JJ 10/69: In My Opinion – Barney Kessel

The renowned guitarist hears Al Casey, Herb Ellis and others and settles definitively on Charlie Christian. First published in Jazz Journal October 1969

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Barney Kessel. © Harry M. Monty

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgement influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. Guitarist Barney Kessel is too well known to need any introduction from me. He commenced his professional career in 1942 playing in a band whose leader was none other than Chico Marx, but the musical activities of which were controlled by straw-boss Ben Pollock. Since those days he has resided in Los Angeles and played with such bands as those led by Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet, besides becoming increasingly active in television and studio work. He has recently come to live in London, where he says he will divide his time between trips home to America and visiting Europe. As do so many Americans, he loves London (including the bad weather, according to him), and in his own words, ‘must have the experience of living there, if only for his own growth and enjoyment.’
Sinclair Traill

‘I don’t really know if there is so much more to be said in the blues. Today it is just the icing on the cake’

Have To Change Keys To Play These Blues Eddie Lang-Lonnie Johnson Parlophone PMC 7019

Actually I have never heard Lonnie Johnson before, though I have heard Eddie Lang a few times. Such records as these are very difficult to come by in the States and very few collectors have them. Even in the short time I have been here I have noticed how much easier it is here to come by records which tell jazz’s history, than it is in America. It is most interesting to see where all us guitarists come from – these people were our ancestors, so to speak. It is still the blues and basically there was so much there already that I don’t really know if there is so much more to be said in the blues. Today it is just the icing on the cake. I mean they really said an awful lot at that time. What one hears today is just kind of built on this – a skilful development, but the gist of it all is just here. I enjoyed the record very much – real happy music, beautifully played.

Too Much Trouble T-Bone Walker Music For Pleasure MFP 1043
Well that was a most interesting record. I happen to know the whole personnel of this record with the exception of the trumpet player George Orendorf. But all the others, including T-Bone lived in Los Angeles for a number of years. I saw T-Bone the other day in Paris. His music has continued to evolve – he plays much better now even, than he does here. He now has much more scope and shows better time and rhythm. His voice is now more resonant and his guitar playing has really improved a lot. But this is a kind of forerunner of the kind of blues that went on to evolve into what B. B. King is playing today. As B. B. King is to the Eric Claptons of today, so was T-Bone to B. B. King. I can just hear the beginnings here of that shuffle rhythm that was so popular in the 50s.

T-Bone is completely evolved in the blues – his roots and complete identification are blues. But it doesn’t just happen to singers, it happens to musicians as well. For instance Harry Edison of the Basie band is a blues player – he becomes alive and magic in the blues, it is his medium. These musicians such as ‘Sweets’ play another type of song and it may come out pretty good, but get them on the blues and they immediately relate. And of course T-Bone when playing his guitar or singing is purely a blues man. Was happy to tell you how he has improved since this. His lyrics are now much more sophisticated, his voice has developed some depth and his guitar playing is much, much better.

Of Django Reinhardt: ‘…something must have happened to me for about eight years ago I suddenly grew into this comprehension of what he does and suddenly to love his playing very much’

Nuages Django Reinhardt HMV CLP 1389
That was just wonderful! Now I must admit that I didn’t start out as a Django fan, and didn’t really appreciate him until about eight years ago. When I met him in 1952 I much admired him and what he did, and admired what he had been able to accomplish from a standpoint that he was playing in a sense jazz and yet had never really been involved in true American influences. Then there was his physical affliction and many other limiting factors, such as his lack of education musically. I do much admire his playing, but it is one thing to listen to someone and think they are very clever and skilful, but quite another to be moved in your soul by them.

However something must have happened to me for about eight years ago I suddenly grew into this comprehension of what he does and suddenly to love his playing very much. To start with, one must award him full marks for being such an outstanding individualist, thoroughly creative and full of emotion. There is great fire there in his playing, with that passionate vibrato which he always used. It is always a real musical experience to listen to him. You can’t categorise him, but the emotion he displays is thoroughly satisfying for me. He is such a beautiful player that I am glad I discovered him – even eight years ago was better than not at all, and now I have the rest of my life to really enjoy him.

Buck Jumpin’ Al Casey Prestige 2007
I have only heard a few records by Al Casey and have never heard him in the flesh – wouldn’t in fact recognise his playing at all. I see he is supposed to be a forerunner to Charlie Christian, but to be honest with you I can’t quite see a lot of validity in that statement. In an historical way this is a link with what on in the past, but this sounds curiously enough like a lot of things I might have done at early age. Of course Charlie Christian went on to perfect such things as Casey plays here, but the influence is slight. I hear many things he does here which remind me of a time when I hadn’t sorted things out for myself. Things I evolved in my own way. I am not trying to put this down in any way, but what he plays sounds as if what he plays might have served as an influence for many guitar players playing today. Others have gone ahead, used these things and developed them.

