Kessel, celebrated soloist and great accompanist, dies at 80 from brain cancer. He had been inactive since ’92 due to a stroke.
- By the mid-1950’s Mr. Kessel was one of the most popular guitarists in jazz, a perennial winner of music magazine polls and a sideman whose résumé included work with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum and countless others. But he still found it hard to pay his bills, so he began a second career in the studios, which came to dominate his professional life until he decided to return to jazz full time in the 1970’s.
He was born in Muskogee, Okla., on Oct. 17, 1923, and began his professional career there at 14 as the only white musician in an otherwise all-black dance band.
Mr. Kessel initially modeled his style closely on that of the pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian, a fellow Oklahoman, and he continued to regard Christian as his main influence.
But when he had the opportunity to play with Christian at a jam session, he told The New York Times in 1991, the experience inspired him to develop a style of his own.
“I realized that I had been methodically lifting his ideas from records,” Mr. Kessel said. “What was I going to play? All I knew was his stuff. There were two guys playing like Charlie Christian. I knew I had to find myself.”
With Christian’s encouragement, Mr. Kessel moved to Los Angeles in 1942 and was soon on the road with a band fronted by the comedian Chico Marx.
Over the next few years he worked with the big bands of Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet and Benny Goodman, establishing a reputation as one of the most versatile and reliable guitarists on the West Coast.
He soon began working regularly as a sideman for the record producer Norman Granz, and in 1944 he was one of the many musicians featured in “Jammin’ the Blues,” the acclaimed short jazz film produced by Granz and directed by the photographer Gjon Mili. (In a strange echo of his first job, Mr. Kessel was the only white musician in that film; all that was clearly visible of him were his hands, which were dyed black.)
Mr. Kessel’s profile in the jazz world continued to grow in the 1950’s. In 1952 he joined the pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio and toured with Granz’s all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic aggregation.
The next year he began his recording career as a leader with the first of a series of small-group albums for the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label.
Within a few years he had also become a fixture in Hollywood’s recording studios. In this parallel career he could be heard on movie and television soundtracks and in television and radio commercials as well as on records by everyone from the Beach Boys to Liberace to Frank Sinatra. [NY Times]