Barney Kessel: I Took A Trip On A Train

The other day, a friend sent me a remarkable YouTube clip of Jim Hall and Barney Kessel in duo, taking “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” apart. I hadn’t heard it before, or even about it. And it’s not something I would have ever searched for or even imagined, because, while their paths certainly must have crossed often enough in Los Angeles after Hall’s arrival there in 1955, they’re not two guitarists one would naturally throw together.

Nonetheless, it’s quite amazing how easily they dovetail and how each effects the other here. They’re both in adventurous, exploratory form and right off the bat there are delicious little sparks of dissonance and clusters of bitonality. Jim sounds more outwardly virtuosic and extroverted here than usual and even throws in a sly-funny quote from “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” at one point. And along with some of the angular, dipsy-doodle shapes that only he could play, Barney’s comping is quite Jim Hall-like in places. The video quality is a bit wobbly in a “Plan 9 From Outer Space” way, and I wish there was more information given, like when and where. By the looks of Jim, I’d say late-fifties, early-sixties. (Ed. note: Since posting this, jazz history-guitar-whiz Ben Bishop has informed me that this was done at the Berlin Guitar Workshop on Nov. 5, 1967.) Here they are, fasten your seat-belts:

In terms of sheer technique and versatility, Kessel was one of the most complete jazz guitarists ever. By this, I don’t mean that I think Barney Kessel was “better” than Jim Hall or any other guitarist, of course not. I mean that in his prime he was an extraordinarily powerful and orchestral player with a great deal of range on the instrument, and he blazed a lot of trails for future guitarists. When I worked with Oscar Peterson, he told me quite openly that when Barney was in his trio (before Herb Ellis), he grew accustomed to being played off the stage by the guitarist – “Barney was cutting my ass, and it was my goddamn trio!” he’d bellow, then laugh. As you can imagine, Oscar didn’t admit stuff like that too readily or lightly, but he meant it. And if you listen to any records by that trio from about 1952-53, you can hear it – Kessel was pistol-hot then and came to play.

In July of 1984 I heard Barney give the most amazing impromptu solo guitar “concert” one could ever imagine. On a train, of all places. I’d just finished a four-week tour of the Soviet Union with Fraser MacPherson, Oliver Gannon, and Jake Hanna. Instead of going our separate ways at tour’s end, we flew to Montreal to do a couple of concerts at the festival there. But first we had a couple of all-important days off, which we did not waste by sleeping. It was great to debrief from the “gray bar” like this, during a jazz festival no less. I remember Jake saying, “To hell with the jet-lag, let’s stay up as long as we can and eat and drink everything in sight till we drop”, and that’s pretty much what he and I did.

After our Montreal gigs, we took a train to Ottawa to do one last concert on Canada Day, at an outdoor stage behind the House of Commons. The Great Guitars – Barney, Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd, and their rhythm section – joined us on the train and the concert. About halfway to Ottawa, the train slowed to a crawl, then stopped altogether. I forget if it was a track problem or mechanical trouble, but we were stranded in the middle of nowhere for about an hour. So Barney just hauled out his guitar  – the same one in the video, in fact that’s the only guitar he ever used – and started playing for his own amusement.

He played everything you could imagine, and then some: cowboy songs, some short classical guitar pieces, some old tunes in a kind of country-stride, finger-picking style, ballads with ultra-hip chord substitutions, some Spanish stuff with amazing tremolos, blues, bebop tunes like “Jordu” and “Whisper Not”, some chord-solo things.

It was extraordinary, and hugely entertaining. Some of it was intentionally funny, but none of it was flashy or corny. It was more like brilliant throwaway – he just naturally played the hell out of the guitar like this, all the time. It sounded like he’d prepared for months, but he was just playing stuff off the top of his head for fun.

About five minutes in, a small crowd of complete strangers had all gathered round just to hear him, he had the whole damn car mesmerized. Ollie Gannon, who knew Barney and was a huge fan, was just drooling. He said he knew Kessel was great, but not that great. Even Jake Hanna liked it. After about 40 minutes, the train lurched into motion and that was that – I remember Barney saying “That’s all, folks!!”, like at the end of the Warner Bros. cartoons. I’ll never forget it.

