When he was 16, Barney Kessel jammed with his hero, Charlie Christian. The year was 1940, and the venue was the Oklahoma Club in Christian’s hometown. Kessel, still in high school, was playing electric guitar with a college band called the Varsitonians. One evening he looked at the audience and was “absolutely astounded” to see his hero Charlie Christian, on a break from the Benny Goodman Sextet, smiling up at him. Kessel happily loaned him his guitar to sit in with the band. After the show, Christian invited Kessel to join him for a meal. Due to Jim Crow laws, they were turned away from several establishments and finally found a place that allowed them to sit together out of sight in the kitchen. Christian invited Kessel to jam with him the next afternoon.
When they met to jam, Charlie brought along a pianist and a drummer. “Charlie told me many things that day,” Kessel remembered, “such as the importance of swing when playing jazz. He said it was important to get some fire going, get an emotion. No matter what else you do, get that feeling.” As Charlie was leaving, Kessel recalled, “He turned around and said, ‘I’m gonna tell Benny about you.’ I never saw him again, but I never forgot that day. I consider it one of the highlights of my life.”
Barney Kessel, of course, went on to become one of the leading disciples of Charlie Christian and a jazz guitar legend in his own right. When I arrived at Guitar Player magazine in 1978, I became the editor of Barney’s monthly column. Three years later, while preparing materials for my Charlie Christian cover story, I asked Barney if he’d be willing to talk to me about Charlie. His responded with unabashed enthusiasm, talking non-stop about Charlie for nearly an hour. I assembled modest portions of our conversation into an “as-told-to” sidebar for the March 1982 cover story, but the complete interview has never before been transcribed. Here it is. Barney began our conversation.
I’m very happy to talk about Charlie Christian with you because, first of all, it is a matter of personal love. I have just a great, great, personal affection and regard for Charlie Christian and for what he stood for. And getting to meet him, as well, and being from the same part of the country – I’m actually living right now in the city where he came from to join Benny Goodman. The fact that I played with so many people when I was growing up that had played with him, and listening to his music now, and even being more moved by it now than I was even then, it’s a great pleasure to do this. And I feel really glad to be the one to be talking about it with you.
Why should a young person who’s learning guitar listen to Charlie Christian?
Well, it wouldn’t matter whether it was a young guy or not, Jas. It’s just anyone that’s interested in music or any art form – it wouldn’t matter what it would be – you gain an awful lot by studying those people that preceded you. And not only to study them, but to study them in a kind of sequential form, chronographically, the way it occurred. It helps to get a better understanding of where we are today and how it came about. Charlie Christian’s contribution to the electric guitar was as big as Thomas Edison’s contributions and Benjamin Franklin’s contributions in terms of changing the direction of the world. He changed the guitar world. He changed it not so much as being a superb guitar player, but rather the music that he made. And anyone that would study him can see where all the other guitar players who came after him evolved, that they came from his fountainhead. They came from that and went their own way, according to their own tastes, but he was a way-shower. He was as much a way-shower as any philosophical giant that other people have come along and patterned themselves after.
His contributions were so strong in several departments. One is there have been very few people on any instrument that have come since him that have had his sense of time. His ability to play in time in a way that he plays. The spacing of his notes. That’s one of the things. The other thing is he was years ahead of most of the people he was playing with in terms of the lines he was playing. They involved certain chord changes that were not existent then.
Could you give an example?
Just his playing, just his chords. If you listen to any of the blues that he played, you will hear in the line that he has spelled out harmonic changes that none of the others on the record are playing, not even the background. And yet they’re refreshing and they fit. He’s playing more chord changes in his lines, and also interesting ones, different ones than existed at the time. Any record would be an example of that, any record. In addition, his tone was more the concept of what is being used today in jazz, and all along. It is more of a velvet sound. It’s just the antithesis of a rock and roll sound, or a pop rock or punk rock sound. It is more an electric guitar sound rather than an electronic guitar sound. And a lot of people don’t understand this either. I have people that come up to me and they think that what I want now, and what Charlie Christian wanted then, is simply to amplify the natural sound of the guitar and just make the natural sound louder. That’s not true. That’s a different sound entirely. The electric guitar as he played it had its own sound.
So we’ve got three different sounds, really, we’re talking about: One is we’ve got a regular acoustic guitar where you put something on it, and it doesn’t change the sound – it only makes it louder. Now that’s one thing. Another is the actual sound of an electric guitar coming through a particular pickup that sounds like an electric guitar, which is different. And then you’ve got things that people are playing today in the rock and pop, etcetera, which is really an electronic sound.
So Charlie Christian’s tone was more horn-like. It’s more like the velvety sound of some of the saxophone players and trombone players. It was more horn. As a matter of fact, many people that heard him play that didn’t know him didn’t even know that they were listening to a guitar. They didn’t know anything about it. They just were simply going to this club where he might be playing, and they’d hear the music from outside, and they didn’t know that there was such a thing as an electric guitar. Almost all of them thought that it was a tenor saxophone.
Yeah – from a distance. I mean, it was a combination of not knowing that Charlie Christian existed, not knowing to expect an electric guitar, or not having heard anyone play it – good or bad. Just hearing this sound from a distance, being outside the building and hearing it with a band, they’d think it was somehow a rather slightly percussive tenor sax, maybe even someone that is slap-tonguing it a little bit.
But those are the main things. Those are his strengths. And he was the first guitar player, to my way of thinking, who in sitting down with a bunch of horn players to play, that the content of his music was on just as high a level as theirs, if not higher in certain cases. Whereas in the past, before Charlie Christian, any time I’d ever heard anyone play the guitar in the company of various horn players – be it Benny Goodman or Jack Teagarden or Tommy Dorsey or whoever these guys might be – the only thing you could say is that that guy might be one of the best of guitar players. It’s kind of like he’s the best of what’s around, but it isn’t as good as what the horn players are playing. He’s playing good to be a guitar player. See? So it was that kind of thing.
Charlie Christian was the first one that played single lines more like a horn plays them – without being a part of the tradition that preceded him. Almost all the players before him – especially the older ones, especially ones that had been playing from the 1920s – came to the guitar from a banjo orientation. Most of them. So when they came to it – with no disrespect to any of these people, because they made beautiful music – but that’s why when you hear George Van Eps in those days, when you hear Allan Reuss, you hear Dick McDonough, Carl Kress, etcetera, what you’re hearing is a guy who for one reason or another – maybe the economic pressures of the day – forced him to change from banjo to guitar. Maybe the orchestra leader insisted that he change from banjo to guitar, or he decided to do it. Very much like the change that went through in the late ’50s and ’60s, when many string bass players found that in order to keep a job, they had to switch to electric bass, whether they wanted to or not. And some of them did, and some of them didn’t. So those guitar players, when they played guitar solos in those days – the 1920s and 1930s, like with Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby and all those people, Joe Venuti – they were banjo players that had switched to guitar. And the music came out that way.
Now, Charlie Christian did not have that banjo background. As a matter of fact, there are different rumors around that he at one time played the trumpet a little bit and he played saxophone a little, and for health reasons he couldn’t play a blowing instrument. He had an inclination – he and his whole family – towards developing tuberculosis. And so he couldn’t involve himself with anything that would affect his respiratory system. But yet he had those things in his mind. So it’s kind of like a guy that has played tenor, or wants to play tenor, but he’s playing the guitar.
So he thought like a tenor player.
Yeah. Well, Lester Young was his ideal. Lester Young was his inspiration.
How immediate was Charlie’s impact?
