Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Barney Kessel: An Interview With Gene Lees


© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.


"The important things for a musician to be concerned with are (1) whether you are able to play what you sincerely think, and (2) to have what you think be worth the playing."   
- Barney Kessel, Jazz guitarist

Guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne helped me to come of age in Jazz.

Initially through the series of “Poll Winner” recordings they made under the auspices of Les Koenig at Contemporary Records and later through professional associations and personal friendships, Barney, Ray and Shelly made endearing and enduring impressions on me and on my life.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to look back at Barney Kessel during a critical juncture in his career as described in the following interview he gave to Jazz author, editor and publisher, Gene Lees in 1961.

If, at some future time, somebody writes a study of the forces that have formed the playing of Barney Kessel, it will be interesting to note whether any mention is made of (a) boxcars and (b) contemporary business management concepts.

For these are in fact two of the major influences in Kessels playing, boxcars being the earliest and such books as James T. McKay's The Management of Time being the latest.

Kessel, in fact, talks more like a management consultant specialist (or efficiency expert, to resurrect the now-unfashionable synonym) than a musician. He is intensely concerned with the ordering of his music, his life, and, to whatever extent it is possible, his environment.

In case that suggests to you that he is just another of the breed of businessmen jazzmen, check with anyone who heard his quartet during its engagements in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere a few weeks ago. Making his first tour in years, Kessel startled eastern-based musicians and the public alike with his earthy, powerful, and astonishingly skillful playing. It was a far cry from what the majority expected from a "west coast" musician, and above all, one who has shown a distressing lack of disdain for the money to be made from Hollywood studio dates.

Yet once you scratch below the surface, you find there is no contradiction here. There is a consistency of style in everything a man does, schizoid temperaments and rank imitators excepted, and Kessel is nothing if not consistent. His efficiency fixation is reflected in his personal habits (he neither smokes nor drinks and keeps himself in shape by diligent thrice-daily exercising), in his attitude to his future (he has decided to keep up some of his Hollywood studio work for the sake of his bank account while leaving every six months to make eight-week national tours for the sake of his self), and his approach to his instrument (he'd like to learn classical guitar but feels that the time is better spent developing his jazz playing, since that is his chief purpose in life).

One of the views expressed in The Management of Time actually had a great deal to do with Kessel's return to the road as a jazz musician. McKay said the world is changing so fast that many ideas are obsolete before they are off the drawing board. The individual who merely tries to do a good job, but nothing more, is doomed to be left behind. Part of each day, McKay insisted, must be spent in self-development.

Kessel agreed. He decided he was not developing in the Hollywood studios. But instead of moaning about the pity of it all while enjoying the pleasures of his mink-lined trap, he took the kind of direct action that seems typical of him: he formed a quartet, packed up, and went back on the road.

"Working in Los Angeles has every advantage except musical growth," he said. "Once you've arrived at the point where, while you are not wealthy, there is at least no urgency about what you're going to eat and where you're going to sleep, there's time to look around and ask, 'Is what I'm doing what I really want to do?'

"Supposedly you've arrived, when you do this kind of work in Los Angeles. But the question is have you arrived so far as you yourself are concerned? Acclaim means nothing to me unless I feel I'm earning it myself. I have won the Down Beat poll all this time without having played in public in seven years.

"In jazz, the great stress is on individuality. In commercial work, the stress is on subduing it, so that the performance has no individualism.

"I began as a youngster wanting only to play jazz. Later, my goals changed to going to Hollywood and developing the skills necessary to being a competent studio musician, which is, for the reason I mentioned, exactly the opposite of playing jazz.

"I went into commercial work a long time ago. I left it in 1953 to go on the road with the Oscar Peterson Trio. For 10 months, I was completely in jazz. Then, for seven years, I was back in Hollywood and the commercial field. At last I came to the time where I found there was no chance to develop myself in jazz. And so I felt I had to get back into it.

