehow I don’t think that it would offend him now. It is only with due respect that I say good bye and god bless you Fruitcake.

  6. Peter Burt

    What a cultured and urbane gentleman he was – incredible to believe he dropped out of school at such a young age. I met Barney briefly and unexpectly in about 1990. I said I’d been listening to some of his early work with Artie Shaw. Barney laughed and immediately quoted from Corinthians – When I was a child I thought as a child … but when I became a man I put away childish things. We went on to talk more serious guitarist talk – but I remember that quotation with great affection.
    Peter Burt, Rochester, Kent UK.

  7. Mark Hyman

    I’ve been plat\ying since 1953. I’ve heard all the greats and have played with a few, but Barney was the best of them all. Will miss him.


    I meet Mr Kessel at a Great Guitar Concert in Frankfurt Germany. I was a Frist year Music Student From the US And meeting Mr Kessel was the best time I had in my life. He told me more about music in 15 mins then 4 years of School did. What a Master and not just on Guitar but Music. I’ve been playing Acousic Bass For 15 years and when I heard of his Death. I Stop playing Bass. I now Play Guitar Just to keep his name in the public.Every jazz Buff should know the name of the real MAN “MR BARNEY KESSEL” Thanks for spendin that time with a 20 year old kid. And opening his eyes to Jazz. GOD BLESS YOU.

  9. Simone Morini

    All of us will die, but very few let a neverending heritage. Barney did it. I have a very peacefull feeling with his music. Peace to him. Thank you Barney.

  10. Terry Smith

    Been listening to jazz since the late forties when I was just a kid. I saw Mr. K play several times. I will miss his great playing. My condolences to his family. TGS

  11. Bob Greenhalgh

    Met Barney in Ronnie Scott`s in the late 60s, was a lover of his music before that and ever since. I am probably amongst many who feel traumatised by this sad news.
    Rest easy Barney.

  12. Tim Claybaugh

    I had the privlege to study under Barney, not only was he a master, but a patient, kind,and above all took a genuine interest in any questions you had for the music of the day yet reminding you the purity of being a devoted and real guitar player. His favorite word with me was genuine, God bless you Barney ! Thank You.

  13. Tony Weiler

    Barney’s influence was wide. I am “once removed” from direct contact with him, but was trained by one of his students, Bill Bledsoe (are you out there, Bill?). To this day, I listen to Barney’s music and immulate him as taught to me by Bill Bledsoe in the mid 1960’s. I wish I could thank him, and if Bill is out there somewhere, I thank you, Bill, for introducing a young teen-ager (now 59) to Barney’s music.

  14. Barry Watson

    I became friendly with Barney when he was working in England some years ago. We hit is off
    and I used to run him around to the various gigs.
    What a wonderful man he was. Gentle, humerous and highly talented.
    I have photos, letter, cards and the music to remind me of one of life’s gems.
    I miss Barney a lot.
    Barry Watson.

  15. Terry Costello

    Barney Kessel what a great player and human being.
    The Poll winners records and Barney’s playing on them demonstrate the art of an improviser being able to accompany oneself. Pianists can do that because they have 8 octaves and 10 fingers, however it is very special and unique when a guitarist can do this. Add the effortless nature of Barney’s playing and one word can be used to sum up Barney’s unique contribution to Jazz and Jazz guitar WOW.

  16. Kevin Webb

    I remember getting a BK vinyl album in the mid-60s, but somebody borrowed it and did not return it. I am definitely going to update my collection on CD now. I play a bit, and his treatment of numbers on that original LP still ring in my ears. What a great musician.
    Kwvin Webb

  17. Charles Rouse

    Barney was playing at Elarios in La Jolla CA in 1988. A friend took me to see him play and I was hooked on jazz guitar and Barney’s playing. I attended every night that he was there. As the last session closed and Barney was walking out he stopped and asked my name. I told him and he said “I want to remember you”. I was at one of his last performances in San Diego. I will always miss him.

  18. Brad Harrington

    I’m in the process of recording all my old vinyl records so I can play them on my iPod and started looking up some of my all-time favorite players.
    I had an interesting story about Mr. Kessel.
    I lived a couple of blocks from his home, though I had no clue about it until one day while riding my bike, I see this guy in a car who looks strangely familiar to me.
    I couldn’t quite figure it out and road back and forth a few times trying to place his face, when it finally occurred to me that this guy looked a lot like Barney Kessel.
    By the time I got the nerve to ask him if he was Barney, I think I had him feeling pretty nervous about what I was doing.
    He nodded in affirmation and I apologized profusely for being so rude and told him how much joy he has provided me over the years.
    To this day, his playing is some of my favorite. Awesome player. I miss him!

  19. Kent W Kistler

    I seem to remember reading sometime back that Mr. Kessel had a son-in-law who was (is) a well-known film actor, and that he taught the actor to play. Does anyone know if this is so, and who the actor is? Kent W Kistler, Palm Desert, CA.

  20. Trumpetplayer60076

    I am so thankful to have heard Barney at Rick’s Cafe in Chicago back in the early 80’s. What a truly AMAZING gift he had. I am privleged to have heard his genius in person. A fantastic player!

  21. ray king

    I had the great priviledge to meet my idol in 1988 at “Kimball’s” in San Francisco.We had a long chat, and boy I wished it had gone on for much longer. He was so very nice to me,and treated me like an old friend.I will never forget that. Not only a great,great musician, but a great man. I’d been listening to Barney since I was 14, and I’m still listening and learning today. I have photos and recordings of that evening,which we never thought were good enough to be heard by anyone, due to the poor recording. However,prompted by the sad deaths of Charlie and Barney,I have re-engineered them, and this is without doubt one of the best concerts the Great Guitars ever played- Herb and Charlie and Barney were simply stupendous. Can anyone assist with the LEGAL marketing of these 2 CD’s? Please, no sharks, genuine folk only! These important historic recordings should be heard by all fans of these great gentlemen. I would prefer , primarily, the permission of Barney’s remaining family.I did write to Concord Records, but had no answer.I will NOT part with these recordings to anyone who cannot satisfy me that they are themselves absolutely bona fide!Thank you Barney, for all those wonderful notes you gave us.

  22. Barry Watson

    I can’t believe it’s 17 years since UK promoter
    Robert Masters rang me up to tell me about Barney’s stroke.
    He was due to visit the UK for a tour and I was booked in to see him at a few places including the Royal Festival Hall with Arty Shaw, no less.
    Barney and i were close friends as I posted earlier.
    He was a very gentle and funny man….
    Highly talented and just a delight to be around.
    When he found out I played harmonica he said
    ” Barry, you and I must get in a room somewhere”!
    I wish that would have happened.
    I would have played like a deamon!
    RIP Barney.
    I will remember you for the rest of my life.
    Barry Watson.
    Westerham, Kent England.

  23. Ian Sexton

    I heard Barney being interviewed on CBC radio. Maybe his humanity but something motivated me to see him when he played at a hotel in Vancouver, B.C. By the time of the concert i’d purchased a dozen of his albums and he was gracious enough to sign them all. I lived in Vancouver then. Little did I know while living in San Diego in ’90 that Barney was there at that time. I returned in October ’92 still unaware he had been playing Elarios in La Jolla years earlier. Sadly that’s when he was to suffer the stroke that ended his playing days. If there is a heaven, for me at least, it would enable me to see him playing at Elarios. Even through the radio, his humanity touched me. Ian S. Victoria, Vancouver Island, B.C.

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