It is, unfortunately, hard to be a jazz fan without also being a habitual reader of obituaries. Leaving aside talented victims of live-fast-die-young lifestyles, few players are left from the major pre-second world war movements, and the past few years have seen the ranks of the surviving beboppers and their immediate successors thinning at a thoroughly dispiriting rate. It is therefore a pleasure to record that the most important guitarist still with us from the bebop era has not yet cashed in his chips, and celebrates his 80th birthday this Friday. It would be even more of a pleasure to tell you that he is still playing, but a severe stroke in 1992 put a stop to that - although not to his teaching, an area in which he had long been active, with his vast experience much sought after. Few men have ever packed as much music-making into a career. By the time he had to stop, Barney Kessel had been playing professionally for half a century in a thoroughly bewildering variety of contexts, as he recalled in a 1969 interview. 'I have been blessed with a crazy kind of life and wide experiences. I've played with Charlie Parker, Mahalia Jackson, Gene Autry and Maurice Chevalier,' he recalled. That wasn't the half of it. His first regular gig was with the Chico Marx Orchestra, and leaving aside a who's who of jazz singers and instrumentalists from 1942 onwards, Kessel's guitar work had also been heard on countless movie soundtracks as well as on records by Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, Ricky Nelson - whom he also produced - and on many of the classic Phil Spector sessions where one of the most distinctive jazz guitar sounds disappeared almost without trace into the legendary 'Wall of Sound'. Kessel was that rare combination - a bona fide jazz virtuoso and a true studio pro, capable of playing anything, anytime for anyone. You may not be aware that you've heard him, but take it from me you have at some point. I suppose the first time I heard Kessel must have been unknowingly on a rock 'n' roll record, but I well remember the first time his signature sound floated over the airwaves to me playing jazz. It was on a Billie Holiday recording - one from her last years, when her singing still bore traces of faded genius but Lady Day was clearly well past her astonishing best. I was a young teenager and didn't know her earlier work, so on that occasion, Holiday's importance passed me by, but Kessel's guitar accompaniment was electrifying. The tune was Duke Ellington's Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me and the absolute empathy of Kessel's chord work with the vocal is something I've never forgotten. He had a way of working with singers. He made telling contributions to a number of Ella Fitzgerald's best Verve recordings, and that's also him on Julie London's Cry Me A River, playing that unforgettable guitar part and providing the arrangement that made the record - and the hit. As a soloist Kessel's virtuosity was remarkable from the start. Charlie Christian - the first noteworthy electric guitarist in jazz whom he met while still a teenager - was his inspiration, and Kessel was one of the very few guitarists of his era able to play the fast and furious lines Christian honed during his late-night sessions at Minton's Playhouse with the bebop pioneers. When his idol died, tragically young, in many respects Kessel assumed his mantle, and his style laid the foundation for players who later shared stages with him such as Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd and Joe Pass. You could judge him in part by the company he kept. His best-known ensemble was a trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne, known simply as The Poll Winners because they routinely topped magazine polls for the best musicians on their particular instruments. Another collaborator was Andre Previn, with whom he worked on a Bizet adaptation called Kessel Plays Carmen, who said of his friend: 'He has a staggering amount of technique, a healthy respect for the traditional, a ceaseless curiosity for the experimental and an admirable and lovely harmonic sense'. Another indication of the respect in which he is held is the line up of guitarists who turned out for a 1997 tribute concert which Kessel attended and at which, although unable to play, he was able to speak to an audience for the first time since his stroke. Among the 30 players attending were Kenny Burrell, Mundell Lowe, and his partners in the Great Guitars trio, Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, who were joined for their set that night by the formidable Tal Farlow, one of the very few men capable of taking over Kessel's chair. It would be pleasant at this point merely to wish a great musician a happy birthday, but Kessel's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse over the past two years. In late 2001 he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and although radio therapy has slowed the growth of a non-operable tumour, he now requires medical attention round the clock and no longer has the funds to pay for it. An appeal for help has been launched through the website of Chicago jazz radio presenter Bob Parlocha (go to www. jazzwithbobparlocha.com), requesting simply that cheques from jazz fans moved to write them be sent direct to his wife, Phyllis. The address is Mrs Phyllis Kessel, 4445 North Avenue, San Diego, California CA 92116-3940, United States, and that's where the fee for this column will be going.