"Now I'm realizing more about what my personal needs are. I want to enjoy as high a standard of living as possible and have permanent roots in a community, but I also want to be in an environment where I can continue to participate in jazz and develop. That's why I want to make two tours a year.

"It was bad to become completely enmeshed in studio work. On the other hand, it isn't in my best interests to stay on the road all the time. The plan now is to keep a group constantly intact and work with it in the Los Angeles area most of the year, plus doing as much studio work as presents itself, plus making the tours. This would keep the group in front of the public and at the same time serve as a stimulant for me so that I could return to the community with the feeling that I'd been able to express myself on the road.

"It's ironic. I started out wanting only to play jazz, then changed my goals, and now I want to play jazz again."

Kessel thinks he may have come full circle in another way, as well.

"I remember when Lennie Tristano and the cool school were the rage, I used to get write-ups saying that my playing was too earthy." His not-handsome face suddenly burst into one of the brightest smiles to be found anywhere in jazz. "Now earthiness seems to be fashionable. It is accepted again."

Kessel's playing can, in fact, be almost startlingly earthy. In the midst of a long and sophisticated flow of intelligently-chosen notes, you'll suddenly hear a nasal twang that comes right out of the blues and is a first cousin to hillbilly playing. This sound is one that has been attributed to the corruptive influence of the rock-and-roll dates Kessel has played in Hollywood. Actually, it predates his Hollywood experience by a good many years.


"I came from a little town of 30,000 in Oklahoma, called Muskogee," Kessel said. "The railway tracks ran right by my house. The first guitar players I ever heard were tramps and hoboes who used to sit in the boxcars playing.

"So this bending of strings, this twang, is something I grew up with. I think that when something is genuinely part of one's previous experience, then that is valid for that person. But sometimes these things can be affected, and the question I would ask about a lot of younger musicians trying to play with a blues flavor is, Tm being me. Who are they being?'

"You know, there's another thing I've heard about my playing. It's been said that I copy Charlie Christian.

"There's no doubt that I was a fan of his. I idolized his playing, and when I was in high school, I waited for his records to come out. And I think I sounded like him in the early years of my playing.

"But we both came from Oklahoma. I grew up only about 150 miles from where he lived. He was only about five or six years older than I, and I played with many musicians he had been playing with before he went with Benny Goodman. They taught me how to play. So I was exposed to the same influences Charlie Christian was.

"But I don't think that my playing today sounds as much like Charlie Christian as Charlie Christian sounded like Al Casey and Eddie Durham. I invite anybody to listen to Eddie Durham on Jimmy Lunceford records and particularly Al Casey on Buck Jumpin'. On Buck Jumpin' you'll hear snatches of material Charlie Christian played with the Benny Goodman Sextet.

"But Charlie Christian completely deserves the position he now holds. It's easier to fly the ship across the Atlantic after Lindbergh did it."

If Kessel resists the imputations of excessive Charlie Christian influence, he confesses fully and gladly to the influence of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In doing, he provides a most succinct statement of their significance.

"Charlie Parker's chief contribution was liberation from the old melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic concepts," Kessel said. "Up until that time, many die-hards felt that the rhythm section's function was to keep the horns from rushing or dragging with a steady thump-thump 4/4. The rhythm section players were so busy being timekeepers that they couldn't lend the beauty and dimension that percussion lends in classical music.

"Charlie Parker's and Dizzy's influence on the rhythm section was indirect. They didn't tell the section how to play, but their songs were so different that the rhythm section had to adapt itself for it to make sense.

"I felt an enormous sense of release because of Dizzy and Charlie Parker and that little band that they had. Until that time, it seemed to me that the highest point of development in jazz was to be found in the Benny Goodman Sextet and in the Basie band with Lester Young and Harry Edison. And I felt that I was saying all I could say in the context that existed, namely in an environment erected by the big bands of the early 1940s.

