John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s Brownstone Rental
The couple known to uptown sophisticates as the Nick and Nora of the cabaret world — and to the rest of us as John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey — rent the parlor and garden floors of a brownstone on the Upper West Side.
You might, like Johnny Mercer, say it’s just too marvelous for words, what with the leafy deck, the period details and an abundance of space for making music, making meatballs (both specialties of the house) and making merry. You can sample the cheery hubbub of last year’s well-attended holiday party on Mr. Pizzarelli’s new CD, “Midnight McCartney,” the singer and jazz guitarist’s tribute to the post-Beatles oeuvre of Sir Paul, to be released Sept. 11. Aptly, the sound of revelers Chez Pizzarelli sweetens the track of the bonus cut “Wonderful Christmastime.” Ms. Molaskey, an actress as well as a singer, and the couple’s daughter, Maddie, 17, sing background vocals throughout the album.
Longtime residents of the Upper East Side, Mr. Pizzarelli, 55, and Ms. Molaskey, 53, decided to pull up stakes six years ago when Maddie was admitted to a selective public middle school across town. “We wanted her to be able to walk home,” recalled Ms. Molaskey, who, in any case, was ready for a change of address.
“I was starting to feel very claustrophobic in New York. I was tired of apartment living, and I didn’t want my comings and goings to be noted by a doorman,” she said. “I wanted my own front door, and I wanted not to have to see people in the elevator.”
In short, Ms. Molaskey wanted what felt like a house. She got it — with all the attendant headaches. “I thought it could be such a sweet space,” Ms. Molaskey said. “So we went to the man who owned the building and said, ‘Can we make it better? Can we make it a little bit nicer?’ ”
Mr. Pizzarelli chimed in: “There was weird carpeting there. The second after my wife finished writing the ‘i’ in ‘Jessica’ on the check, she was tearing up the carpet.”
Well, Ms. Molaskey had her reasons. “The floor probably hadn’t seen the light of day since 1957,” she said, adding: “The refrigerator broke, and we paid for a new one. We paid to have the floors done. We painted and had closets built. It was a unique idea — fixing up someone else’s house. It worked for us because we were able to get a reasonable rent on a nice space.”
That nice space includes decorative fireplaces with tile surrounds in the living and dining rooms (the handy Ms. Molaskey re-affixed the tiles that had come loose), wainscoting and stained-glass transoms, all original.
The chic (sconces, zebra-print scatter rug) coexists happily with the shabby chic (flea-market bookcases and a distressed hutch from a Madison Avenue antiques shop, which holds part of Ms. Molaskey’s collection of vintage Fire-King tableware). The black-and-white palette of the living room is the perfect backdrop for the classic black-and-white photographs on the wall: images of Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett by Bob Gomel, a veteran photographer for Life Magazine; jazz saxophonist Zoot Sims shot in the ’50s by William Claxton opposite a Claxton photo of Mr. Pizzarelli taken several decades later.
“I knew Zoot; he was a friend of our family,” said Mr. Pizzarelli, whose father is the jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. “When Claxton photographed me, I said I wanted to homage that Zoot Sims picture.”
Nearby is a poster heralding an appearance by Frank Sinatra in Germany in 1993 with Mr. Pizzarelli as the opening act. There’s a framed illustration of the couple by Mr. Bennett at the top of the stairway. “He came to see us at Feinstein’s,” Ms. Molaskey said, referring to the defunct performance space at the Loews Regency. “He was looking down, so we thought he was asleep. It turned out he was sketching us on a napkin.”
Mr. Bennett is just one of many fans. There are also notes from Ol’ Blue Eyes, Stephen Sondheim and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Every year Ginsburg puts together something like a musicale,” Mr. Pizzarelli said. “Usually they have classical people, but this one year they wanted Barbara Cook, and Barbara’s people said they wanted us to do it with her.” Fortunately, no one objected.
Ms. Molaskey and Mr. Pizzarelli, who have been married for 17 years, met in 1996 when they were cast in the short-lived Broadway revue “Dream.” Ms. Molaskey showed her flair for home improvement very early in their relationship; she turned up one day at Mr. Pizzarelli’s all-but-empty digs in Midtown, then supervised the purchase of a sofa.
Re-covered in white, it now sits in the couple’s living room, the hub of the house. This is where Mr. Pizzarelli and Ms. Molaskey record their syndicated weekly broadcast “Radio Deluxe” and rehearse their shows at the Café Carlyle and Birdland.
Unlike the East Side apartment, this one has plenty of room for the backup musicians, who all have their designated spots near the Tonk piano, a gift from the couple’s great friend Jonathan Schwartz, the radio host, who inherited it from his father, the composer Arthur Schwartz. “One day he said, ‘It’s really wrong that my father’s piano is not being played.’ So now we have the piano that ‘Make the Man Love Me’ was written on,” Ms. Molaskey said.
In this house, food is the counterpoint to music. It’s why the couple wanted a formal dining room and why the custom-made farmhouse table was more necessity than luxury. “We’ve had good family dinners here,” said Mr. Pizzarelli, a Mario Batali acolyte. “I sort of stalked him. When we first moved here, I wrote him a letter saying, ‘I don’t know if you know me, but I want you to understand what your food has done for us.’ He wrote back and said, ‘Of course I know who you are.’ ”
Eataly, the market and restaurant co-owned by Mr. Batali in the Flatiron district, had recently opened, Mr. Pizzarelli added: “He gave us a tour and told me to text him anytime with questions. I had a dinner here for my brother, and I texted Mario that I wanted it to be all food from Umbria, and he sent a menu for us to follow.”
Mr. Pizzarelli made every course himself, with an assist on pasta from John, 24, his son from a previous marriage. Then he sent a video to Mr. Batali: “Grazie, Mario!”
Recently, Mr. Pizzarelli and Ms. Molaskey signed a new two-year lease. All is grand. But the move six years ago created a problem that has yet to be solved. From Day 1, their “Radio Deluxe” broadcast began with “From high atop Lexington Avenue …” because, well, it was the couple’s address.
“But when we went west, we started saying, ‘From high atop Riverside Drive …’ ” Ms. Molaskey said. “Everyone wrote to us and said, ‘No, no, you’re not above Riverside Drive. You’re above Lexington Avenue.’ So we still say ‘high atop Lexington Avenue,’ because no one would let us say anything else. It’s the power of radio. Listeners had conjured a picture.”
She added melodramatically: “But now you’ve outed us, and we’re happy to be outed. We don’t want to live a lie anymore.”