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Interview Three: The Jazz Wit and Wisdom of Barney Kessel
Les Tomkins talks to Barney about his onstage humour, what he has done in the US and other jazz musicians.
Source: Jazz Professional
Good to see you back in Britain, Barney. You must have lost count of how many times you've been here.
Yes, I have lost count. I was in Great Britain for the first time in 1952 with Jazz At The Philharmonic to play for the Flood Relief, and I came back in 1968; since that time I've been here at least once every year, with the exception of one year, right up to now—that's almost twenty years. Sometimes I've been here two, three and four times in the same year.
Well, we never get tired of hearing you play that guitar.
It's great to be here—I love it. I even lived here, as you know, for a total of a year and a half, from 1969. I know a lot of the musicians by now, and the language is no problem—they can understand my dialect. It's very good.
How did the show go (at the Barbican Hall)? I could hear a lot of applause as well as wonderful music from backstage.
It went fine. This was a different crowd I than I usually draw, because they were there basically to see and hear George Melly; so it was more of a traditional style, more middle—of—the—road music. And more entertainment, rather than just the music—more visual, conversing with them and being that way. I've tried to expand my own awareness, and to do what's appropriate for the crowd that's there. I mean, in a real hip New York club there's certain songs that I would not play, because they wouldn't want it.
You'd play only the strictly 'in' jazz things?
Yes—more of the kind of thing that's accepted there. But I'd stay away from it in other places, because it wouldn't mean anything.
So you regard yourself as an adaptable performer?
More and more—by still playing what I believe in, still playing the way I want to play, but choosing material and choosing a presentation that suits the occasion, that's all. It's just like having a tuxedo, but you don't wear it when you go down to get some petrol for your car. It's having the right attitude, and being able to assess what kind of a crowd it is. It isn't a matter of in any way selling out, or moving away from something; it's just a matter of having a repertoire that you can draw from, and at any given time deciding to draw on what might be best for that group of people—that would not be forcing something down their throats, but would be palatable and enjoyable to them.
What sort of work have you been doing in the States recently?
I've been travelling, and playing mostly in clubs around the world—and small recital halls. I've also been working in other packages; such as in January of this year I did a "Salute to Benny Goodman" with a bunch of all—star musicians.
I tour with The Great Guitars, or sometimes I just tour a little bit with Herb Ellis. At times I couple myself with various people; then there are times when I just play solo. In some cases I'm actually offered more to play solo than with a group, because they want to hear it that way. In addition to that —in the last couple of years I've gone back with Contem
porary Records. I made a record for Contemporary with the Monty Alexander Trio backing me, and I'm getting ready to make one with another group. Each record is to be different—not the same instrumentation, not the same approach—just the opposite of what George Shearing did in the old days with the Quintet. Also, I've put out a couple of solo books, with the help of Maurice Summerfield—although it's from my own company, he has helped me with the publishing of it—and these books of original solos are available. And I've made three videos on how to play jazz guitar; they were produced in Winnipeg, Canada, but they're not available in Europe or Britain yet, because a different mechanical procedure is necessary to play videos here. My time is taken up by playing live or working on future projects. I'm working on a couple of books that I'm writing—not musical books, just text. Then I'll take time off, and sometimes go on holidays; I'm enjoying my life very much.
Didn't I hear that you've been doing some script—writing?
Yes, you did. Various people have asked me to submit some scripts on some comedic situations, because they saw me and they said: "What could you conjure up for me?" When I tell them that I don't write scripts for myself, they don't believe it. But I just make up things off the top of my head; I don't know if they're funny until I've said them. If they're funny, I try to remember them; if they're not funny, I try to forget them. So I've prepared a few scripts for these people.
I'd rather not say who they're for, because I don't want them to be thought of as people who bought material; I'd rather that they just be funny on their own part. I only did it because I was sought out.
Is this humour element something that you've only developed in recent years?