Another funny thing about that day – Ollie’s guitar somehow didn’t make it onto the train. It was in a big flight case so he’d checked it as baggage along with my bass and Jake’s drums. We’d gone all over hell’s half-acres for a month in the Soviet Union without a hitch, and then his guitar got (temporarily) lost on a 100-mile train trip in Canada. So Oliver got to play Barney’s guitar on that concert. He said you could feel how much great playing had been done on it over the years; it practically played itself even though it was a big one.

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When Barney was giving his little train-salon solo concert, I had no way of knowing that I’d have the good fortune of playing with him in the near future for two fairly long stretches and would come to know him pretty well as a result. The first occasion came in the fall of 1989, when Barney joined the Oliver Jones trio for the Spanish leg of a tour that had begun in Ireland at the Cork Guinness Jazz Festival. We played both clubs and concerts and had some adventures while attuning ourselves to the “always-later” Spanish schedule – the gigs wouldn’t start till about 10:30 or 11:00 and might not finish till 2:30 in the morning.

On the strength of this, Barney hired me a couple of years later to do a short duo tour in Ontario, with concerts in Toronto, Sudbury, Kingston and Ottawa, followed by a week back in Toronto at The Bermuda Onion, where we were joined by Mark Eisenman on piano and John Sumner on drums.

I discovered that, both as a man and a guitarist, Barney Kessel could fool you – there was often more to him than met the eye, or the ear. The paradox of Barney revolved around the contrast between the outward manifestations of his Oklahoma roots – a sometimes tasteless dress sense (bright polyester checks, bizarre colour combinations, strange neckwear, etc.), the country twang that permeated his speech and sometimes his playing – and the reality underneath all this: that he was a very intelligent, sensitive, sophisticated guy, a kind of sagebrush sage. I think he delighted in playing the shit-kicker, partly out of irony to hide the wicked wit, wisdom and humour that often lurked beneath the surface.

His playing could be similarly deceptive. Along with the occasional bull-in-a-china-shop moment of chunkiness, or a blues lick twanged out perhaps too obviously, there were moments of delicacy and ideas so intricate that nobody would ever think of playing them, never mind being able to execute them so cleanly. He’d listened to and played an extraordinary range of music over his career and this showed in the scope of his playing. In his own way, he balanced the orchestral/chordal and the linear aspects of the guitar as well as anyone who ever played it.

These abilities can be amply heard in the marvelous series of records he made in the 1950s and early-60s for Contemporary. Each of them is entirely different and together they constitute a major body of work in the history of jazz guitar. Apart from dates as a leader, there was also the famous Poll-Winners series of albums, made with a collective, studio-only trio of Kessel, Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, and showing an amazing array of repertoire, textures and musical approaches for such a stripped-down group. Above all, they’re beautifully recorded and fun to listen to.

In his dress, humour, and playing, Barney liked to occasionally push his sense of the mildly outrageous, it was his way of fighting boredom and predictability. Some of it may well have come from his time as a young man working in Chico Marx’s band, that would do it. He’d come up with slightly kooky things like bright red pants with a white belt, or impossibly jagged phrase-shapes, or howling one-liners, such as the one he got off one day when he and I went for a walk on a scorching day in Barcelona. After about five minutes of trudging we were just drenched when he suddenly blurted out, “Maaann, it’s hotter than dawg shit on a tin roof!”. The line and the perfectly-timed, drawling delivery just fractured me, I fell out. Sweets Edison couldn’t have said it any better and it still makes me laugh.

Travel on some of the 1991 duo tour was by train and instead of entertaining me with an off-the-cuff guitar concert, this time Barney regaled me with fascinating and hilarious stories about his career in L.A., which made the hours fly by like minutes. He loved to talk, and the twang of his delivery made everything he said that much more funny, wise, and memorable.

He told me that when he first arrived in L.A. in the early-forties from Muskogee he had nothing but his guitar, a cheap suitcase, and two dollars in his pocket. He was so green that the first time he saw a finger bowl with the water and little chunks of lemon offered in a restaurant, he thought it was soup.

He talked about being in JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, Gjon Mili’s celebrated 1944 art film featuring Lester Young. How they rubbed burnt cork on his face and the backs of his hands so he’d look black like everybody else in the band. About how proud he was of being in the movie when they could just as easily have hired a black guitarist. And because it involved Pres, who, along with Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker, was his all-time musical idol.