The spirit’s good, the swing’s good, but what is missing to a great extent is the continuity of a line. That line which existed in Charlie Christian, in Django, and so many great players such as Lester Young, Louis Armstrong and say Roy Eldridge. These people had a continuity line, but there is a sort of effect here without a real musical line. It swings and moves along but never builds a continuous line. Yet when listening I was amazed, for although couldn’t tell who it was it sounded like someone was trying to learn what is going on today – yet it actually ends up being a forerunner. It is certainly valid and has a real place in jazz, and when listening to some of the other tracks on the LP (better ones than the one you played me) I do see how it came to be said that Charlie Christian was influenced by this man.

Tin Roof Blues Herb Ellis Columbia M 10139
I always like the things that Herb does – kind of followed in the same kind of direction as I have, and so if I like myself I would just have to like him. In a way we sort of move in the same circles, rather like Ravel and Debussy – we evolve in the same kind of approach. It is not exactly that we play the same things, but that we do have similar values. What is important to me, would certainly be important to him, and basically that is swinging and playing the blues. We both stem from Charlie Christian, but Herb has gone on his way and evolved his own style. He can get a very soulful feeling into his playing and also, more than most guitar players, get a real lot of intimate expression into what he does. In much the same way that Django did by using a vibrato, Herb gets that intimate thing – a very personal thing. Jim Hall does it too.

Heaps of guitar players I hear are either bombastic or technical. They may swing and have their own particular virtues, but the thing about Herb Ellis is that he always sounds like jazz. In person, and much more than on record, Herb sounds far better. He really can swing and can arouse a lot of excitement. When he was with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, he often had some incredible things to play – those six years they were together must have been a wonderful schooling for Herb. He is working in the States now on television. He lives in Hollywood, does radio shows and television and is kind of off the jazz scene right now. He is a great personal friend of mine, and I think when heard playing at his best (but that has never been on record) he is the strongest swinger of all the guitar players playing today.

Seven Come Eleven Charlie Christian Philips BBL 7172
Well you finally played one that I knew who it was. And I should because he was my real source of influence. I have stated many times that I am unashamedly a fan of his, just like the crowds follow Elvis Presley, or Tom Jones, so do I follow Charlie Christian. I was a young fellow when I first heard him and it became a personal thing. For the first few years I just patterned myself, as much as my talents would allow, on his playing. I would go into a record store and listen to him, and any new records he had made. Born as I was only 150 miles from where he was born in Oklahoma, I had the good fortune at about the age of 14 to play with many musicians who had played with him only three or four years before. So they were able to instill in me at that early age some of the things that he had passed along, some of the feeling, and to create a musical environment similar to the one he just came from. This was a tremendous aid to me.

‘…today I seek to be individual. I don’t mean I am not influenced by other people, for the only time one ceases to be influenced is when one is dead’

Also I had the opportunity to meet him in Oklahoma. He was extremely nice to me and we played together. By this meeting (I was sixteen) a situation happened that made me change my whole value system. It was nothing he said or did, it was just a matter that came up. If it hadn’t come up I may never have changed at all, but when I had the opportunity to play with him, I suddenly thought, now here we are going to sit down and play together. He’s a little older than I, but I can only play two ways. I can either play like I have imitated him on his records, and dare I do this to his face, or I can play the way I play which is very, very mediocre. It made me realise at this point that I had better find myself, because I was really in a dilemma, and had this not come up I might have been very happy to go along through life patterning myself on many people, always picking the contemporary favourite. And this is what happens with music and art so much, so many people do copy to a degree. It is one thing to be influenced but quite another to dismerit oneself and just copy. So today I seek to be individual. I don’t mean I am not influenced by other people, for the only time one ceases to be influenced is when one is dead. I try to listen to things and see what’s going on, but I stopped copying at that time. I find in the arts the things that really become valid and have a meaning is when the individual gets a chance to rise and develop, when he truly becomes himself – when he finds himself and develops what he has.

However let us not lose sight of the fact that Charlie Christian is still my favourite jazz guitarist. He came along and brought about a situation that had never occurred before. When you heard Charlie Christian one didn’t say, he plays the guitar rather well, what you said was, what he is playing is jazz on that instrument and it compares favourably if not excels what the other horn men are playing around him. He has certainly been the major influence on any guitar player playing today and all of us have a little of Charlie Christian in us – some more than a little. And some I have heard could certainly stand to have a little – it would help ’em.

Looking over that again today, though I don’t know what the point of view is of the historians, I think the lines of music that Charlie Christian made at that time stand up better today than the lines created by most other people. It is kind of like wearing a trench-coat that might have been good in 1927, but if that trench-coat was good in 1927 and is still pretty darn good today, then that’s a classic line, it transcends time, it does wear well, it stands up. Whereas the other things sound dated and were good for the time, the things that Charlie Christian did, sound good, period!