Barney Kessel: The Complete "Charlie Christian" Interview (HD Audio)
In 1981, Barney Remembered Meeting and Jamming With His Hero
In this never-before-heard interview, jazz guitar great Barney Kessel speaks exclusively about his hero, Charlie Christian. First, some back story: In 1940, Kessel, then 16, already owned an electric guitar and was a devout fan of Charlie Christian, who was already on his way to becoming the most influential jazz guitarist. One evening while playing with the Varsitonians at the Oklahoma Club in Christian’s hometown, Oklahoma City, Kessel looked out into the audience and was astounded to see Charlie Christian, then a member of Benny Goodman’s band, smiling up at him. Kessel happily loaned him his electric 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. As Barney told it, “Charlie told me many things that day, 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 the Benny about you.’ I never saw him again, but I never forgot that day. I consider it one of the highlights of my life.” Kessel went on to become one of the leading disciples of Charlie Christian and a jazz and studio guitar legend in his own right.
When I arrived at Guitar Player magazine in 1978, I became the editor of Barney’s monthly column. Two years later, while preparing materials for my Charlie Christian cover story, I asked Barney if he’d be willing to talk with me about Charlie. He responded with unabashed enthusiasm, talking non-stop about Charlie for three-quarters of an hour. I included portions of our conversation in my March 1982 cover story. Here, for the first time ever, is the complete audio of our November 1981 conversation.
After our interview I took Barney’s advice and reached out to Benny Goodman and Columbia producer John Hammond, who both agreed to be interviewed for my Christian cover story. In future Talking Guitar podcasts, I’ll present these conversations as well.
Thanks to my producer Nik Hunt, the staff of the Southern Folklife Collection, and my subscribers for making this podcast possible.
For more on Charlie Christian and pre-war jazz guitar:
Help support the Talking Guitar project by becoming a paid subscriber or by hitting the donate button. Thank you!
© 2023 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved.