Jammin’ the Blues

On this blog we’ve already covered a little bit of Barney Kessel’s work on film music, discussing how he adapted composer Henry Mancini’s score for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into his own record. However, Kessel’s involvement in film dates back to at least 1944 when, at the age of 21, Kessel played guitar in the Warner Bros musical short “Jammin the Blues,” released May 5 of that year. In the Barney Kessel collection are 2 records with music from the film, as well as a 38-page interview in which Kessel discusses the film, its origins, its impact, and the backstory of many of the artists involved. Kessel was proud of his role in the film – its musical style was close to his own musical roots and playing in it was a big step forward in his own career. The film itself is only 10 minutes long. In 1995, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry because the film is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Turner Movie Classics, which has aired the film as part of a tribute to the National Film Registry, called it “one of the greatest of all jazz films.”

According to a 1982 interview, Kessel explained that the film came about because Jazz producer Norman Granz (right) wanted to recreate on film the jam session music format he had helped popularize in the Los Angeles jazz scene in the 1930s and early ‘40s. Granz selected an impressive roster of musicians for the film. The list of performers included Lester young (Tenor Sax), Red Callender (Bass), Harry Sweets Edison (Trumpet), Marlow Morris (piano), Kessel (guitar),  John Simmons (Double Bass) Illinois Jacquet (Tenor sax) Marie Bryant (vocals) and Sid Catlett and Jo Jones (drums). Kessel recalled that he became involved with the film because he was one of few musicians playing electric guitar in Los Angeles at the time. He had been a regular in many of the local jazz clubs, and already had a strong reputation with Norman Granz.

Granz allowed the musicians to choose their own songs for the film. Kessel recalls that Director Gjon Milli encouraged he and the other musicians to dress and behave as they would if they were going to play a regular show. The way the film was made was by first recording the music to be used in the film, and then filming the musicians playing along to the music as it was played back to them. Years later Kessel chuckled at how the musicians couldn’t always recall exactly what they had played during the recording sessions because it was very improvisational. When it came time to simulate playing along with the recording, the two didn’t always match up.

Most notably, and somewhat controversially, Kessel was the only white musician in the film. Granz was trying to advocate for the end of segregation in music, both for audiences and band members. He took the same approach with Jammin the Blues, to the dismay of Warner Bros mogul Jack Warner, who insisted that a black guitarist be found to make an all-black band, lest the film perform poorly in the segregated South. Granz refused to do so. Kessel described Granz as a real proponent of music as a meritocracy – Granz believed using a black guitarist to keep the film’s band from being integrated was just as racist as any other segregation. Either you could play, or you couldn’t, and Granz would have no one who couldn’t play. The compromise reached was to hide Kessel in the shadows.

Kessel’s entire recollection of the film is a positive one. “Of all the things I’ve done [in film]”, he said, “that was the most relaxed.” He liked how the Gjon Mili and Granz did not manipulate the performance – instead they “captured what’s going on” and presented it naturally. Compared to the music and film of the 1970s and 80s (he was interviewed in 1982) Kessel thought that the artistic value and quality of Jammin the Blues was twice as good. Kessel was a man of strong opinions, and he clearly had a high opinion of the film and his fellow musicians, especially Lester Young. He believed that the film captured a particular moment in music history, one that was driven both by the innovative producers like Granz and performers like Kessel and Lester Young who together made some of the best music of that or any other era, and also defied the racial mores that still hamstrung black men and women in much of America.

Sources

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

 

Breakfast at Barney’s

What do Barney Kessel and Audrey Hepburn have in common? Well, May is a significant month in both of their lives, but for entirely opposite reasons. Hepburn was born May 4, 1929. Kessel passed away after a long battle with brain cancer on May 6, 2004. They are also connected by Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was released in October, 1961, the same month as Kessel’s birthday. Fans of the film’s music may or may not know that in 1961, Reprise Records released Kessel’s own version of Henry Mancini’s iconic score.

The iconic score of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is just one of Henry Mancini’s (above) accomplishments.

It’s not entirely clear how much Kessel was involved in making the original score. However, in the Kessel collection are original orchestra copies of Mancini’s arrangements. These would have been given to the members of the orchestra. Kessel either kept or somehow got these, and then used them to write his own versions of the songs. These items are valuable for music historians and musicians alike first because they are rare, and second because they demonstrate Kessel’s musical genius.

