COVID-19 Claims Three Jersey Music Greats

Jazzmen Bucky Pizzarelli and Wallace Roney, and Fountains of Wayne founder Adam Schlesinger, have succumbed.

Pizzarelli’s guitar collection resounds with memories.
The late guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli Photo by Stu Rosner

In the last two days the coronavirus has claimed the lives of three influential and beloved musicians who called New Jersey home: guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, 94; trumpeter Wallace Roney, 59; and singer/songwriter Adam Schlesinger, 52, cofounder of the popular power pop band Fountains of Wayne.

Pizzarelli died on April 1 in Saddle River, his longtime home. His son, guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, with whom he often collaborated, said the cause was the coronavirus. For decades, the name Bucky Pizzarelli represented consummate musicianship in the world of jazz guitar. He made his name in the 1950s and ’60s as an infectious accompanist, his chords subtle, glistening; his rhythms smoothly swinging. He played backup on hundreds of records and was a fixture in the Tonight Show orchestra when it was based in New York. Later he became a headliner, his virtuosity dovetailing nicely with his affable, self-effacing personality.

In a 2015 profile in this magazine, Pizzarelli, then 89, said, “Retire?! Why am I gonna retire? I’m gonna sit home and watch Judge Judy all day? No thanks!” Indeed, just before the story was filed, he gave a rollicking concert in Morristown.

Those who greeted him afterwards, however, noted that he could not really shake their hands. The fingers of his right hand, the strumming hand, seemed more or less permanently contracted into the grip required to grasp the pick.

* * *

Wallace Roney was a figure equally esteemed in jazz, if less well-known to the general public. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he rose to prominence in the New York jazz scene of the late 1970s and lived for a number of years in Montclair. He died March 31, at St Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson.

Roney at an early age studied with elders such as Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie; he also studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston and at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Early in his career, Roney was identified as a protégé of the princely Miles Davis, but he soon grew beyond such classifications.

After playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1980s, he began leading his own groups and eventually recorded some 20 albums. His playing was deft, incisive, muscular in uptempo songs and, in ballads, tender and probing, with a rich, round tone. His 2000 album, No Room For Argument, revealed a musician relentlessly exploring and reshaping the verities of his art.

James McBride, the National Book Award–winning novelist (for The Good Lord Bird), who lives in Lambertville, is also a composer and saxophonist. In a phone interview with New Jersey Monthly, McBride admitted, “This one hits hard. A lot of musicians are floored by Wallace’s passing. He was one of the most underappreciated musicians of our age, by the general public, but musicians respected and admired him.

“I remember hearing him play at Trumpets in Montclair,” McBride continued. “He must have taken 12 or 14 choruses on a blues, and every single chorus was different. The reason was his harmonic vocabulary was so sophisticated he could solo using a number of different approaches. He pushed into deeper territory. In my time, he and Wynton Marsalis were the reigning gods of the trumpet.

“He was a great guy, too. A genius. And he had perfect pitch. Once I was sitting at a table with him, and I dropped a quarter. I said, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘Oh, between C and D flat.’

“In his music, Wallace was hearing stuff that a lot of people weren’t. He had big ears, man.”

* * *

Adam Schlesinger was raised in New York City and Montclair, and attended Montclair High School. In 1995, he formed Fountains of Wayne with his Williams College classmate Chris Collingswood, naming it for a sprawling outdoor furniture and lawn ornament store on Route 46 in Wayne. The band recorded a number of critically acclaimed albums, but is best known for its hit single, “Stacy’s Mom.” Schlesinger also wrote and co-produced the title song of the Tom Hanks movie, That Thing You Do!

The Associated Press reported that Schlesinger died April 1 at a hospital in upstate New York, having been sedated and on a ventilator for several days.

Schlesinger was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards for songwriting and won three. He and cowriter David Javerbaum won a 2009 Grammy Award for best comedy album for their songs on A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!

In a tweet Wednesday night, Colbert, a Montclair resident, wrote, “I’m so saddened to hear of the death of Adam Schlesinger due to Covid19. From the Dana Carvey show to A Colbert Christmas Special, he was a great (and patient) and talented artist with whom it was my good luck to work. Peace.”

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