Bucky Pizzarelli: Dean Of The Seven-String

Elliott Simon BY

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You got to go look at the chords and find songs that you like and then play them and then all of a sudden you find the melody and then you got things going.
Close to 65 years ago a 17 year-old guitarist named John "Bucky" Pizzarelli was tapped by big band leader Vaughn Monroe to sit in for a weekend. As a result, the jazz world gained what was to become one of its most significant practitioners, one who continues to perform and share his wisdom with a modesty that belies his stature. Born in Paterson, NJ, Pizzarelli is part of a tradition of great guitarists from that state that includes Tony Motolla, Carl Kress, George Van Eps, Don Arnone and Al Caiola. One of the few remaining members of this group who in the '50s-'60s were touring performers, television show band members and studio musicians, Pizzarelli is a guitarist in the truest sense. His contributions to big band acoustic rhythm guitar, seven-string lead and as a sideman in the mainstream/easy-listening genres are matched by no other living guitarist.

"Bucky," short for buckskin and a moniker bestowed on him by his father, who spent time in Texas, feels that his childhood ethnic neighborhood played a large part in his early development. "All over Paterson a lot of people played instruments and that was their enjoyment on Sunday. If it wasn't a trumpet or a saxophone it was an accordion. That is the reason there are a lot of great guitarists that came out of Jersey." One musician that Pizzarelli fondly remembers from that time is accordionist/organist Joe Mooney. "When we were kids and going to high school we were nuts about playing like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Some days we got a chance to go to Sandy's Brick Bar down in Paterson and hear Joe Mooney play. He was the best in the business." Years later, Pizzarelli would tour with Mooney and record a beautiful ballad with him entitled "We'll Be Together Again," the first commercial recording engineered by then optometrist and future jazz legend, Rudy Van Gelder.

Guitarist Freddie Green from the Count Basie Orchestra is the gold standard by which all big band rhythm guitarists are measured. Using an acoustic archtop guitar, Pizzarelli developed a style of muting two strings of a three-string chord to define the big band rhythm. As Pizzarelli relates, "With a big band there is a way of playing and you have to know how to do it. The archtop is the one you heard in all the dance bands. Every good big band had a guitarist in it; that is why all of these big bands had a great beat. The secondary bands didn't have a guitarist and even today when you hear a record without a guitar on it there is a big empty hole." Pizzarelli's recent 5 For Freddie (Arbors, 2006) fêtes that great Basie rhythm section for a swinging tribute to Green.

Pizzarelli would move on from his time with Monroe to play with the premier big bands of the day including a lengthy stint with the king of swing, Benny Goodman. As far as Goodman is concerned, Pizzarelli views him with great respect and admiration: "Benny was a sideman as long as I was and on top of that he was a bandleader...he knew every answer, every joke and every complaint and he knew how to handle the guys that complained. Do you know how many guys Benny brought along with him and his fame? He brought Harry James, Gene Krupa, Charlie Christian, Teddy Wilson and Chris Griffin. I mean that is when you are great. When you can bring that many guys along with you you're doing something. Am I right? No matter what the style was I always had him in mind whenever I played."

In demand for his perfect time and touch, Pizzarelli made the switch to television where he played through the '70s with the NBC Tonight Show Orchestra. As he remembers, "In 1953 I did the Kate Smith show in the afternoon. I got it through one of the cello players they were looking for a guitarist for the last year for Kate Smith. Then a couple of years later, 1956-57, I went back with Skitch Henderson on The Tonight Show. Skitch was great. I stayed on with the accordionist (Milton DeLugg) and then Doc Severinsen. Doc was in our band as a sideman and then later he became the leader. I was on the show until it left and went to California. I also did the Pat Boone Show and the Merv Griffin Show. I used to do a lot of things like this."

Skitch Henderson and Pizzarelli can be heard together again on Legends (Arbors, 2003), a panoramic review of the great popular music of the 20th century. This session includes four violinists and Pizzarelli's son John, a world-class 7-string guitarist in his own right.

