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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
Bucky PizzarelliClose 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.


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