 

 

Mancini original Score

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Here is a brief outline of what Kessel did differently. (Disclaimer: Yours truly is no music expert, and owes thanks to LaBudde Special Collections Graduate Student Assistant and Performance DMA student Anthony LaBat for helping to explain this.) Most noticeably, Kessel changed the instrumentation. He assimilated different parts from the Mancini score into parts for his versions. For example, in “Latin Golightly”, he assimilated the original Alto Sax & Trumpet, and Trombone & Baritone horn parts into a single part, which he played on guitar. Victor Feldman and Bud Shank also played that assimilated part on Vibraphone and Flute, respectively. For the bass, Kessel wrote an entirely new part that may have been modeled from the existing bass track, but was almost completely different in pitch and made rhythmic changes as well. In “Moon River Cha-Cha” Kessel again played the saxophone part on guitar, but he raised the pitch slightly throughout. Kessel was a master at chords, and chord harmonies. He made subtle adjustments like the ones in Moon River Cha-Cha to “revoice” chords. Doing this changed how the different chords in a progression pulled to one-another. In some cases it may have changed the entire progression. He also did this in “Sally’s Tomato” when he combined the trumpet and the alto sax into Bud Shank’s flute part. There was no dedicated flute part in Mancini’s original. Other changes include adding bongos to some of the songs, combining piano and guitar parts into rhythm guitar, using existing trombone fills for guitar fills between choruses, cutting out some bars, and recombining parts of choruses to make his own.

Also in the Barney Kessel collection is an original reference copy of Kessel’s album, which would have been made by the recording studio for band members. The full album was released on vinyl in 1961. Listen to the songs below and see if you can hear the differences, like the flute playing the original trumpet and sax part in Sally’s Tomato.

In Moon River Cha-Cha, compare the guitar, flute, and vibes in Kessel’s version to the saxophone in the original. Also, listen for the guitar playing the trombone fills – it starts at about 1:15 in both videos.

If you want to listen to any of the songs from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we have multiple copies of both the Mancini originals, as well as the Kessel version in the Marr Sound Archives.

Sources:

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Discogs

Introducing, the Barney Kessel Collection

Image of Barney Kessel (Wikimedia Commons)

One year ago, LaBudde Special Collections (LSC) and the Marr Sound Archives (MSA) made a valuable and historic addition to our collections through the remarkable generosity of Phyllis Kessel, widow of legendary guitar player Barney Kessel. Mrs. Kessel donated her late husband’s collection of nearly 400 audio/video items and hundreds of print documents. It turns out that one of hardest-working musicians to ever pick up a guitar was also a meticulous archivist. As a result, the Barney Kessel collection is a goldmine for music historians and fans alike. Through the efforts of LSC Graduate Student Assistant Anthony LaBat, MSA Public History Intern Taylor Bye, and the rest of the LaBudde and Marr team, we have finished processing the collection. This is the first of a series of posts taking a look at the breathtaking scope of Kessel’s career and offering a tiny taste of what the collection holds.

According to an official biography, “Barney Kessel was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on October 17, 1923. He started playing guitar at the age of 12 and within a couple of years was playing in a local jazz orchestra. While he was still a teenager, Kessel met guitar legend Charlie Christian by chance in an Oklahoma City nightclub. Impressed by the youngster’s talent, Christian offered to pass his name on to renowned bandleader Benny Goodman. Christian’s guitar playing was a great influence on Kessel’s playing, which was essentially a further refinement of the older guitarist’s style. Kessel worked hard on his technique to create his own exciting, “straight-ahead” bebop jazz guitar, with no blues licks. Although he soon became well known locally as a talented guitarist, Kessel realized that there wasn’t a career for a jazz musician in Muskogee, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1942. Life wasn’t easy there and, at first, he had to make a living out of washing dishes at a restaurant, but he managed to get a break with the Chico Marx (of Marx Brothers fame) Orchestra in 1943, and this led to radio and studio work. A year later he appeared as the only white musician in an award-winning documentary film, Jammin’ The Blues. Word of Kessel’s abilities soon spread and during the remainder of the decade he also played with the bands of Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and eventually Benny Goodman himself.”

By the 1960s, Kessel’s reputation was growing. In 1965, he made his first live record at P.J.’s Nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, just a few blocks over from the Sunset Strip. 1965 was right as the Sunset Strip was entering its heyday as an epicenter of American Rock & Roll.

Album Cover for On Fire (courtesy of Discogs)

Despite the burgeoning rock scene, clubs like PJ’s still catered to jazz audiences. PJ’s later became the Starwood Rock Club, before closing for good in 1981. Below are excerpts from a test pressing of his 1965 live show, which he released as the album “On Fire” on his own label (Emerald Records.)             

Another singular item in the collection is what we believe to be an unreleased recording made for Reprise Records (part of Warner Brothers) in either the early or mid-1960s. The recording features Kessel playing alongside tenor sax whiz Zoot Sims. With Kessel and Sims were Monk Montgomery, Johnny Gray, and John Piscatelli on bass, 2nd guitar, and drums, respectively. According to a 1992 letter, Warner Brothers never released the album, though Kessel wanted them to release it as a CD. For copyright reasons, we can’t upload any of the material from that session. However, it is just one example of the unique items in the Kessel collection that researchers can use to uncover new stories about the history of American music.

Sources:

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-27/entertainment/ca-675_1_sunset-strip

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starwood_(nightclub)

http://martinostimemachine.blogspot.com/2016/12/pjs-night-club-las-first-discotheque.html