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Saturday, January 5, 2013



Commentary © James A. Harrod, Copyright Protected; All Rights Reserved

The issue of TV Guide magazine covering October 8th displayed only the title of the program to be broadcast at the 10:30 PM time slot, no details regarding who was to appear, etc. Someone dropped the ball at KABC publicity or in the editorial offices at TV Guide.  The Publicity Department at Channel 7 would routinely send a photo of the guest jazz artist along with copy attached that detailed the program.  The photo of Barney Kessel with the attached copy would have been sent to newspapers as well as TV Guide.

Barney Kessel was the busiest guitar player in Los Angeles when Les Koenig signed him to an exclusive recording contract.  Kessel was so busy and in demand as a sideman that even the savviest of record producers, Norman Granz, failed to perceive Kessel as a leader deserving to be recorded on his own. Barney Kessel was also the most versatile guitarist in Los Angeles with every known variation of an instrument with frets in his music arsenal.  

Nesuhi Etregun’s liner notes for Kessel’s first album on Contemporary fill in the background of this extraordinary musician from Oklahoma.

In 1942, an Oklahoma boy named Barney Kessel, not quite twenty, decided to leave home in search of Fame & Fortune in Hollywood. "I went to my mother and told her I was going away. She gave me ten dollars. I said, 'I'm going to California.' She said, 'That's far away,' and gave me another ten dollars. I arrived in Los Angeles with a guitar in one hand, a suitcase in the other, not one cent in my pocket, and not knowing a soul." He went to work as a dishwasher in a drive-in.

Ten years later Barney Kessel was the nation's favorite jazz guitarist. He could look back on a busy career in films and radio, featured appearances with an impressive assortment of name bands, a host of records, concert tours at home and abroad, and, of course, TV.

He was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on October 17, 1923. His parents were not only non-musical, they were anti-musical — at least as far as Barney's musical ambitions were concerned. From earliest childhood, though, music became a ruling passion of Barney's life. At twelve he bought his first guitar with a dollar he'd made selling newspapers. He taught himself to play, to read music, and later to arrange and compose.

His interest in jazz started early, and he played with a Negro band in Muskogee when he was only fourteen. Barney's idol, the late Charlie Christian, had been the band's guitarist the year before, and Barney was thrilled to be taking his place. In evaluating his own development as a musician, Barney. says, "These musicians helped me get a jazz feeling it might have taken me years to acquire, and some people never find out. They kept telling me to play like a horn, and -I didn't know what they meant till I heard Charlie Christian's first record with Benny Goodman."

When he was sixteen, Barney finally met Christian, whom he calls "my sole influence." Christian, then twenty-one and a star of the Benny Goodman Sextet, was home in Oklahoma City on a short visit. Barney, although still a high school student, was playing a one-nighter with the University of Oklahoma dance band. In 1939 there were comparatively few electric guitar players about, and Christian, hearing about the youngster playing in the college band, came to the dance. "I was thrilled at meeting him," Barney recalls. "He sat in and played. Later that night he drove me around in his car, took me to a restaurant, talked to me at great length, and was altogether friendly and helpful with advice. That was the only time I ever met him."

The meeting with Christian strengthened Barney's determination to be a professional musician, and in 1942 he made his way to Hollywood. His undeniable talent made it unnecessary for him to be a dish-washer for very long. Hearing about a possible job with an orchestra Chico Marx was forming to take on the road, Barney auditioned. Dozens of more experienced guitarists also auditioned, but Barney got the job. A few days later he found himself playing at the famous Blackhawk in Chicago.

After four months he learned he'd soon be drafted, and he went back home to be with his mother until he was called. But the army rejected him, and he rejoined Chico Marx in New York. He was so impressed by New York he decided to stay there, left Chico, and looked for a job. "I tried out with Les Brown's orchestra and was so nervous I couldn't hold a pick in my hand." He didn't get the job, and after a month he once more joined Chico, now on the way back to California.

Returning from his adventures on the road in 1943 he settled in Los Angeles, joined the local union and almost immediately was working in radio. In the following years he was to play on such network shows as Red Skelton, Jack Carson, Eve Arden, Amos 'n' Andy, etc. Always in demand, Barney often played in big bands (Charlie Barnet, Hal Mclntyre) while they were appearing in Los Angeles; his radio commitments didn't allow him to travel with them. He managed to combine jazz with his commercial work, and in 1944 was the only white musician chosen to appear in the famous jazz movie "Jammin' the Blues."

In August 1945 Artie Shaw offered him a one-year contract, which was so attractive Barney left Los Angeles to travel the country with Shaw. When Shaw disbanded at the end of the year Barney again returned to Hollywood and to radio: first the Jack Smith show, then Bob Crosby's "Club 15" with Jerry Gray's orchestra. He was now at the top commercially, and he continued his busy and varied radio career until an offer came to join Norman Granz' Philharmonic troupe for one year. This meant giving up all the lucrative radio work and going on the road again. But the idea of playing jazz full time appealed to Barney, especially since there was to be a European tour after the American concerts. He made up his mind to "take a holiday for one year," leaving California in the fall of 1952. As a result of the tour, Barney's name became as familiar to European jazz fans as it is here.

In 1953 Barney was back in Los Angeles working as a composer-arranger-musical director for the Bob Crosby TV show, a half-hour coast-to-coast program five times a week. When he isn't working on the TV program he teaches, records, makes transcriptions and appears at jazz concerts. In 1953 he signed an exclusive recording contract with CONTEMPORARY.

Barney is fully aware of the new directions of jazz in the post-war years, but it is difficult to identity him with any one specific trend because his playing is deeply rooted in the basic jazz tradition: the blues he heard as a boy in Oklahoma, the swing he learned on his first band job, and the modern sounds of the West Coast School, with which he made contact in the Fifties.

Nesuhi Ertegun
Liner notes to Contemporary Records C2508

I feel that today, more than ever before, there is a wider acceptance of the guitar in jazz and there are more jazz guitarists who are skillful and adept. Yet in spite of my own efforts and the efforts of the leading guitarists in the country, it's still an unexploited instrument because only a few ways of combining it with other instruments have been explored. It's been used in a few tried and true combinations, such as the Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman groups with clarinet, and the King Cole and George Shearing groups with piano, but there are many, many sounds that have never been captured. I've tried flute and oboe on two albums for Contemporary. There are other guitarists who've recorded slightly different combinations. Still and all I think it is only a matter of time before more combinations will be used. In a discussion with one of the leading manufacturers of musical instruments in the U.S., he told me that the guitar is outselling all the other musical instruments combined. One reason is Les Paul's clever idea of bringing it before the public and having them accept the idea in the first place. Now it's easier for them to assimilate the jazz guitar.

The guitar is perhaps the most versatile instrument. It can be employed as a solo instrument, or utilized in a section. When played on the low strings it blends beautifully with tenors and the trombones. When played on the top strings it blends beautifully with alto, trumpet or clarinet. Guitar and piano can be played together and produce one mass sound so well integrated that it's impossible to detect the difference between the instruments. The guitar can substitute for a piano in a rhythm section and provide interesting effects. It's an odd thing, but there are many chords played on the guitar that when played on the piano do not sound as brilliant. You can play the guitar as a single-note instrument, or play any combination of notes up to six and get the effect of a miniature orchestra. The flexibility of the guitar is just beginning to be exploited in many different idioms, such as the classics, hillbilly, Western, Hawaiian, rhythm and blues, modern.

ANY GOOD jazz, whether it's arranged or improvised, requires certain elements: it must have an interesting melody, it must contain interesting harmonic progression, and it must be rhythmic. Now I feel that in almost every instance, regardless of style, from the very beginning up to now, that all of the greats, and when I say greats I mean Jelly Roll Morion right up to Lennie Tristano, have these elements in their solos, their compositions, and their works in general.

When I listen to a work and find it lacking something, it's usually because it minimizes one or two of these elements. I find that many of the musicians of today while perfecting one forget another. It's possible that someone may be so skillful harmonically that he spends all his time with the harmony, is the master of the harmony, knows chord substitution, chord analysis, knows various skillful ways to play polytones and is so intrigued by it as a new and vibrant force and a means of expression that he, through his own choice, completely ignores the melody or the rhythm. I think that the music should swing. But it doesn't have to be a rhythm and blues swing; it can be progressive swing. And it should be melodic. The musician who incorporates all three ingredients into his playing appeals to me very much.