"Many musicians had begun to feel confined. There was a movement on the west coast, which I was part of, before we ever heard Parker. We were making up our own songs with more interesting chord changes and melodic lines than most of the songs being played by the big bands. But it was nothing like what Charlie Parker and Dizzy did. It wasn't up to that. But the desire was there.

"They liberated jazz. And now, because of them, I can see that the possibilities in jazz music are infinite. I feel that the future trends will consist in taking one of these elements — rhythm, harmony, melody — and focusing more attention on it than the others.

"It seems to me that, in the broad sense of it, the shifting into what we call fads is simply a turning with intensity to one of these elements.

"The current Miles Davis seems to stress simplicity and harmony, and less frequent chord changes, with more emphasis on melodic invention. In other words, the action comes from the melody, and not from the harmony.

"In Art Blakey, on the other hand, the stress is on the rhythm. John Coltrane has been emphasizing the harmonic aspects of it.

"Art Tatum was harmonic, to me. I don't think I could sing one note of melody from Tatum. And I think that what made Charlie Parker a giant was that he developed all three facets of his music to the marked degree that he did."

If Kessel sees the possibilities in the future of jazz as being "infinite," this doesn't mean he is happy with current trends. In fact, he says that during his recent tour he heard only two things that impressed him to any great extent: Nina Simone and Gil Evans' writing for his new band. He also liked Art Blakey and Horace Silver — the leaders, their arrangements, and the ensemble playing. "The soloists weren't too inspiring," he said.

"The jazz world has lost its Messiah, and they're running around looking for a leader. Have you ever stopped to think why there's a Sonny Rollins, a John Coltrane, an Ornette Coleman?

"Why are so many musicians insisting on going against the grain, when it's so much easier and more logical to go with it?

"I think it's a matter of wanting to belong, wanting to be accepted, and realizing there's only a certain amount of acceptance in being a second-hand Charlie Parker or a second-hand Lester Young — even though the way they played was natural and with the grain.

"It's healthy that some are seeking to be something other than second-hand versions of somebody else, but not too much of the music coming out of it is valid.

"Frankly, I find some of the musicians I've encountered on the road rather ridiculous. They're like children, the way they dress, the way they talk. It seems everything is Something else' these days. Or is it 'out of sight'?

"It seems to me that the standard of musicianship is higher than it used to be — the number of people who are playing well and how well they are playing. But so far as inventiveness is concerned — no. They're all playing follow the leader.

"The thing that disturbs me is that musicians in general are so hungry for acceptance by musicians on their own level that they will allow their own musical individualism to remain dormant, just for a slap on the back from somebody who says, That's great, man, you sound just like Bird, or Miles, or whoever it is.

"Yet as far as the new voices coming out are concerned, only time will tell how valuable they really are. Maybe 300 years from now, the Encyclopedia Brittanica will say: 'Jazz music — a limited musical form in which the work of Art Tatum will serve to illustrate what was possible within the form.'

"It may be that none of us is saying anything that will be valid in the future."

Kessel, in point of fact, feels that even though the possibilities of jazz are "infinite" there is still a very real danger that jazz will kill itself off, "because the people in it do not have the discipline over themselves as people to go on and develop themselves as musicians, or to develop the music to any great extent."

This concern has been voiced by a variety of mature jazz musicians recently. Dizzy Gillespie summed it up a few months ago by saying that young musicians seemed interested only in what the masters did, not in probing into the why. Paul Desmond made a parallel observation, commenting wryly, "Diversitysville—let a hundred flowers bloom." So consistent has this criticism of younger musicians been that Kessel's view on it must be taken seriously.

"To be a success in anything," he said, "there are certain requirements. And I don't think musicians nowadays — this is generally speaking — sit down and analyze the requirements for being successful, both in the musical and business sense.

"You're going to be a musician? You've got to be friendly towards the public, well-groomed and have clean clothes freshly pressed, and you have to remember that as long as anyone is buying a ticket to hear you, you must communicate to them.