I've always had it within me, and I've always done it offstage, among musicians. As a matter of fact, when I worked on the sound stage in Hollywood, if I didn't say these funny things I had any number of people come up and ask me: "Are you not well today—is something wrong?" They would wait for it, and they would kick things around: "What's the latest Kessel quote?" It's very natural, but not everything is funny. It's not like being a comedian on command; if they said: "Start now, and I want you to be funny for twenty minutes", I couldn't do that. Jonathan Winters can do that—I can't. If I'm in a good mood and I feel like it, okay.
Now, there are certain places where I start to talk, and I feel immediately that they don't want to hear it—and I'll just go right into the music. I don't force it; the vibration tells me that they really want me to get on and play—so I do. In other places, even before I've said the first word, I know it for certain—they want to laugh. They start laughing, and I haven't got to the funny part yet. So you just have to know your audience. But it's always been an effortless thing with me.
In working, I find it helps me very much in relating with people—specially those who don't know the music. Because I don't sing—and I think singers reach people more than instrumentalists. So I do it by just saying these little asides. It's not like a stand—up comedian, or having a routine—I never know what I'm going to say.
Well, it's the same as your jazz playing—an improvised communication.
And like playing, I try to keep it varied. Now, tonight I used different things that I said than I did last night, because I knew a few of the people that were there last night were going to be here tonight, including the musicians.
You're not like Ronnie Scott, who comes out with his set catch—phrases every time, like: "This is the first time I've seen dead people smoke".
Not every time. I like the one where he says: "If I don't see you again—have a nice life"! But I must say: his timing is so great that even when you've heard these things over and over and over, they're still funny. They're funny because of the timing.
Another natural wit was Buddy Rich. A BBC Jazz Score programme I saw being recorded with you, Buddy and Ronnie taking part was quite hilarious.
That's right. I played with Buddy on Jazz At The Philharmonic, and also I had the pleasure of being asked to be on about three of his own albums, with Harry Edison and some other very exciting people at different times. Sometimes he was witty in a caustic way; there's that type of humour, that borders on the devaluation of people—some of that people laugh at and it's funny, but I'm not given to that too much.
A current topic of interest is the forthcoming film of Charlie Parker's life story. You, of course, worked with him—have you any thoughts about the movie?
I really don't know much about it. I know the writer, Lennie Niehaus; I haven't seen him in perhaps twenty years. I wouldn't know whether he's caught the spirit of Charlie Parker or not; just because he can write jazz and plays the alto doesn't mean he's caught the man—he may have. It's commendable that Clint Eastwood wanted to do a thing like this; again, I'm not familiar with his directorial abilities. The fact that people want to be involved in what is a worthy project is no guarantee that the project itself will have any substance. Like, when they did the Billie Holiday story—Leonard Feather and Norman Granz didn't want to have any part of that, because it did not depict the life of Billie Holiday. What it ended up as, and what it really was—it was a vehicle for Diana Ross to make a movie; it was something she could do, that would allow her to sing and act. She couldn't do Florence Nightingale and she couldn't do Joan of Arc, but she could do Billie Holiday. If they'd really wanted to do Billie's story, they would have gotten it more accurate; they would have called in people who knew her as advisors—who were willing to come. And they would have used her voice; I mean, if it's that great, why not use it—it's available. Why not have a black woman who's an actress of the stature of Sidney Poitier or James Earl Jones to play the part, and use Billie's voice?
It must cause you some amusement when you see films like that and the Goodman Story, about people you knew well in real life.
Oh, yes. And I'll tell you—I've talked with doctors about medical pictures, and they have a good laugh about those.
Likewise lawyers—about things that are supposed to go on in a courtroom that never really do, where a judge would throw you out on your ear if you were a solicitor or a barrister doing what they're shown doing. Movies take great licence—and when the public doesn't know what the actuality is, they have no way to doubt what's going on. If you lived in idyllic life, you were always in good health, you had a happy marriage and four lovely children, and your success in music was always growing—as far as movies, newspapers and the media in general is concerned, it's very boring. But if you were a gun—runner or a smuggler or a womaniser, then it's different.
