Senior Class: Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli

At 89, renowned Saddle River guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli is still swinging.

On any given morning, you can find Bucky Pizzarelli noodling on the guitar in the sunroom of his Saddle River home.
Early Riser: On any given morning, you can find Bucky Pizzarelli noodling on the guitar in the sunroom of his Saddle River home. He picks up the guitar at about 7 am and keeps playing “until the phone starts ringing.
Photo by Stu Rosner

The view from the sunroom of Bucky Pizzarelli’s Saddle River home is idyllic. “You can’t beat it!” says the ebullient 89-year-old jazz guitar master. The house, where Pizzarelli and his wife, Ruth, have lived since 1981, overlooks the town’s namesake river. The view includes a gentle waterfall and an expanse of woods—the latter dusted with snow on this January day.

In a career spanning seven decades (so far), Pizzarelli has toured and recorded with jazz immortals like Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Lionel Hampton and Stephane Grappelli, and provided consummate accompaniment for a bevy of world-class singers, including Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne, Carmen McRae, Annie Ross and Marlene VerPlanck. Like his friend and fellow Italian-American octogenarian, Tony Bennett, he is an avid painter, and the walls of his home are adorned with his colorful canvases.

It’s peaceful and isolated here in Saddle River, yet Pizzarelli is less than half an hour from the George Washington Bridge, his link to bustling Manhattan and performance places like the Cutting Room; Iridium, where he was a frequent guest of the late Les Paul, a guitar pioneer and fellow New Jersey resident; and Mezzrow, an intimate space on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, where he holds forth one Sunday night a month with Wyckoff resident Ed Laub, his guitar-duet partner.

At an age when most of his living contemporaries have long retired, Pizzarelli still hangs out in jazz clubs playing two sets a night, glad-handing well-wishers and carrying on lively conversations with fans. He played 168 shows last year, hopping planes with Laub to Denver, Salt Lake City, Miami, and such out-of-the-way places as Elkhart, Indiana, and Odessa, Texas.

“Retire?!” he laughs. “Why am I gonna retire? I’m gonna sit home and watch Judge Judy all day? No thanks!”

Pizzarelli picked up the guitar at age nine, later absorbing pointers from his uncles Pete and Bobby Domenick, both professional musicians. Growing up in Paterson and attending Central High School, he loved to visit the Great Falls. These days, his painting of the falls hangs in his sunroom, alongside his depictions of the George Washington Bridge and other Jersey landmarks. There’s also a portrait of pianist John Bunch, who played with Pizzarelli in Benny Goodman’s band during the early 1970s and in New York Swing, a trio during the ’90s. Bunch was a World War II paratrooper; Pizzarelli painted him jumping into combat.

Pizzarelli saw action himself during the war. “I turned 18 when they grabbed me,” he recalls of being drafted in 1944. “I was in the 86th Division out of Chicago, so I ended up going to Germany the last four months of the war in Europe. And from that point on, [the Germans] were all holding their hands up. Everywhere we went, everybody was surrendering.”

He brought his trusty Gibson L-5 guitar with him during his tour of duty in Germany, “I had it most of the time,” he recalls. “And I played in some ‘unauthorized’ dance bands over there.”

Pizzarelli had been playing professionally even before the war. At 16, he sat in on Sunday-afternoon jam sessions with Joe Mooney, a blind accordion player who led a popular quartet in Paterson. The following year, he was hired to tour with singer/trumpeter Vaughn Monroe’s popular big band. “Vaughn was classified as 4-F, so he didn’t go into the service,” Pizzarelli says. “But a lot of the musicians in his band got drafted, so there were a lot of open seats in the band. We were playing mostly theaters, a week at a time in places like Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore. It was great experience.” After mustering out of the service, Pizzarelli rejoined the band, staying with Monroe “for five years of one-nighters, riding the bus from town to town.”

In 1952, Pizzarelli became a staff musician for NBC in New York. By 1964, he was a member of the Tonight Show Band under the direction of Skitch Henderson. (Johnny Carson moved the show to Los Angeles in 1972.) Pizzarelli was a ubiquitous studio session player throughout the 1960s, performing on recordings with artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Andre Kostelanetz and Dion & the Belmonts.

“How much do you think a record date with Frank Sinatra paid in those days?” he asks. “$41.25! Forty-one dollars to play with Frank Sinatra?! I tell ya, he got a bargain. I don’t know who put the 25 cents in there, but that was the [union scale]. So we’d have to do three sessions a day like that just to make any kind of money.”