When it comes to guitar/violin duos however, two come to mind as being in a class by themselves: Eddie Lang/Joe Venuti and Django Reinhardt/ Stéphane Grappelli. When Venuti and Grappelli were looking for a guitarist to take the place of their long-time partners it is no accident that they both sought out Pizzarelli. Remembering those days, "I always heard records by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti and when Venuti came to New York I got a chance to play with him and I ended up making a record with him too—The Joe Venuti Blue Four, (Chiaroscuro, 1974). And then when Grappelli came to the States I was lucky enough to play with him at the Boston Pops and then he called me whenever he came to the United States. I toured a lot with Grappelli. I didn't have to play like Django, I just did my own thing."

Pizzarelli followed a schedule during the 1950s and 1960s that would amaze current musicians. His day was typically divided up among morning studio sessions for producers and arrangers like Enoch Light and Claus Ogerman, afternoon television work with the likes of the NBC Orchestra and evening/late night live gigs at the city's jazz venues. As such he appeared on numerous records in the easy listening genre that are coveted by collectors of lounge and exotica jazz. Most notable of these are his multiple releases for Command and Project 3 produced by Enoch Light where he and Tony Mottola were the house guitarists (1962's Romantic Guitar and 1966's Great Guitars: Guitar Underground), his work on organist Walter Wanderley's bossa/exotica classic Rainforest (Verve, 1966) and with lounge icons The Three Suns.

According to Pizzarelli, the Enoch Light recordings were inventive sessions and his Three Suns experience was an outgrowth of his television work. "Enoch used to make what they called cover records... I knew the guys (Three Suns) and it worked out that they were on the Kate Smith Show and their guitarist, Al Nevins, was ill so I filled in for him. I played rhythm guitar on a lot of their albums. Sid Ramin and Marty Gold were the arrangers. Good arrangements and good writing." Pizzarelli also teamed for years with guitarist George Barnes, another Suns alum, holding residence at the St. Regis Hotel. Both Barnes and Pizzarelli appear on the guitar masterpiece The Historic Town Hall Concert (Columbia, 1972) along with Charlie Byrd, Chuck Wayne, Joe Beck and Tiny Grimes.

For the past two decades, Pizzarelli has been the dean of the seven-string guitar and his work has inspired a new group of guitarists that include son John and Howard Alden. Pizzarelli credits guitarist George Van Eps with introducing him to the seven-string: "A great guitarist from Plainfield NJ, George Van Eps, he is the guy that developed it. We heard him play it in New York. He stayed for about a week at the Park Sheraton Hotel and between sessions we went over to hear him play and we were going crazy, this guy was outta sight. So we went down to Manny's Music store bought the store out. My seventh string is a low A that extends the range of my guitar." To experience Pizzarelli's seven-string playing in its purest form, his two solo releases, April Kisses (Arbors, 1999) and One Morning in May (Arbors, 2001), are highly recommended as are his duets: Moonglow, with young archtop guitarist Frank Vignola (Hyena, 2005), In A Mellow Tone (Concord, 2004) with Alden and Contrasts (Arbors, 1999) with son John.

Pizzarelli reflects on the changes he has seen in music education and offers some sage advice. "In the old days all these musicians that I knew, they never went to school for music. They learned from these 'professors' and there were a lot of good ones in Paterson. For those who were involved it was a blessing and if you missed it you missed something big. Now they go to school and that's it and they learn a lot of runs. And if they didn't study correctly, they don't know any songs and that's no good. You got to work on that. That is the main thing I would tell a guitarist. Even if you don't read music or nothing. You got to go look at the chords and find songs that you like and then play them and then all of a sudden you find the melody and then you got things going."

Still an incredibly active international musician, Pizzarelli doesn't like to look back, but on his forthcoming release from Arbors entitled So Hard To Forget he does just that. "It has violins on it. Aaron Weinstein, a very good jazz player from Berklee, Sara Caswell and Jesse Levy on cello. It is all stuff that I was inspired by when I was a kid. The arranger was Dick Lieb, a fantastic arranger. I connect everything that I am doing with all the great people, events and situations I have been in. We used to listen to Frank Sinatra records with a string quartet and a guitar and bass and we would wear out the record just listening to the little things that are behind the great people."

Whether behind as integral part of the rhythm, on the side as a legendary session musician or in front as a swinging soloist, Bucky Pizzarelli is himself one of those great people in jazz.

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