Extremely immediate! But it was not only immediate nationally when it broke, but it was immediate locally wherever he went. I think there are three basic things that were involved. One is that the instrument itself had never been heard. I mean, there just weren’t guys around playing the electric guitar. That in itself is a novelty. And then there was the fact that he played it in the style that he played it. Had he come along and played the amplified guitar, but played it like everybody else was playing it, that would have been fairly novel in itself, in that you’d never anyone play the electric guitar. But he wouldn’t have been playing it differently. But here he comes along and not only plays a new instrument, but he’s playing it in a different way. That is, he’s playing single lines like a horn. And now even that would not have counted for the impact that he had, because you could have been playing horn-like figures. You could be playing clichés that horn players are playing, and you’re not really playing anything new. The only thing you’ve got going for you is things that you’re playing have been around for years, but never on a guitar. The third is he was playing new things and was playing his own personal talent. So those are the three things: You were listening to a new instrument played in a new way and played extremely well. So it did make a big impact immediately.
But in those days, Jas, economically we were not living in the superstar type of life, so he had this fame among musicians, but not among the public. There wasn’t a lot of hype going in those days. Gibson didn’t come to him and take out ads, and there were no NARAS awards. There wasn’t all the hype that goes on. And so the public was not as aware of him. And also his money was not commensurate with his talent, whereas today people with less talent can make even far more money. This is because they are more organized – they’ve got a manager and they do things to expose themselves and market their project better.
Besides yourself, Barney, who have been the foremost players to come out of the Charlie Christian school?
Well, I would say Herb Ellis. Now, I must tell you this: There are certain people that say that they were influenced by Charlie Christian. There are others that don’t say that they were. I really believe that almost everybody that plays the electric guitar today has been influenced by him, whether they know it or not. In just the same way that when a guy turns on an electric light bulb in a room, he may really be so dumb that he doesn’t know that Edison invented it. But he’s still using it, and he’s involved with it, even though he doesn’t know where it comes from. So I think that Charlie came so early and contributed so much so early, that he made a big enough impact that it just became a way of playing. It’s just like Charlie Parker’s not the only one who plays alto, but his way became a way, and a big way. It’s kind of the definitive way.
Many guitar players either will not admit that they’ve been influenced by Charlie Christian because they don’t really realize that they have, or their ego may be involved to where they don’t want to consider anybody’s influence, that they’ve got it all together themselves. And then there’s others – I’ve read about certain people without getting into names – that say they were influenced by Charlie Christian, but as I listen to them, I honestly cannot see what it was that influenced them, because I don’t see the things that Charlie had so abundantly. I don’t see those particular things in these players. Even though the players themselves might be good, they’re good in a different way than Charlie Christian was. So I’m amazed that they say that they were influenced by him.
But to get back to your question, Jas, people that come to mind that I can feel their influence are Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, and Jim Hall in the beginning, although Jim Hall has moved away from it. Now, some of these people have moved away from it or they’ve diluted it. Their experiences have led to learning other things as well. In the learning of other things, they’ve branched out and kind of got away from it. But it’s still in some of them slightly. I think of Chuck Wayne, Remo Palmieri. Now, there might be some more. But, as I say, when I listen to some of them, I cannot tell that they were. I would say that outside of myself Herb Ellis would definitely be one, and there was a guy years ago who wrote “Cement Mixer” – Slim Gaillard – was affected by him. Tiny Grimes was too.
What would you consider to be the essential Charlie Christian on record?
All of it!
Where would be a good place to start? Could you name a half-dozen cuts?
For one thing, it would be very easy just to get a two-record album on Columbia called Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian, which actually was not made under his name, but was repackaged by John Hammond. Now, that’s one. But that does not by any means contain all that he made or necessarily all of the best. I would say if you could get that album, and get another album on Columbia, Benny Goodman’s Sextets – I don’t know the name of it, but Columbia albums that have repackaged from singles, because Charlie never made an album. This might be under Benny Goodman’s name. There might be other takes on these things. Then there was a jam session that was recorded on a Wilcox-Gaye recording machine at one time. One label it came out on was called Vox. I don’t know if that is still under that name, but the record is available. And I know that if you buy it, on one side there will be that jam session at Minton’s, and on the other side it’s an example of early Dizzy Gillespie playing with Monk. The album I’m talking about is where he was jamming all night, and one of the songs on there is called “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”
Now, in addition to that, there are about four sides that he made that would be part of some album – someone has collated these things – but he made four on acoustic guitar with a clarinet player named Edmond Hall. It’s the Edmond Hall Four. Edmond Hall played clarinet, and I think Meade Lux Lewis was on celeste, of all things. And then there was a string bass, and then Charlie played non-electric guitar. And that’s really the body of his work, because he died very young and did not record very much. [Author’s note: Since this interview, many other Charlie Christian tracks have been released, including the material on the From Spirituals to Swing box set.]
