The death of Bucky Pizzarelli at the age of 94 in New Jersey is deeply felt among jazz musicians and fans. Guitarist Martin Taylor, who played with Bucky, has not just written a tribute for LJN himself, he has also kindly introduced us to Ted Clark, a neighbor and student of Bucky and a Director of the New Jersey Jazz Society (njjs.org) who knew him extremely well, and has written an affectionate appreciation:
Martin Taylor: I remember playing at Bucky’s 89th birthday concert in Salt Lake City, Utah then Bucky and I went on the road together for a few duo concerts in California (the picture on the left is from that tour). It was one of the most memorable moments in my musical life on the road.
I would drive us for hours up and down the 101 with Bucky in the passenger seat telling me story after story of events during his long musical career. It felt like Bucky was transporting me back to another time in the company of all the old jazz greats. I will always treasure that time we spent together.
Bucky was a pioneer of the 7 string guitar, and along with George Van Eps, put the instrument on the map and influenced many players that came along later. He was also probably the last master of the art of rhythm jazz guitar. He was a true inspiration both as a musician and human being.
Ted Clark: Over seven decades, Bucky Pizzarelli has touched the musical world, and influenced generations of jazz guitarists beyond any other musician. In fact, he was one of the founding fathers of the jazz guitar. As his son, singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli, on the day after his father’s death, posted, “Imagine you are born in the first industrialized city in the U.S. (Paterson, New Jersey) to a grocer and his wife in the late 1920’s. The wife’s brothers play banjo, mandolin, and a little guitar. They give you lessons after school and tell you who all the major musicians of the time are, and that you should be aware of them, honor them, and strive to be that good. They mention Benny Goodman, Eddie Lang, Django Reinhart…” The tale goes on from there.
Although Bucky never got to meet Eddie Lang, he did partner with Eddie’s childhood friend, violinist Joe Venuti. Although Bucky never met Django (he came within a few miles of Django while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army during World War 2), Bucky did partner with Django’s partner, violinist Stephane Grappelli. For 20 years, Benny Goodman chose Bucky as his guitarist as Goodman’s band toured the U.S. and Europe.
Bucky earned the title of Master of the Jazz Guitar. His rhythm playing is so legendary that many guitar teachers refer to it as the Bucky method. His solo playing was graceful and always reflected his respect for the song writer and the song (he never referred to them as “tunes”). His ability to play both at the same time in a style called “chord melody” made him stand out as a solo guitarist as well as a thoughtful accompanist for a singer. On the New Jersey Jazz Society’s YouTube channel there is a recording of an impromptu live performance of Sarah Vaughan singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” backed up solely by Bucky. It is a perfect and playful dance between the two virtuosos…one where listeners think “Wow! how did they do that?”
In 1969, Bucky’s hero, guitarist George Van Eps, collaborated with the Gretsch company to make a 7-string archtop guitar, adding a “low A” bass string to the 6 regular strings. This provided greater depth by adding a bass note to traditional jazz chords. Bucky bought one at Manny’s Music on 48th Street in New York City on day one, and the 7-string became his instrument of choice. Bucky collaborated with luthier Bob Benedetto on a signature 7-string guitar and then later with Dale Unger of American Archtop Guitar. Unger said “Bucky would make a few design requests that from a physics perspective just didn’t seem right, like narrower f-holes than a typical archtop. That single feature actually made Bucky’s signature model’s top vibrate more and enhanced Bucky’s playing style…the sound is incredible.” Bucky knew guitars. One of Bucky’s guitars is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
At age 17, Bucky started his professional career with Vaughn Monroe’s big band. His journey took him to The National Broadcasting System (NBC) Orchestra, playing for many TV shows and eventually landing him the guitar chair in Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” Band in New York City. Around the same time, Rock ‘n’ Roll was all the rage and so was the need for studio musicians. In addition to his work at NBC, Bucky would do as many as three recording sessions a day, followed by a quick trip back to his New Jersey home for dinner with family, and then back to the city to play at a club.
Bucky’s rock and pop music credits are prolific and include playing guitar or bass guitar on records by The Drifters (Save The Last Dance For Me), Del Shannon (Runaway), Bryan Hyland (Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini), Ben E. King (Stand By Me), Roberta Flack (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face…yeah, that guitar is all Bucky), Ray Charles (Georgia On My Mind), the entire catalog of Dion and the Belmonts, and hundreds more.
Bucky collaborated with Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Julie London, Les Paul, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Martin Taylor, Frank Vignola, Al Caiola, Tony Mottola, Slam Stewart, Lionel Hampton, Milt Hinton, Jerry Bruno, George Barnes, Aaron Weinstein, Howard Alden, Zoot Sims, and many more. In 2012, Bucky played on Sir Paul McCartney’s standards album “Kisses On The Bottom.”
Even with that list of musicians and singers, Bucky shined his signature joyful light most when performing with his family. His 1972 Green Guitar Blues album featured his then 14 year-old daughter Mary in a guitar duet of “Chicken A La Swing.” When sons John (guitar), and Martin (bass) were of age, they also performed with their dad from local restaurants to large concert venues for decades. John’s wife Jessica Molaskey and daughter Madeline are also in the family musical mix.
In his New Jersey home, there are framed invitations from several U.S. Presidents for command performances at the White House, interspersed with Bucky’s paintings. Like other jazz musicians (Martin Taylor and Tony Bennett, for example) painting was a relaxing passion of Bucky’s. Many paintings depicted local landmarks and events in Bucky’s life. One large painting showed the Hindenburg flying over the Great Falls Of Paterson in 1937, from the perspective of an 11 year-old Bucky Pizzarelli after being let out of grammar school to see this soon-to-be ill-fated airship.
When discussing his own history, Bucky always began the story with learning music from his uncles. At some point he got to his respect for the song writer and need to honor the song. He told almost every student something along the lines of: “Always learn the melody and don’t stray too far away from it. Your job is to make the song better, the singer better, the band better. Listening is more important than playing…often not playing is more important than playing. The Sarah Vaughan clip demonstrates that Bucky practiced what he preached.
In a magazine article interview in 2015, Bucky was asked, “What would you like people to remember about your playing?” He responded “I just want to be known as a guitar player. I love to play guitar; it’s never a job for me. The instrument has been wonderful to me and my family.”
John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli. 9 January 1926 – 1 April 2020. He is survived by his wife Ruth, daughters Anne and Mary, sons John and Martin, and four grandchildren.