He held forth on all sorts of things. About how rich and busy the jazz scene in California was during the forties and fifties, and how quickly it declined starting in the early-sixties. Or all the terrific jazz rhythm-guitarists there were in L.A. back then – men like Jack Marshall, Al Hendrickson and Dempsey Wright – who hardly anybody knew of anymore. About all the anonymous studio work he’d done in the sixties, saying the “hardest thing about it was finding a parking spot.” And how much fun the Poll-Winners albums were to make and how great Ray Brown and Shelly Manne were to play with and be with, like brothers.

About the sad toll drugs had taken on musicians he’d known and liked – men like Sonny Criss, Wardell Gray, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Bob Whitlock, and many others. And how deeply eccentric and self-effacing Jimmy Rowles was, which Barney thought had kept the jazz audience at large from ever realizing how truly great a musician he was.

And really funny, wild stuff, like how impossible it was to golf with Sweets Edison and Ray Brown, because you couldn’t make a shot for laughing. The long, deeply affectionate friendship between Sweets and Shelly, which manifested itself in an escalating series of insults and tongue-in-cheek, racially-tinged pranks. Such as one night when Sweets came into a gig early and put little velvet yarmulkes over the cups of Shelly’s cymbals, and the next night Shelly came in and tightly packed the bell of Sweets’ trumpet with cotton balls. And on and on – “those guys were bad”, Barney chuckled.

Or the combination motel-porno shop business that Monty Budwig and his wife ran in the seventies, and the outlandish sex products they sold. It was Barney who told me that the great line “So many drummers, so little time” came from Monty’s wife, and that she’d had it printed up on t-shirts and sold them – man, I’d love to have one of those.

Or the comedy that ensued on a European tour Barney had done with a band including Joe Newman and George Duvivier, right after Joe had invested in the newly-invented inflatable penile-implant. I loved Joe’s playing but had had some unpleasant experiences working with him, so my ears pricked up at this, no pun intended. Duvivier was relentless in his skewering of Joe and his new high-tech device, dubbing him “Joe Newdick” and asking “Man, what’s a lady supposed to do in bed while you’re pumpin’ up that store-bought dick? – read WAR AND PEACE!?”

Barney had me on the ropes and I barely had time to stop laughing at one story before he’d start the next. It felt like we made it from Toronto to Kingston in about twenty minutes instead of two hours. As funny as he could be, he could also be very nice and thoughtful, as these stories show:

One afternoon in Spain I was practicing in my hotel room, unaware that Barney had the room next door. I warmed up with a few scales and arpeggios, then went to work on a couple of Charlie Parker tunes, “Scrapple From the Apple”, then “Ornithology”. I played the heads, then alternated between soloing and walking choruses on each. The bass sounded good in the room and I was into it pretty well when I heard a knock at the door.

‘Uh-oh” I thought, “someone’s going to complain about the noise”. I opened the door and Barney was standing there, grinning. Before I could apologize, he said “Steve, sorry to interrupt, but I have to tell you, that’s the most I’ve enjoyed listening to someone practice in a long time. I was layin’ on the bed really diggin it, so keep it up!”.

He went back to his room and left me standing there feeling really good, but open-mouthed in astonishment. I went back to practicing, but of course now I was aware that he was next door listening, so I was a little self-conscious. I tried playing a bunch of stuff that I thought would impress him, and only ended up sounding like an idiot.

After one of the concerts on the duo tour, he drew me aside and said, “Whatever you’re making on this tour, it’s probably not enough, so take this”, thrusting $500 into my hand. I protested that I was being paid fine and having a ball, so I didn’t want to accept it. But he insisted, saying “You’ve earned it.”

He also had a serious, philosophical side. One time in Spain, we had a really brutal 6:30 a.m. lobby call after getting in at 3:30 from that night’s gig. This meant maybe catching a couple of hours’ sleep, then showering and packing for a journey. At 6:20 we were all in the lobby, checked out and ready to go. Then we proceeded to wait over an hour until the promoter showed up.

About twenty minutes into this wait, Barney started pacing around, giving voice to what we all were thinking. “This motherfucker said 6:30 to be safe, but he meant 7:30 because he assumed we’d be late. After all, we’re jazz musicians – unreliable bums, screw-ups, always late. And look at us, we’re all here, sharp as pressed slacks. Jazz musicians are always taking this shit, but we don’t deserve it – we’re not second-class citizens, we’re artists, goddamn it! We have the most finely-calibrated sense of time there is. We don’t think in terms of minutes, or even seconds, we deal in microseconds. Think about it, if somebody counts in a tempo, or the conductor gives a downbeat and you come in an eighth of a second too late, you’re done, you’re way behind and everybody knows it!”

