When jazz historians look back at the twentieth century and the musicians who pioneered jazz as an art form, Barney Kessel will be considered third in the holy trinity of jazz guitarists, behind only Django Rheinhardt and Charlie Christian, Kessel's primary influence. Kessel is widely recognized as one of the best improvisational guitarists in the world. Born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and growing up in the African American business and entertainment district, he was exposed to the raging sounds of jazz as well as the popular songs of the day in movie theaters, where he was a ticket taker. After playing with groups in Muskogee, Stillwater, and Norman, he relocated to southern California, where he based his entire career. Kessel's list of collaborators reads like a jazz who's who: Lionel Hampton, Lester Young, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Artie Shaw, and Ben Webster. Kessell was voted Best Guitarist in Down Beat's Readers Poll (1956-59), among many other awards of recognition.
He was not limited to jazz, however, and played on sessions with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, Marlene Dietrich, and Gene Autry. He recorded music for hundreds of films and music for many television commercials. He suffered a massive stroke in 1992, which ended his public performances. Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century Kessel was feted around the world with honorary concerts and awards.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Hugh W. Foley, Jr., "Jazz from Muskogee, Oklahoma: Eastern Oklahoma as a Hearth of Musical Culture" (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 2000). Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994).
Hugh W. Foley, Jr.
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