Influential jazz guitarist Barney Kessel dead at 80


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SAN DIEGO - Barney Kessel, one of the most influential and innovative jazz guitarists of his time, has died at the age of 80.

Kessel died Thursday at his San Diego home of a malignant brain tumor, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday. He had been in poor health since suffering a stroke 12 years ago.

Kessel worked with a veritable who's who of jazz that included Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Artie Shaw, Shelly Manne and fellow guitarist Charlie Byrd. From the 1940s to the 1960s, he was frequently rated jazz's top guitarist by such magazines as Down Beat, Esquire and Playboy.

“Barney was a wonderfully lyrical and melodic player and could also swing very hard," jazz critic Nat Hentoff told the Times. “He was a guy who could sit in and play with everybody. He had what jazz players call `big ears,' meaning he had a great capacity to listen and to respond musically to what he was hearing."

One of the pioneers of electric guitar, Kessel recorded and appeared in concert with fellow guitarists Byrd and Herb Ellis as the “Great Guitars" and with Manne and bassist Ray Brown in a groundbreaking piano-less trio.

He appeared on more than 50 albums, either as a band leader or sideman, working not only with jazz greats but rockers like Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson and the Beach Boys. He also worked with pianist Liberace and played on the soundtrack for the Paul Newman film “Cool Hand Luke."

In the late 1960s, he owned Barney Kessel's Music World in Hollywood, which attracted such customers as blues guitarist Eric Clapton and the Beatles' guitarists George Harrison and John Lennon.

He published the instruction manual “The Guitar: A Tutor," in 1967.

Kessel, who was self-taught, originally modeled his style on that of fellow Oklahoman Charlie Christian.

He was still in his teens when he became the only white musician in Ellis Ezell's band in 1937, touring black clubs throughout Oklahoma. Within a year, he'd switched from acoustic to electric guitar.

Soon after that, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Chico Marx Orchestra and later the Shaw and Charlie Barnet bands.

In 1944 he appeared in the Oscar-nominated short feature film “Jammin' the Blues," where he was, again, the only white member of the band. He also worked on the 1950s films “The Wild Party" and “Hot Rod Girl" and the television series “Johnny Staccato."

Kessel is survived by his wife, Phyllis; his sons guitarists Dan and David Kessel; three stepchildren; and five grandchildren.

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