Barney Kessel was born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was strongly influenced by the pioneering electric jazz guitar sounds of Charlie Christian, and by age 16, as a high school student, he was playing guitar with local blues bands and with the University of Oklahoma Dance Band.

In 1942 Barney Kessel made his way to Los Angeles and quickly established himself as a professional musician and a guitarist to be reckoned with. He spent a year on the road with the Chico Marx band in 1943 and when he returned to Los Angeles he began pursuing a career in which he combined studio, radio and club work. He recorded with Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and others during this period, and appeared in the movie Jammin' The Blues.

In 1952 Barney Kessel joined the Norman Granz Philharmonic tour for one year, returning to Los Angeles again in 1953, where he played with Oscar Peterson and began to record as a bandleader as well. Kessel was in high demand for studio and radio work, and in fact, he swept the Downbeat, Metronome and Playboy jazz polls of 1956 as best jazz guitarist. Kessel's recording career would last almost 50 years. Unfortunately, a stroke in 1992 has made it impossible for Kessel to play any longer, but he remains one of the living legends of jazz.

Although Kessel's work was heavily influenced by Charlie Christian, especially in his earlier recordings, as he developed as an artist this influence became just one component of a broader and more individual Kessel style and technique. By the time Barney Kessel was making recordings under his own name in 1953 he was having as much influence on other guitarists as Christian had had on him. Kessel's influence on modern jazz guitar has been huge. Howard Alden (one of the foremost modern jazz guitarists) said, "As far as I'm concerned, in the dictionary under Jazz Guitar there should simply be a picture of Barney Kessel."

Barney Kessel's albums as a bandleader:

  • Swing Guitars (1953, Verve)
  • Barney Kessel, Vol. 1 (1953, Contemporary)
  • Easy Like, Vol. 1 (1953, Contemporary)
  • Barney Kessel, Vol. 2 (1954, Good Time Jazz)
  • Kessel Plays Standards (1954, Contemporary/O)
  • Barney Kessel, Vol. 3: To Swing or Not to Swing (1955, Contemporary/O)
  • Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By (1956, Contemporary/O)
  • The Poll Winners with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne (1957, Original Jazz)
  • Let's Cook (1957, Contemporary/O)
  • Modern Jazz Performances from Bizet's Carmen (1958, Original Jazz)
  • Some Like It Hot (1959, Contemporary/O)
  • The Poll Winners Ride Again (1959, Contemporary/O)
  • Poll Winners Three! (1959, Contemporary/O)
  • Barney Kessel's Swingin' Party at Contemporary (1960, Contemporary)
  • The Poll Winners/Exploring the Scene (1960, Contemporary)
  • Workin' Out (1961, Contemporary)
  • Music from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1962, Reprise)
  • Bossa Nova Plus Big Band (1962, Reprise)
  • Kessel / Contemporary Latin Rhythms (1963, Reprise)
  • On Fire (1965, Emerald)
  • Guitar Workshop (1967, Saba)
  • Blue Soul (1968, Black Lion)
  • Aquarius: The Music from Hair (1968, Black Lion)
  • Autumn Leaves (1968, Black Lion)
  • Hair Is Beautiful (1968, Atlantic)
  • Feeling Free (1969, Contemporary/O)
  • Limehouse Blues (1969, Black Lion)
  • Reflections in Rome (1969, RCA)
  • Two Way Conversation (1973, Sonet)
  • Yesterday (live) (1973, Black Lion)
  • Just Friends (1973, Sonet)
  • Three Guitars (1974, Concord Jazz)
  • Barney Plays Kessel (1975, Concord Jazz)
  • Straight Ahead (1975, Contemporary)
  • Soaring (1976, Concord Jazz)
  • Poor Butterfly (1976, Concord Jazz)
  • Live at Sometime (1977, Storyville)
  • Jellybeans (1981, Concord Jazz)
  • Solo (1981, Concord Jazz)
  • Spontaneous Combustion (1987, Contemporary)
  • With Monty Alexander (1987, Contemporary)
  • Red Hot and Blues (1988, Contemporary)

Barney Kessel was truly everywhere as a musician. As a leader, he's recorded material ranging from Carmen to Hair; but even people who have never heard of him have heard him play. From the recordings of Ricky Nelson in the 1950's and 1960's to the themes for several popular radio shows in the 1950's, Kessel was everywhere. When you saw a movie in the 1950's or 1960's you probably heard his guitar. In fact, he may be one of the most recorded musicians in the history of recorded music. Naturally, it's damn near impossible to give a complete list of recordings he appears on. Artists he's recorded with include Fred Astaire, the Beach Boys, Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Stephane Grappelli, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, and Sarah Vaughan, to name just a few; for a longer (although by no means complete) list of albums, check out


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