Can you remember the very first time you heard of Charlie Christian?
Yes. I had heard about him in several ways. First of all, I’m from Oklahoma. I’m actually living in the city right now where he came from when he joined Benny Goodman. He was born in Texas, but the life that he lived before he joined Benny Goodman was in Oklahoma City. That’s about 150 miles from where I was born. And I was playing with a 14-piece black band, orchestra, and most of them had already heard of him and knew him. They knew his playing. They were always telling me about him. So I’d heard about him, but I’d never heard him play. And then I had a friend of mine back then who had heard him play, and he was a guitarist, and he told me about him too. So that when I finally heard him, I’d already heard a lot about him.
The first record that I heard was with Benny Goodman, and Charlie actually didn’t really have a solo. He just sort of played in the group, and he had a couple of little fills that he played with them. I wasn’t able to tell much, but already I could tell that he was sounding different and good, but I had no idea of the impact he’d have. The first thing I ever heard was a thing called, uh [sings the riff], “Soft Winds.” That’s the first thing I heard. And then the next thing I heard was “Flying Home.” Well, when I heard it, the only way I could say it so that people that are very, very young today would get an idea of what I felt – it really knocked me out! It just thrilled me. Probably it had the same effect on me – of course in a different way, and I’m not talking about the quality of the music, I’m just talking about the emotion – that the way maybe a guy your age, if you were 16 years old and into pop at the time, felt when you heard Elvis Presley for the first time or saw him for the first time on television. Or the Beatles. It would be that kind of an impact. It embodied everything that I ever loved about the guitar – and more – because I didn’t realize you could do all of that. And it was beyond me. It really knocked me out! I mean, I just immediately became a disciple of it.
I would go down to the record store and just bug ’em to death: “Do you have a new Benny Goodman Sextet record? Would you call me, or would you let me know when you get one in?” I’d go down there, and even if I didn’t have the money to buy it, I’d just take it into the booth and play it over and over and over. They would have to literally force me out of the record booth and force me out of the store. That’s the impact. And I tried to learn every note I could – not so much to call it my own, and not so much to copy it. The reason I tried to learn every note is I loved to hear it so much that I figured that if I was in a place where I couldn’t get to a record player and I still wanted to hear it, if I learned it, I could take out my guitar and play it. And therefore I am acting as the medium or the agent that allows me to hear that song. In other words, if at that time I’d been able to carry around a portable record player, I would probably have been playing the record over rather than trying to play it on the guitar. I was playing it in order to be able to hear it – not so much of trying to show other people that I knew it.
That really points to an enormous impact.
Yeah! Wanting to recall it to myself, wanting to be able to do it, and finding the only way that I could immediately have access to this would be to play it, and therefore I heard it. And what knocked me out was all of the things that I told you, that I thought he was strong in. His time knocked me out. His clarity. The fact that everything that he played made a statement – there wasn’t anything like throwaways. There wasn’t little fills to create a little side effect. I mean, everything was a statement! Everything was a statement. You can go back and listen to these things now, keeping in mind that there was no high-fidelity then, much less stereo. When you hear him play, even back in those days – sometimes they were using only one microphone – he knew enough to get his solo on that record with a lot of presence. And there was no mixing. I mean, they just made it! That was it. There was no mixing down or being in different channels and “We’re gonna bring you up and we’re gonna bring the bass down.” It was just there. But if you listen to his records, when it’s time for him to play, he is on the scene!
