Monday, October 17, 2011

“I’m gonna tell Benny about you”: When Barney Met Charlie

On the occasion of what would be the 88th birthday of Barney Kessel (1923-2004) . . .

. . . and also, remarkably, what is the 53rd of another guitar virtuoso, Howard Alden, a keeper of Barney Kessel’s flame . . .

. . . I reproduce this reminiscence of Kessel’s cited by Wayne E. Goins and Craig McKinney in The Biography of Charlie Christian, Jazz Guitar’s King of Swing (Edwin Mellen Press, 2005, 286-88). 

In 1981, in preparation for a special Charlie Christian issue, Jas Obrecht, who had edited Barney’s column for Guitar Player magazine since the late ‘70s, interviewed him. In that interview Barney elaborated upon not only what Charlie meant to him personally, but also upon the context of jazz guitar playing that Charlie had burst into and then transformed. This valuable interview was never published until earlier this year when Mr. Obrecht posted it on his blog, to which I hope jazz aficionados will turn after visiting mine. What now follows is Goins and McKinney's introduction to Barney Kessel recollection taken from that earlier interview:

One of the places Charles [Christian] dropped by while on vacation, at the behest of a friend who worked there as a waiter, was the Oklahoma Club.  As he worked, the waiter listened to the band blow and was quite taken by a young guitarist whose style had shadings similar to the unique Charlie Christian approach. The guitarist was Barney Kessel, who was still in his teens. Years later, Kessel recounted the incredible story of how he got to know Charlie Christian for Guitar Player magazine:
Around October of 1940 [i.e., the month Kessel would turn 17.--T.F.] I was going to high school and playing with a college band from Stillwater, Oklahoma called the Varsitonians. We were playing three nights at the Oklahoma Club in Oklahoma City during some time off from classes. The first night I was taking a lot of solos on electric guitar, and throughout the evening I noticed that a young black waiter kept looking at the bandstand listening and smiling, and when I would play a solo he would nod and grin. He became very animated and showed me from a distance that he really did like what I was doing.
When we took an intermission this waiter approached me and told me that he did enjoy the way I  played and was surprised to find someone so young playing solo guitar. He went on to say that he knew Charlie Christian. He also said Charlie was there in Oklahoma City at the time, and that he intended to call him and tell him about my playing. Well, I didn’t believe that at all; as far as I knew, Charlie Christian was playing with the Benny Goodman Sextet somewhere in New York—certainly not in Oklahoma.
So in the middle of the next set I was absolutely astounded and bowled over when I looked down and in front of my very own eyes there was Charlie Christian looking up at me, registering his approval of the music and what we were doing. He was tall and very lean, and he must have been about twenty-one then. [Born in July 29, 1916, Charlie Christian was 24 in October 1940.--T.F.] I was just overwhelmed! I guess for me to see Charlie Christian at that time would be very much like a twelve-year-old girl having The Beatles look at her during their hey-day.
He seemed genuinely happy to be in my company, and of course I was delighted to be in his; so when he found out I was going to be in town for two more nights, he suggested that we might get together the following afternoon to jam.  Well, I hadn’t dared to bring this up, just out of respect for his artistry and his stature, but since he suggest it I was all for it.
So that night I went to bed almost unable to sleep, just thrilled beyond belief over being able to meet this man and have him be so nice and helpful. I say it over and over again, because I did respect him so much.
Charlie kept his word, and over the next two days, he spent some quality time with the young Kessel, who couldn’t believe what he was experiencing.
Finally, when we had finished playing and Charlie was taking his leave, I just thanked him over and over for having allowed me to jam with him and told him how I would never forget him or that day. He walked away a few steps, then turned and smiled. I can recall today his last words to me and just the way he said them, they inspired me so much. I lived on these words for a long, long time, and they helped me to build a sense of worth in myself. He walked away just a few steps and turned around and said, “I’m gonna tell Benny about you.”
[Barney would first play in Goodman’s orchestra seven years later.--T.F.]