Barney Kessel


Barney Kessel

October 17, 1923 – May 6, 2004

Barney Kessel became a guitarist by accident. In 1935, he was selling newspapers on a street corner when he saw a guitar in a pawn shop window. He bought it, along with a how-to-play book for a dollar. His mother issued an ultimatum – either play it or get rid of it – after learning that the instrument was stashed in a broom closet. He chose to play it.

For three months, four hours a day, six days a week, Barney struggled with the instrument as he took advantage of free lessons offered at a government-sponsored school. At the age of 13, Kessel discovered the jazz of Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, and Jimmie Lunceford. He said, “It was almost like a mist lifted.”

As Kessel’s career developed, his style became modeled closely on that of fellow Oklahoman Charlie Christian, the guitarist who played to great acclaim with the racially integrated Benny Goodman Sextet. The pair soon met, but when Mr. 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."

In 1940, he moved to Los Angeles. From there his career led him to New York. Kessel continued playing for film and television until 1969 when he based himself in London, playing European clubs and concerts. Barney played and taught in Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Austria, Canada, Japan and the U.S.

Kessel died on May 6, 2004 in California, following a bout with brain cancer.


  • Vol. 1: Easy Like (Contemporary Records, 1953/1955)
  • Vol. 2: Kessel Plays Standards (Contemporary Records, 1954/1955)
  • Vol. 3: To Swing or Not to Swing (Contemporary Records, 1955) with Sweets Edison, Georgie Auld, Jimmy Rowles
  • Music to Listen to Barney Kessel by (Contemporary Records, 1956)
  • The Poll Winners (Contemporary Records, 1957) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Let's Cook! (Contemporary Records, 1957)
  • The Poll Winners Ride Again (Contemporary Records, 1958) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Kessel plays Carmen (Contemporary Records, 1958)
  • The Poll Winners Three! (Contemporary Records, 1959) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Some Like It Hot (Contemporary Records, 1959) with Art Pepper
  • The Poll Winners - Exploring the Scene! (Contemporary Records, 1960) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Barney Kessel's Swingin' Party at Contemporary (Contemporary Records, 1960)
  • Bossa Nova (1962)
  • Workin' Out with the Barney Kessel Quartet (Contemporary Records, 1961)
  • Feeling Free (Contemporary Records, 1969) with Bobby Hutcherson, Elvin Jones
  • The Poll Winners - Straight Ahead (Contemporary Records, 1975) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Solo (Concord Records, 1981)
  • Spontaneous Combustion (Contemporary Records, 1987) with the Monty Alexander Trio
  • Red Hot and Blues (Contemporary Records, 1988) with Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Ben Riley