From observation, what can you say about Charlie Christian’s technique?
Well, when I think of technique, really I think of control. I don’t think of technique in the same way that a lot of people do, so I don’t really think of technique as being only speed or dexterity. I think that if you have certain things that you want to say and you’re able to say them, then you have the technique that you need. The only time you would be at a loss, technically, is if you needed to do something and couldn’t do it. You know what it’s like, really? It’s like how rich are you or how poor are you that when you want a meal or to buy a new suit or buy a new car or take a trip to Europe, that there’s always enough money to do it – not a lot more than that and not a lot less. So are you really poor or wealthy? It’s kind of that way with technique: If you can do what you need to do, then you’ve got enough technique. He certainly did not have the kind of technique that people have today, or even a lot of people during that day, because he didn’t concentrate on that. It wasn’t a big thing. Another thing is he played almost exclusively – probably 95% – downstrokes.
Did he use a pick?
How did he hold it?
He held it in his thumb and first finger of his right hand, very tightly, and he rested his second, third, and fourth fingers very firmly – I mean, not in a relaxed way, but very, very, very tensely – on the pickguard. They were anchored there. It wasn’t like a light anchor. It’s not like some guitar players you see, where they’re kind of rubbing maybe just their little pinkie finger against it. Have you seen guys do that?
Yeah. He had them firmly entrenched on that pickguard, almost like there was no break in the finger joint. It was like a straight, solid, long finger that was right on there, and he played with the first finger and the thumb holding the pick. And the pick was a very stiff pick, and it was a triangular pick.
A big triangle or a smaller one?
A big one.
Did he use all of the fingers of his left hand?
He almost exclusively did not use the fourth finger. Almost not ever – almost.
What did Charlie Christian look like when he played a solo? Was he serious and concentrating, or did he seem enthusiastic and look around?
No, he didn’t look around or anything. He was pretty intent on it. He’d play a lot with his eyes closed. Or sometimes his eyes might be open, but they’d be kind of moving toward the top of his head. He was pretty much into it. And he did not move around too much. He wasn’t moving. He didn’t look around, either, but occasionally he’d look up. He’d kind of look up and just kind of look around, and then sort of go back into it again. Yeah.
You’ve mentioned the importance Charlie placed on swing.
Swinging – yeah. See, but even when I say that, there’s a lot of people that still don’t know what I’m talking about, because they would think that it means swinging your body or kind of grooving and boogying all out, and all that. It’s got to do with the pulse in your playing. It’s got to do with the fact that you play in such a rhythmic way – and I’m not talking about whether you rush or drag. I’m talking about if you play a stream of eighth notes, that you play it in such a way that your time is so flawless that you wouldn’t need a bass or drum for someone to sense what the tempo is. It’s got such clarity and it’s so articulated that without any rhythm instrument there, you definitely hear what the tempo is. Whereas with a lot of people, they don’t play evenly. They don’t play that way, so without a bass or drummer, the tempo is not clearly stated.
Did Charlie beat time with his foot or anything?
I don’t know.
Do any of Charlie’s physical characteristics stick out in your memory?
Well, he was a pretty inarticulate person. He rarely spoke – at least to me, in the three days that I was with him – and he didn’t very much of a vocabulary. He didn’t even talk hip. He didn’t say a lot of hip phrases or clichés, and he didn’t use a lot of words. And he kind of grunted. For example, when he talked about Benny Goodman or Lionel Hampton, he addressed them as “the Benny” or “the Lionel.” That’s the way he talked. He didn’t say “Lionel” or “Mr. Hampton” or “Ben” or “Benny.” It’s like if you’re talking to me, and you said, “I was just talking to the Barney.” So he said “the Benny” and “the Lionel.” And he didn’t get into a lot of philosophy and he didn’t get into a lot of teaching. I just had the feeling that he probably was just kind of streetwise. And he was so young, and at that time he was working hard and just scuffling to make a living before he joined Benny Goodman, just working for peanuts. And I just don’t think he was well-educated. I don’t mean that he was simple or anything; I just meant he was not a man of letters. He was not well-read and all of that. At least to me, he did not express himself as well through words as he did through his music.