"Too many musicians are doing research when a performance is expected. People are coming to hear the result of your experiments, your findings, and it should be palatable. But musicians are often still experimenting on the public's time and money.

"The lack of discipline manifests itself in many other ways, too. They are not punctual. If they were getting an unemployment check and the window closed at 3 o'clock, they'd be there at 3. But if the rehearsal starts at 3, they're there at 3:40.

"Lack of discipline is also seen in the desperate desire to bypass fundamentals in music, not to go through that experience. By fundamentals, I mean such things as practicing scales. In the case of horn players, warming up with long tones, trying to improve their tone and intonation. Many of them have bad intonation and don't even know it.

"They should also be spending time in learning to interpret different idioms of music, all the nuances. And dynamics? All of these bands play at one level — double forte — all night long."

Kessel's doesn't.  It is a group not only with a wide range of dynamics but with an infectious vitality and a general lack of pretension that is altogether refreshing.   This group's purpose seems to be to swing — and to produce melodies. On the whole, it does both.

Kessel has surrounded himself with young musicians (though, at 37, he can hardly be considered old). The drummer is Stan Popper, a loud but tasteful player ("I like a drummer who participates," says Kessel) from Oakland, Calif., who used to work with Pony Poindexter in San Francisco. The pianist is Marvin Jenkins, a Los Angeles musician who doubles flute on those tunes in which the group chooses to explore the delicacy in its potential. The bassist is Jerry Good, a San Franciscan with a big sound who has earned the respect of bassists encountered on the tour.

Evaluation of art is always a personal matter. Beyond certain obvious factors of technique, there are no clear-cut lines, despite the attempts of some to establish an absolute esthetic. So I will, I hope, be forgiven for lapsing into the first person to convey an impression of the group.

Put simply, it knocked me out. Kessel is an astonishing guitarist. Frankly, I had forgotten that jazz guitar of this kind existed, though Wes Montgomery had reminded me of it of late. If Montgomery's octave passages have left musicians and others impressed, what must the impression be when Kessel plays widely separated counter lines — descending figures on the low strings against climbing melodies on top? His chording is sudden, startling, and extremely fast. His tone — like Montgomery's — is distinctly string-y, and far from the "horn" sound that used to be common on amplified guitar. Further, he has begun to adapt one facet of classical playing to his work—the use of the balls of the fingers and thumb to produce a softer sound than the pick or fingernails can give. This is quite effective on ballads. (Kessel does not wish to explore classical guitar, though he plays Bach with a pick in his hotel room; he feels the classical approach would take the bite out of his jazz playing, that the two techniques are, to an extent, mutually antagonistic.)

Above and beyond technique, Kessel is a vital and inventive musician. Finally, he is a swinger — a powerful, hard-driving swinger when he wants to be, though also one of the most lyrical of ballad players when that is his wish. And if funk you want, funk he can and will give you.

His group is presentable — and punctual. Kessel sees to it. Yet its members, such as Popper, seem to have only respect for him. Drummer Popper seems as proud as a kid just graduated from high school to be working with him.

That is Barney Kessel. Do boxcars and business management concepts seem so far apart now?

I think that jazz generally," he summed up, "is subject to the way people will be thinking about it. If the people who are playing it become more disciplined as human beings and stress originality, while learning and analyzing the musicians of former periods and other styles of music, then I think jazz will progress.

"I wish every young musician would read Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address and remember the circumstances of it. Douglas made a long, wordy speech; Lincoln followed him and made a very short speech and said, 'The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.' But his is the speech that is remembered, because he was saying something.

"The essence of it is what you're saying. The instrument is merely a tool, a link, a way of getting out to the public what you are feeling. To me, guitar is only a tool. I'm not partial to hearing guitar players over trumpeters or trombonists or saxophonists.

"The important things for a musician to be concerned with are (1) whether you are able to play what you sincerely think, and (2) to have what you think be worth the playing."                                                                               

Source: January 5, 1961
“Barney Kessel: Why He’s Back on the Road”
Down Beat


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