Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pizzarelli, Bucky (John Paul)

Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli's superior range of harmonic qualities has made him equally effective as a soloist as with an ensemble. Bucky’s clear tone, reminiscent of his mentor, clarinetist Benny Goodman, enables him to seamlessly move back and forth swing and more modern styles of jazz.

 Bucky Pizzarelli

Pizzarelli’s work with Goodman and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims set the tone for a long and storied career dedicated to traditional jazz and contemporary popular song. In his seventy years as a performer, Pizzarelli has demonstrated that a perfect sense of rhythm and powerful melodic devices can expand the possibilities for modern guitar players.

John Paul Pizzarelli was born in Paterson, New Jersey on January 9, 1926. Bucky was born to John and Amelia Pizzarelli, who owned a grocery store in town. As a child, he was given the nickname “Bucky” by his father, which was shortened from the nickname “buckskin.”

Pizzarelli came from a musical family; his uncles Pete and Bobby Dominick were professional musicians who would often hold Sunday jam sessions for their family. An early influence of his was accordionist Joe Mooney, with whom his Uncle Bobby performed.

Pizzarelli began his musical education by teaching himself the rudiments of music and listening to records. Bucky received some lessons from his uncles, who showed him the basic mechanics of the guitar. His Uncle Bobby also taught him his first songs, “Honeysuckle Rose” by pianist Fats Waller and “Lady Be Good” by composers George and Ira Gershwin.

Early guitarists who influenced Pizzarelli included George Barnes, Barry Galbraith and Django Reinhardt. Django was an especially important influence on him, whom Bucky admired for his sense of swing and rhythmic capabilities. Bucky was also exposed to different kinds of live music in Paterson's downtown area.

Throughout his high school years, Pizzarelli performed in a variety of groups including a wedding band, a classical music ensemble and a jazz ensemble. At the age of seventeen, Bucky became a member of bandleader Vaughn Monroe’s dance band, whom he began to perform with in regional spots such was Scranton, Pennsylvania, Binghamton, New York and Rochester, New York.

On February 14, 1943, he became a member of Paterson’s chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. Around the same time, Bucky bought his first guitar, a Gibson L50 archtop. Bucky ventured into New York City’s Bowery in order to buy the instrument for the then-expensive price of one hundred and fifty dollars.

Shortly after, Pizzarelli was drafted into the United States Army as an infantryman for the 86th Division. While stationed in Austria, Bucky kept his chops up by performing in a dance band. On one occasion, Bucky traveled to France where he passed through a town called Nancy. He saw that his idol Django Reinhardt was performing in the town, but was not able to get to the club where he was playing.

Upon his discharge, Pizzarelli returned to Paterson, where he was able to rejoin the Monroe band on June 6, 1946. With the Monroe group, Bucky was able to tour on a recurrent basis. He played with the group for an additional five years before joining Joe Mooney’s band.

In 1953, Pizzarelli became a staff musician at NBC studios where he played with bandleader Skitch Henderson and performed on radio shows. From the years of 1956 until 1957, Pizzarelli was a member of the Three Suns trio alongside bassist Andy Simpkins and pianist Gene Harris. Upon leaving the Three Suns, Bucky freelanced where he performed with several ensembles and artists including harmonica player Toots Thielemans.

In 1960, Pizzarelli released Music Minus Many Men, his first as a leader. In 1964, Bucky joined bandleader Doc Severinsen’s band on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. While playing with the group, Bucky and the band accompanied a variety of acts ranging from pop groups to novelty acts. The experience allowed him to play a variety of styles and expand his musical palette.

Beginning in 1966, Pizzarelli began performing with bandleader Benny Goodman, forming an association that would last until the bandleader’s death in 1986. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bucky recorded and toured with Goodman including four European tours during the early 1970s.

On September 14, 1966, Pizzarelli recorded the song “California Dreaming” with guitarist Wes Montgomery.With an arrangement by Don Sebesky, this all-star session featured bassist Richard Davis, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Grady Tate as well as a full brass and woodwind section.

Pizzarelli easily fits within the arrangement by complementing Montgomery’s tone with his accompanying style. Initially playing on all the beats, Bucky changes his rhythmic pattern in the middle of the song to beats two and four, mirroring the brass and woodwind section and allowing more power within the arrangement.

In 1969, Pizzarelli began to perform on a seven-string guitar after hearing guitarist George Van Epps in New York. Upon hearing him, Bucky was taken by the harmonic possibilities of the instrument and bought one the next day from Manny’s Music on 48th street. The addition of the seventh string allows him to play basslines at the same time, resulting in a fuller sound.

In 1972, Pizzarelli released his second album Green Guitar Blues, which featured bassist George Duvivier and drummer Don Lamond. The record includes a version of the Dick McDonough/Carl Kress song “Chicken A La Swing,” which features his then fourteen-year-old daughter Mary on classical guitar.