He had definite ideas! Let me just tell you one of the things. For instance, we were jamming and a guy came up with a tenor saxophone and took it out, uninvited, unannounced, and started to play with us. And he wasn’t very good. And Charlie, he didn’t get angry or anything. I didn’t know what he was gonna do. But he just got his guitar and packed up. He just packed up and looked like he was getting ready to leave. Well, when he packed up, the tenor saxophonist saw that Charlie was going to leave, and so the saxophonist himself put his own saxophone in the case and left. Now, the minute the saxophone player left, Charlie took his guitar out again and began to play. And I was so young – a lot of times young people don’t know any better, they’ll ask questions that you shouldn’t ask. Like young kids come up to me and they’ll say, “How old are you?” or “How much money do you make?” They’re so young they don’t really know that those aren’t too cool to ask. So they don’t know any better. So I asked Charlie why he did that. And he said, “I don’t ever take the guitar out of my case unless I’m either going to learn something, have fun, or make some money.” Now when you stop and think about it, there’s probably not any other reason to take the instrument out of the case! So that’s what I mean: At the same time he was kind of inarticulate, if you analyze what he said, it’s pretty practical. See?
What was his favorite equipment?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t know if what he played was because he didn’t know any better to get something better, or if it was convenient, or if that’s all he could buy because there wasn’t much else around. I really wouldn’t know. But what he was playing was a small Gibson amplifier – if there was such a one called a 150 or 185. I don’t know, but it looked to me like either a 10- or 12-inch speaker. I’m not sure now, but it was one of those old Gibsons that was in what was called “airplane cloth” – you remember that? With the three orange bands down it. And the amplifier, I think, was in the case, but you could take it out, because it would get too hot. [Barney is probably referring to a Gibson EH150 amp, which Charlie was known to have used.]
You said he played louder than you were accustomed to.
Yes, but not by any means, in any way, like Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, or something like that. Yeah.
I have heard that Charlie has some sisters still living in Oklahoma City.
I don’t know. I do know he had a brother who just died recently. His name is Clarence. I never met him, and this is one of the things I was gonna do after I had moved there. But he passed away – I think he passed away in this year. He lived in Oklahoma City.
Is it true that Charlie Christian didn’t appear onstage with Benny’s big band because he was black?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I do know this: He told me that he appeared at the White House with the Sextet during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So he did play at the White House with Benny Goodman in a mixed band. And he also told me a funny story that at the time he was playing, the people weren’t just listening to it – they were dancing to the Benny Goodman Sextet – and some lady came up to him and really didn’t recognize the electric guitar but had heard him play some solos. And she said, “You’re the best banjo player I ever heard!”
Could you suggest anyone other than Benny Goodman that I should talk to?
Yes. Mary Lou Williams, except she just passed away. The guy to talk to would be John Hammond of CBS, who is the father of John Hammond the guitar player. John Hammond would be one. Another would be Benny Goodman. There’s a guy in California right now who played drums with the Benny Goodman Sextet, Nick Fatool. He’s in L.A.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, Barney?
I’ll tell you this: When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of different musicians. And as time has gone on, when I listen back to them, many of them don’t sound as good now as they did at the time. Or I’ll say, “Well, that was okay then, but things have kind of moved ahead.” There are a few that sound just as good as they did then. And very few of them sound better to me now. And of those that sound better to me, I have to try to figure out why this is so. What’s happening? The only thing that I can think of is that that music actually was great. It was great all the time, and it sounds better to me now.