(excerpt from liner notes to C 2514)

Harvey Kubernik’s tribute to Barney Kessel is well worth a visit:

Initially a piano prodigy, her interest in music developed from exposure to her mother's professional chorus singing work. At age 16 or 17, working as secretary at Twentieth Century Fox, Olay undertook singing lessons with vocal coach Florence Russell (Dorothy Dandridge). While at work, she met one of Duke Ellington's vocalists, Ivie Anderson. Together they attended the venue where Ellington was playing and Olay was persuaded to sing. In 1942, at her mother's re-marriage party she sang and impressed a guest, the wife of songwriter Irving Gordon (Throw Mama From the Train, Unforgettable). Gordon in turn introduced Olay to jazz musician Benny Carter who became her musical mentor.[1]

She performed under the moniker Rachel Davis and, due to her dark complexion, passing as a black woman, with Carter in San Diego, and later with Jerry Fielding in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills clubs, all the while holding down a secretarial day job at Twentieth Century Limited, including work for celebrated screenwriter Preston Sturges. At the Cabaret Concert Theatre where she both waitressed and sang, she came to the attention of Bill Hitchcock of Zephyr Records. Olay's first LP on Zephyr in 1956 was promoted as coming from "the blues shouting tradition", "pop style" and "swinging interpretation".[2].

While gigging at the Little Club, Olay was approached by Bill Burton, who managed, among others, Jimmy Dorsey and Dick Haymes, and soon got her big break when Burton booked her an emergency gig at the Avant Garde Club in replacement of Billie Holiday, who had fallen ill. This developed into a headline run, along with Shelley Berman, Matt Dennis Trio and Lenny Bruce. A regular at the club was arranger Peter Ruggolo, who A&R'ed for Mercury Records.

Her first LP on Mercury OLAY! in 1958 was followed by a guest vocalist spot on Jack Paar's Tonight Show.[3] She became the "Singing Sensation of the Jack Paar Show" during Paar's stint, and also appeared later on Johnny Carson's watch, the latter time backed by Duke Ellington. Subsequent appearances included Jerry Fielding's TV show, and with Merv Griffin,[4] Jackie Gleason [5] and Steve Allen. In 1961, Olay found time to play the role of Julie in Lewis & Youngs' production of Showboat.

For the second LP Easy Living on Mercury in 1959, Olay was set up with Jerry Fielding whose credits included arranging with big bands such as those of Kay Kyser, Claude Thornhill, Jimmie Lunceford, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, and Les Brown. LP's followed on diverse labels after Olay's departure from Mercury and she continued nightclub appearances and TV shows well into the 1960s (e.g.: Sue Rainey on KTLA June 11, 1965).[6] After spending some time performing in Europe where the popularity of American jazz persisted[7] Olay returned to the USA and gradually phased into retirement and withdrew from singing altogether.

(from Ruth Olay’s wikipedia entry)

(Irv Kluger and Barney Kessel)
(Ruth Olay with the rhythm section)

The Barney Kessel Quartet: Barney Kessel, guitar; Jimmy Rowles, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, acoustic double bass; Irv Kluger, drums. The Bill Hitchcock Sextet: Bill Hitchcock, Murray McEachern trombone; Hymie Gunkler, Gene Cipriano, reeds; Gene Estes, percussion; Ruth OLay, vocal.

Production credits for this show:
Host: Bobby Troup
Producer: Jimmie Baker
Writer: (not credited)
Director: Norman Abbott
Audio: Chuck Lewis
Cameramen: (not credited)
Technical Director: Ted Hurley
Lighting Director: Grant Veeley
Video: (not credited)

The photos that greatly enhance this presentation have been provided courtesy of the Ray Avery Estate.  The author would like to extend a most heartfelt thanks to Cynthia Sesso, Licensing Administrator of the Ray Avery Photo Archives.  Please note that these photos remain the property of the Ray Avery Estate and are used here with permission.  Any inquiries regarding their use, commercial or otherwise, should be directed to:  Cynthia Sesso at CTSIMAGES.


  1. I wanna watch her sing!!!! How can i see it?

  2. Some kinescope copies of Stars of Jazz episodes did survive and are part of the Film and Television Archive at UCLA. Unfortunatewly this program is not among them. Thanks for your interest.