During this time, Pizzarelli formed a duo with one of his idols, George Barnes. In 1973, Bucky formed a second duo with guitarist Les Paul. A highlight of their time together is when they played Carnegie Hall in 1975 alongside guitarists George Benson and Laurindo Almeida.

1973 also saw Bucky forming a duo with clarinetist Eddie Daniels with the two men recording the album Flower for all Seasons. Around this time, Bucky became a member of the faculty at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey along with trumpeter Thad Jones and guitarist Kenny Burrell.

In 1977, Bucky joined Zoot Sims on a tour of Japan and performed with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and pianist Hank Jones in an all-star band.

In 1979, Bucky released his first method book for guitar entitled A Pro’s Approach to Melody and Chord Playing, which was released by Camerica Publications. Bucky spent the later part of the 1970s performing with his trio and in duos with bassist Slam Stewart and violinist Stephane Grappelli.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pizzarelli performed at the White House on several occasions alongside Benny Goodman for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Beginning in 1980, Bucky began to perform with his son John Pizzarelli, also a guitarist, on a more frequent basis. In the early 1980s, Buck performed with trumpeter Ruby Braff, violinist Svend Asmussen and vibraphonist Red Norvo. In 1984, Warner Brothers publications released his book The Creative Guitarist, which chronicled his approach to the guitar.

During the late 1980s into the early 1990s, Pizzarelli performed internationally with stops in Canada, England, Japan and Switzerland. Bucky also continued to appear at major jazz events and festivals including concert promoter Dick Gibson’s Colorado Jazz Party and the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy.

In 1991, Pizzarelli toured the United States with guitarist Howard Alden and on separate tours with guitarists Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd.

In October 1995, Pizzarelli joined Grappelli and bassist Jon Burr on the live album Live at the Blue Note. The album featured the ensemble’s take on several standards including composer Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Bucky proves his exceptional skill as an accompanist by augmenting Stephane’s smooth phrasing by adding light ornamentations. Bucky further demonstrates this by choosing to play fast or slow when there is a change in the harmony, resulting in a pushing and pulling of the tempo that is especially effective in this trio setting.

Throughout this time, Pizzarelli continued to perform with his son John where his youngest son, bassist Martin Pizzarelli, joined them. Bucky continued his prolific sideman career making appearances with clarinetist Kenny Davern, pianist Roland Hanna and violinist Richard Carr.

On September 14, 1999, Pizzarelli released the album April Kisses for the Arbors label. Upon its release, the website All About Jazz said “April Kisses is a loving tribute that brings alive an often forgotten era of jazz history.” A shining example of said tribute is the song “Slow Burning.”

On “Slow Burning,” Bucky demonstrates his skilled technique as a chord melodicist by paying equal attention to the bassline and melody on this solo rendition of composer George M Smith’s song. He begins the arrangement by vamping on an Emajor9 chord before entering the verse via smooth chromatic motion. Bucky fills the arrangement with lush chord voicings and fluid ornamentations that pays respect to the original while adding his own spin to it.

In 2001, Pizzarelli joined pianist John Bunch and bassist Jay Leonhart on the album Manhattan Swing: A Visit With the Duke. The album features the trio exploring the songbook of composer Duke Ellington. Included on the album are “Satin Doll,” Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “C Jam Blues.”

In 2007, Pizzarelli appeared with popular artist Rufus Wainwright on his concert recording Rufus Wainwright Sings Judy Garland: Live from the London Palladium. The recording was a recreation of singer Judy Garland’s performance at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961. In 2008, Bucky released the album So Hard to Forget.

In 2009, Pizzarelli undertook a national tour with pianist Benny Green.He resides in Saddle River, New Jersey with his wife Ruth.

Select Discography

As a leader

Music Minus Many Men (1962)

Green Guitar Blues (1972)

Nightwings (1975)

Buck and Bud (1977)

Swinging Stevens (1984)

Guitar Quintet (1988)

Passion Guitars (1999)

Manhattan Swing: A Visit With the Duke (2001)

Moonglow (2005)

5 for Freddie: Bucky’s Tribute to Freddie Green (2007)

So Hard to Forget (2008)

With Eddie Daniels

Flower for all Season (1973)

With Stephane Grappelli

Duet (1979)

So Easy to Remember (1993)

Live at the Blue Note (1995)

With Charles Mingus

Let My Children Hear Music (1971)

With Wes Montgomery

California Dreaming (1966)

With John Pizzarelli

Nirvana (1995)

Solos & Duets (1996)

Contrasts (1999)

Generations (2007)

With Zoot Sims

Zoot Sims and Bucky Pizzarelli (1976)

Elegiac (1980)

Contributor: Eric Wendell