The music itself hasn’t changed – I’ve changed. And it must be that simply by having acquired more insight and more education and more experience, I am in a better position to appraise it and see more wonderful things that were always there but I couldn’t see it. And with Charlie Christian right now – as I’m talking to you now – it honestly sounds better to me now than it did when I was a kid listening in Muskogee, Oklahoma. It sounds better. It’s classic – not classical, but classic, in that it weathers the deterioration of time. Time in itself removes fads. Remember when you were a kid, there was Howdy Doody buttons and there was Davy Crockett caps. My own kids, they had Davy Crockett hats. I told them the day would come when nobody would be wearing these caps and nobody would know about Davy Crockett – they couldn’t believe it! How about when Hopalong Cassidy was such a big thing? And Hula Hoops and all these things. Well, the point I’m trying to get at is that in time, some of these fads do not stand up. Not only do they not stand up, they die. They die and they never come back again.
But classic music – and again, I don’t mean classical music – but the very nature of what is classic means that it holds up and transcends time in a very graceful manner. Paintings have done this. Literature has done this. I mean, Shakespeare today is no less than he ever was. Charlie Christian stands up. When I listen to him, I’m aware that he doesn’t have a great chordal knowledge. I’m aware that he’s not the fastest guy in the world. I’m aware that he plays certain figures that he played before and that it’s a limited kind of repertoire. I’m aware of all of these things. I’m aware that he didn’t really play much on a very fast song. But you must listen to people for what they are, and not what they aren’t. It’s really just like looking at a banana and hitting it and beating it for not being an apple. It can only be a banana. We’re all what we are. Segovia doesn’t play Charlie Parker songs, and Chet Atkins doesn’t play bebop. And Tiny Grimes isn’t playing a transcription of “Claire de Lune” on a guitar. We all do what we did.
And as I listen to Charlie Christian, it isn’t all that’s going on in jazz, but it is the personification of jazz. His contribution represents one of the examples of a high standard of excellence, along with Lester Young, Billie Holiday. To me, it’s not all that’s ever happened and it’s not all that’s going on now, but it represents so much of what led to other things. And not only that, but it stands up well right now. Even though they play a lot of notes, I don’t hear that many people on the guitar or other instruments playing with his kind of time. I don’t hear people making statements. I certainly don’t hear people being themselves. When I hear Charlie Christian, I always know it’s Charlie Christian. I hear a lot of people playing instruments, and I don’t know who they are. There’s no identity. I don’t think of him as a guitar player. I think of him as a person who possessed a great amount of feeling for expressing jazz, and he happened to choose the guitar.
Thank you, Barney. This is great.
Well, I’m sure glad. And I also want to say, I’m not using my sentiment to recapture the good old days and say, “Oh, man . . . .” Like you talk to young kids and they’ll say, “Oh, Buddy Holly was really great, and I’ll always love Buddy Holly.” It’s kind of a sentimental thing, because you went to school and maybe you were dating a girl and Buddy Holly was doing something. You’re caught up in identifying the music with social things in your life. And I’m really trying to be objective, and I’m just trying to say that he was a bitch! I mean, he really was. I’m glad you’re doing a thing on him, and I’m really glad that you chose me to ask about it. All the best.
I took Barney’s advice and did interview Benny Goodman and John Hammond; complete transcriptions of these are available on this website. I was unable to trace Nick Fatool. For another first-hand account of an encounter with Charlie Christian, see my Saunders King interview. In my Jerry Garcia interview, he too had a lot to say about Charlie Christian.
During his long, stellar career, Barney Kessel played alongside Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, and many other jazz luminaries. In the early 1960s, he became a first-call studio guitarist in Los Angeles and a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew (as were Carol Kaye and Tommy Tedesco, also interviewed on this website). In 1961, the Gibson company issued the Barney Kessel model archtop guitar. Barney continued to give seminars and record excellent jazz guitar albums until he suffered a stroke in 1992. He passed away in 2004. Many of his albums are still in print. To see him in action, check out the Vestapol DVD Barney Kessel: Rare Performances, which features solo and trio footage from 1962 to 1991. Details available at http://guitarvideos.com/dvd/13013dvd.htm.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.