Barney Kessel, a pioneer of bebop guitar and a leading figure in the West Coast jazz of the 1950s and ’60s, died May 6 of brain cancer. He was 80.
As front man and a featured artist, he recorded more than 60 albums, many of them for Lester Koenig’s Contemporary Records. After learning jazz in Los Angeles, Kessel studied classical guitar, piano, orchestration and film scoring. His work in Hollywood as an arranger and musician included hundreds of films and TV shows and major commercials.
Kessel is a credited ensemble player on hundreds of records as well as a session player on thousands of pop and rock hit records, including singles and albums.
Born in Muskogee, Okla., he picked up the guitar at age 12, left home and started playing professionally at age 14 and soon after, became a regular in Los Angeles’ thriving Central Avenue jazz district.
In 1940 when Kessel was 16, he jammed for three days with his idol, the electric guitar pioneer and fellow Oklahoman Charlie Christian. After that session, Kessel decided he needed to develop his own style. He worked, as Christian did, in big bands, starting with Chico Marx in 1943 and eventually joining the bands of Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and Christian’s former employer Benny Goodman.
Charlie Parker had Kessel join his group in 1946 after the famed saxophonist had relocated to the West Coast. During 1952 and ’53, Kessel was the original guitarist in the Oscar Peterson Trio.
Kessel appeared in the 1944 Academy Award nominated Warner Bros. short feature, “Jammin’ the Blues”. He was the only white musician in an otherwise all black band that included tenor sax guru, Lester Young.
Jack Warner was concerned about losing money in the South from likely boycotting because of Kessel’s presence with the other black musicians, so he had the cameraman shoot Kessel from a distance and in the shadows. When that didn’t work Warner told his make-up department to darken Kessel’s face and hands. Kessel ended up darker than the light-skinned Young.
Kessel’s guitar artistry can be heard in the Orson Welles’ film noir masterpiece, “A Touch of Evil,” and Billy Wilder’s comedy “Some Like It Hot.”
Kessel was head of A&R for Verve Records in Beverly Hills from 1956 to 1960, where he signed Ricky Nelson and produced his earliest hit recordings.
He performed on all the mid-period Beach Boys hits — “I Get Around”, “California Girls”, “Dance, Dance, Dance” –and introduced Brian Wilson to the Thermin instrument, which would play a key role on the song “Good Vibrations.”
He is survived by his wife, Phyllis and two sons.