In 1969, Pizzarelli made a momentous switch from the conventional six-string to a seven-string guitar. Equipped with a low A string, the seven-string—developed by swing-era guitarist George Van Eps and manufactured by Gretsch—allowed Pizzarelli to play basslines and richer chord voicings. He remembers when he first got an earful of Van Eps, a native of Plainfield, playing the new guitar. “I heard him on the radio and thought, Who the hell is that?” Pizzarelli says. “He finally came from the West Coast to New York in 1969…. After seeing him play, I went out to Manny’s Music on 48th Street the next day and bought one. And at that point, it was a whole new ballgame.”

That same year, Pizzarelli, armed with his new seven-string, joined forces with the pioneering electric guitarist George Barnes in a swinging duo that was widely celebrated among guitarists, most notably for the 1971 album Pure and Honest.

By 1980, Bucky’s teenage son John was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps. That year they released their first duet album, 2 x 7=Pizzarelli, recorded when John was 19. It was followed in 1983 by Swinging Sevens. Both albums featured father and son playing seven-string guitars.

“John had a rock ’n‘ roll band as a teenager,” Bucky recalls. “I heard them play and I said to John, ‘Look, you’re copying rock ’n‘ roll solos, you can copy a jazz solo. Here’s a record of Django Reinhardt. Copy this.’ And he did it very well. And that’s when he started to play jazz.”

John Pizzarelli, now 54, remembers his father giving him recordings so he could learn songs before their performances. “I would learn that, and we would practice maybe once or twice, and then we’d go to a gig and at the end he’d say, ‘My son’s gonna play “Honeysuckle Rose” with me now.’ He always threw me in the fire that way, but I loved it. And I realized that the more things I learned, the longer I could be on the stage with him. So I just started to learn songs.”

John, who has earned international fame as a guitarist and Sinatra-influenced singer of the Great American Songbook, is not surprised by his octogenarian father’s remarkable vitality. “He loves music and loves listening to old records, and he loves discovering new things on his instrument. He just always loved the guitar. He still wants to go anywhere he can to play the guitar. Bucky still gets excited about music. He just likes to play.”

John recounts an episode from last year when he was appearing at the Café Carlyle in Manhattan with his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey. “Jess hurt herself on the first night of the gig and had to take off the second night. I decided to stay home with her, so I needed a sub. I called my brother, Martin, who plays bass in my group, and told him, ‘I don’t think Jess is going to make it tonight. Is Bucky around?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, he’s just sitting here on the couch.’ I told him, ‘Well, stay close to him because we may need him in about an hour.’ When I called Martin back and said, ‘We’re going to need Bucky tonight,’ he said, ‘I mentioned it to him. He’s in the shower and the tux is already laid out.’ He got wind of it and was ready to roll!”

The senior Pizzarelli also didn’t have to be asked twice to play on several tracks of Sir Paul McCartney’s 2012 album of standards, Kisses on the Bottom—an eventual Grammy winner. “He was so happy to play on the Paul McCartney thing a couple of years ago,” John says. “He actually said to somebody that he thought that playing with Benny Goodman was as big an honor as he ever had. But he said playing for Paul McCartney was right up there. It was amazing how excited he was about that. He kept saying, ‘Are they really gonna put our names [on the album]?’…He was like an excited kid on that session. I guess you could say that music keeps you young.”

Laub, Bucky’s guitar partner and a former student, also handles management duties for Pizzarelli. He heartily concurs with John’s assessment. “Music makes us feel good, and it’s been used for therapy for a long, long time,” says Laub, 62. “Scientifically, I don’t know what the reason is, but I do know this: Music makes you smile, and I think that’s good for you.”

Music certainly energizes Pizzarelli. A week prior to his 89th birthday, he was swinging on his seven-string guitar at Mezzrow with the vigor of a man half his age. He blended beautifully with Laub for some gorgeous chord voicings on the old Ink Spots number, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me),” a tune from Kisses on the Bottom. On a mid-tempo swing rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Love Walked In,” he skipped through his solo with a jaunty, youthful enthusiasm. His solos on Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and “In a Mellow Tone” showcased his knack for melodic invention. His relaxed take on Hoagy Carmichael’s classic “Stardust” was a veritable clinic in building solos from sophisticated chords. Yet his up-tempo romp through “Three Little Words” showed that he can still sling single notes with flair.

“Bucky’s a force of nature and I just think that music for him has always been the first thing,” says John Pizzarelli. “I don’t mean it in a bad way, but he puts the guitar before family or anything else. I think that’s the bottom line and always has been for him.”

Bill Milkowski is a contributor to Down Beat and Jazziz magazines. He is also the author of JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius and co-author of Here And Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino (both on Backbeat Books).

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