On the other hand, movies tend to deglamourise the reality, to make it more acceptable to the general public. They didn't show Benny Goodman as the difficult character he was known to be sometimes; they showed him as a nice, benign gentleman.
That's it. But I'm glad that they're doing the Charlie Parker story. Anything that brings jazz to the awareness of the public is good also if, as a result of it, there's some kind of acceptance. I mean, it may be that people will see this picture, and all of a sudden the fashion becomes for men to wear clothes like the actor playing Charlie Parker did. Or all of these songs come back; or because of the way he played "Embraceable You" standards become more popular. Anything like that inevitably it helps me. I was talking with Herb Ellis about this: any time a good, new jazz guitar player comes on the scene, ultimately it's good for me. It's bad for me if more and more terrible guitar players become popular. When something good appears, that involves tuning up, playing in tune, with good time and good harmonies, then it also helps me, because it shows that there's an acceptance of that. And whoever that person is, if he is extremely popular, he cannot be in all places at once; so there's room for me to be where he can't be.
So you would applaud George Benson's success as a singer?
Well, I wouldn't even discuss it that way, by name. I think he's done what he had to do, and he's a big success, but I wouldn't discuss it. But he's still keeping the guitar in front of the people, in a musical way; so that, as you say, rubs off on all other talented guitarists. Whereas Nat Cole became a stand—up singer; he abandoned the piano, and actually really lost touch with it for quite a while.
Do you think the people who have played guitar in more outlandish ways have aided the instrument?
Not at all. No, they haven't really done anything for the guitar or music. Like, someone once asked me: "What did you think of Jimi Hendrix?" First of all, I don't discuss guitar players. I don't think it's ethical; it's like asking a jazz critic about another jazz critic. I'd rather not. But it didn't even have to be Jimi Hendrix it could be anyone. The fact that any man would go out on the stage and set fire to his guitar, or urinate on his guitar there's nothing in there that makes me admire it; there's nothing admirable about that. So I can't get past that to examine the 'genius'; if that's my own hang—up, then it is if I'm limited in my outlook. I can't get past the disrespect shown the instrument, and I can't imagine someone having enough genius to justify that.
However, the wheel turns around, and I think people, after being inundated with that kind of guitar sound, are turning more and more to your kind of sound.
Yes, they are. What's happening is that some of the people who, in their teens, were involved in rock, acid rock, disco and all that have now moved into other areas where the kind of music I play is more acceptable. It's ever—cyclic.
There are now twelve year olds who think of Elvis Presley and the Beatles as old men, mythical characters things from the past. They just don't relate to it. It's a curious thing, but each generation wants its own heroes; it doesn't matter how good someone else is they want their heroes, from their own age bracket.
It's like when Bob Dylan came out . . . I knew John Hammond, and that he had discovered Mary Lou Williams and, of course, he'd done a lot for Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday he's really made the people aware of a lot of fine talent. He also brought Bob Dylan into public awareness and I tried to find out what was the redeeming factor there. He can't sing, he can't play guitar, he can't play the harmonica; his melodies are very, very primitive, bordering on the Neanderthal. Well, trying to look at it objectively the redeeming elements, and the only ones, are the words to his songs, that had a message for the people of his age and his time. But since I'm not his age, his words have no meaning for me. They did not affect me in any way. Therefore, as far as I'm concerned, there were no redeeming qualities but I can see why he was accepted by a lot of people.
Well, that goes for a great deal of what is perpetrated in the pop field people must be identifying with it, or they wouldn't be listening to it so much. But you can't understand what they're enjoying, when you can hear nothing but noise, rotten lyrics and rotten melodies.
And profane, and a lot if it is totally unintelligible. But they have the right to do this, and I certainly don't look down on them as people. It's not my cup of tea; it's not for me. I do think the music is rotten yet there is a listening audience out there for that, paying a lot of money, or they couldn't survive. It's just to each his own,
Putting jazz in perspective
Copyright © 1988, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.