N.J. guitar master Bucky Pizzarelli turns back time as he plays on
THERE ISN'T MUCH EMPTY SPACE on the walls in the den of Bucky Pizzarelli's Saddle River home.
Hanging there are his three honorary doctorates and some of the paintings he has created as a hobby. Also, photos taken at various stages of his seven decades as a guitarist, including several of him at the White House, where he played for Presidents Reagan (with Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Benny Goodman) and Clinton (with Claude "Fiddler" Williams).
There is also a photo of him and his son singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli, posing with President Nixon and his wife, Pat, at their Park Ridge home in 1992. The Pizzarellis are wearing tuxedos. But they hadn't dressed up for the Nixons.
"We knew his bodyguard, and his bodyguard said, 'It's his wife's birthday. Come over and play a couple of tunes,' " says Bucky Pizzarelli, who turns 91 on Jan. 9. "We had another gig that night. That's why we're dressed up in tuxedos."
For most of his life, it's been like that: one concert or nightclub gig or recording session or jam session after another. So many that, from Pizzarelli's current vantage point, most just blur together.
A lifelong Jersey resident, he was inducted into the state's Hall of Fame in 2011. The hall's website describes him as "a legendary jazz guitarist who has collaborated with some of the greatest musicians, including Les Paul, Stephane Grappelli and Benny Goodman." But that's just skimming the surface. He also has worked with Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie and Nat King Cole, for starters.
Although he mainly plays jazz, Pizzarelli has done all kinds of session work and played on pop, rock and R&B hits such as Ray Charles' "Georgia on My Mind," The Drifters' "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me," Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," and Dion and The Belmonts' "A Teenager in Love" and "Runaround Sue." Not to mention Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" and the theme song to television's "The Odd Couple."
Pizzarelli also performed on Paul McCartney's 2012 standards album, "Kisses on the Bottom."
"That was exciting: the top of the line," says Pizzarelli. "We did two days out in Hollywood. John did the first day, I did the second day."
When Pizzarelli turned 90 in early 2016, he wasn't able to celebrate. A serious bout with pneumonia laid him low from the fall of 2015 to last spring. He was also dealing with complications from a mini stroke that he had suffered earlier but was unaware of. The doctors still can't say definitively what happened, says Pizzarelli's other son, bassist Martin Pizzarelli.
Bucky spent time in four hospitals, some of it in intensive care. "I don't remember any of it," the elder Pizzarelli says. "I never knew it until it was over."
For a long time, it was unclear whether he would fully recover. "Sometimes, we'd see him in the hospital bed and say, 'Jeez, I don't know if he's ever going to play again,' " says Martin Pizzarelli.
At times, his father could hardly communicate. But even at his worst, there were signs of hope.
"On Thanksgiving Day (2015)," says Martin Pizzarelli, "Russell Malone, the great guitar player, flew in — he had just come off the road in Europe with Ron Carter — and he came right to my dad's hospital bed, and he and my brother played guitars for my dad for about an hour and a half. My dad was playing air guitar with his hand on the sheet. It was amazing. He could call out tunes and we'd ask, 'What key?,' and he'd go, 'A flat.' He still knew the keys."
Near the end of his hospitalization, family members would sometimes bring the guitar master his instrument, so he could practice a little.
Once he got home, he would play more. "(Guitarist) Ed (Laub) would come over, and I would play with him, and he started getting his muscle memory back," says Martin Pizzarelli.
Soon, Bucky was back playing full shows again.
Laub, who started taking lessons from Pizzarelli when he was in his teens during the late '60s, now plays with his teacher regularly. He says Pizzarelli is different from most guitar virtuosos in that he doesn't engage in a lot of "acrobatics." For most of his career, he's been an accompanist, not the main attraction, and that has stuck with him.
Laub says that when he started taking lessons, one of first things Pizzarelli said was, "If you're planning on being a professional musician, you need to understand that your job is to always make the other guy as good as he can possibly sound. It's not about you."
Laub says that for Pizzarelli, "It's about making beautiful music. It's not about grandstanding. And that's what his whole personality is about."
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BUCKY PIZZARELLI WAS BORN in Paterson as John Pizzarelli and got his nickname from his father, who had spent some time in Texas and was enamored of the cowboy lifestyle. He learned guitar from his uncles Bobby and Pete Domenick, who played in big bands, and was a member of Vaughn Monroe's big band himself by the time he was 17.
He served in the army, in Germany and Austria, toward the end of World War II. "Then the war ended, and they sent me to the Philippine islands for nine months to do nothing," Pizzarelli says.
That gave him more time to play guitar, though, and once he was discharged, Monroe gave Pizzarelli his seat back in the band.
He and his wife, Ruth, got married in 1953, and moved to Clifton. By 1963, they had settled, for good, in Saddle River, with their four children. Pizzarelli began working on television, in the NBC orchestra, in the '50s, and joined Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" band in 1966. But when Carson moved the show from New York to Burbank, Ca., in 1972, Pizzarelli didn't follow.
He often worked in New York, but never moved into the city. "I was driving to New York every day, to do recordings," he says. "Once they get your phone number, it doesn't matter where you are. You say yes, and you go."
A belated 90th-birthday celebration was held at the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival in August. Pizzarelli, a festival mainstay since its launch in 2011, made his usual low-key appearance, with Martin Pizzarelli, Laub and violinist Aaron Weinstein as back-up. They took the stage with no set list, as they always do, and the songs flowed: "This Nearly Was Mine" from "South Pacific," George and Ira Gershwin's "I Was Doing All Right" and Les Paul's "How High the Moon," among many others. After their warmly received set, they shared cake with friends and family members backstage.
Pizzarelli's guitar playing might not have been quite as smooth as it was in years past. But no one in the crowd could have guessed what he had been through just a few months earlier.
"He struggles, and he was struggling a little bit (in Morristown)," Laub says. "It's a slow process, and when you're 90, it's even slower. But he's coming around, and every day, he gets a little better."
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