I’d never thought about it like that, but he was right. Since then, I’ve never taken any crap about being a musician, I learned a new respect for my profession right then and there. And let me tell you, so did the tardy promoter when Barney got in his face that morning. Boy, did he get an earful.

Something similar happened at our Ottawa duo concert. It was in a smallish, steep amphitheater in the National Arts Centre. It had been heavily promoted and sold out, it was a bit of a big deal. We wore suits and after checking out the amps and running through a few things, we repaired to the dressing room before the house entered. We were introduced to a local radio personality who was going to emcee, which was news to us. He had grey hair in a ponytail and was dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, with cowboy boots. He looked like a cross between a hippie and a biker, which was a cross Barney could not bear.

Barney took one look at him, and went off. “Now wait a goddamn minute. Look at us – we’re wearin’ suits for Chrissakes, this is a concert hall. And you show up lookin’ like a rock ‘n’ roll bozo at our concert, disrespecting us? You’re not announcing nothin’, you don’t know jack-shit about our music!”

And then he looked at the guy, who was turning beet-red and had tears forming in his eyes. Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, he stopped his rant. He realized the guy meant no disrespect, he just didn’t know any better. And he grabbed both his hands and said, “I’m real sorry man, I didn’t mean to go off on you so hard. Everything’s cool, go ahead and announce us”. I was stunned at the turnabout. They had a nice conversation and it turned out the radio guy was actually a pretty knowledgeable fan.

Barney was still upset after the concert. He told me he was sick and tired of seeing jazz disrespected and misunderstood like this year after year, but that he shouldn’t have taken it out so personally on one guy. He felt really bad about it, but something snapped inside him when he first saw the guy, he was the last straw.

So, like many artists, Barney was a complicated guy, with many sides. After that duo trip he took my address and occasionally dropped me a line. Shortly after that tour he had a stroke, from which he partially recovered. His wife sent me a note with the news about his brain cancer in 2001, which both touched and upset me. I wanted to talk to him but she said there wasn’t much point, he was pretty far gone, and he died later that year. I’m awfully glad to have known Barney, he was another major step in the eradication of my jazz ignorance, a process which continues to this very day. I’ll never know enough about this music.

I’ll leave you with a couple of favourite Barney Kessel tracks among many. The first is “How High The Moon” from the album SONNY ROLLINS AND THE CONTEMPORARY LEADERS, made during the same period as WAY OUT WEST. Shelly Manne and Hampton Hawes hadn’t arrived at the studio yet, this is an informal warm-up jam with Sonny, Barney and Leroy Vinnegar. But It yielded such interesting music that they issued it along with the full band tracks. It shows what Barney was capable of both as an accompanist and soloist in heady company:

And “Begin the Blues”, from my favourite Kessel album, TO SWING OR NOT TO SWING – Barney always made the former choice. Jimmy Rowles, piano; Al Hendrickson, rhythm guitar, Red Mitchell, bass, and Shelly Manne, drums. Fast company, some of his favourite players and Barney Kessel knew just what to do with them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “Barney Kessel: I Took A Trip On A Train

  1. Interesting column! I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years, have seen both these cats live, am a guitarist, and have always considered Kessel’s comping to be kind of simplistic and his feel kind of chunky- his chords don’t sink into the songs, to my ears, they sit there like a stack of dishes in the sink. Unlike, for eg, Jim Hall, Ed Bickert, even Lenny Breau. However, w/o a doubt I would bow to your ears, which hear jazz much better than i do. (Not to mention the other folks you quote in this post!) It’s a surprise to read, tho!

  2. There has to be a link between been really, really smart and being a great musician. And toss in empathy and humour…

    Certainly, in my experience, both Barney and Jim fit the bill.

  3. I bet those old guys pretty much packed it in once they heard what Thin Lizzy could do with two guitars! By the way, the video is from the Berlin Festival Guitar Workshop, filmed on Nov. 5, 1967. Thanks for the anecdotes!

  4. Great story Steve. Though I have long dug Barney Kessel’s playing, the way Oscar Peterson described him with such accolades comes as a bit of a surprise.

  5. Wow… never heard those two play together before although it seemed like a logical choice to me. Now I wonder why they didn’t do this all the time. I do have perfect pitch and they are definitely playing in C, although the tune itself goes back and forth between C and Ab naturally.

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