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Bucky Pizzarelli: Remembering Family Rhythms On The Roads Of New Jersey

Arthur R George By

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The car rides with Bucky were big for me... We had about an hour in the car and I had Bucky for a captive audience. —John Pizzarelli
Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, from 1926 to his passing at age 94 on April 1, lived his entire life in New Jersey, and had said that he couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Forget the turnpike jokes. Remember instead the nearness to jazz in New York, the closeness of family, shared driving in the New Jersey night, the miles that make a life.

Formed by a World War II-era swing style, influenced by Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green, and the seventh string bass effect added by George Van Eps, Pizzarelli was one of the guys whose chordal melodies could maintain with anybody, and did. He played the White House three times, worked with Benny Goodman and Stephane Grappelli, recorded with Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Neil Sedaka, Carly Simon, even Dion and the Belmonts.

To the Gig

His son, guitar and vocal stylist John Pizzarelli, apprenticed under his father, tagging along as a youngster to observe studio and television work in New York. Later they rode together every week to the Cornerstone, a bar and restaurant known to musicians as the Gravestone for its end-of-the world location in Metuchen, N.J., "the middle of nowhere."

"It was always fun just going there," John recalled in 2014 for the Jersey Jazz Journal. "The car rides with Bucky were big for me. The drives to and from that gig were always very interesting because we had about an hour in the car and I had Bucky for a captive audience. I would make tapes of records he was on and ask him a lot of questions. That is why we got good: we spent a lot of time talking about jazz and then two guitars playing for four hours.

"It is where I learned a lot of tunes. We cut our teeth playing together on that bandstand. We just sat down, and musically talked to each other. Dad and I played there from 7:00 to 11:00, and our first set would be about 90 minutes long. By the second set there were always people in the audience that Bucky knew, and he would play their songs. The prime of what we would do as a duo developed in there."

It was a regular gig that paid consistently, amid some diners who paid attention over their meals and martinis, maybe even danced, where there was a tiny bandstand behind a wrought iron railing, and always a television tuned to sports games with the sound on. When everyone was talking away, "we'd sit and play for two hours, just talking to each other. 'Okay, what do you want to play?' 'Okay.' Boom. Ear training 101. Well, we'll fake that song, okay, and he'd play melodies."

Sustenance and Inspiration

High mileage was a tradition. Grandfather Pizzarelli, recalled as "kind of an orphan,"how he had hitchhiked as a teenager in 1916 to Odessa, Texas, two thousand miles distant from New Jersey's industrial city Paterson. He made real the most remote fantasy of being a cowboy and worked as a ranch hand, but returned to Paterson, married, opened a grocery store, and had his son who, remembering Texas, he nicknamed "Buckskin," shortened to Bucky.

The grocery store provided sustenance, and inspiration. During the Depression, Bucky Pizzarelli told Hamilton College archivist Mark Rowe, "we struggled through the whole thing. And everybody ate, we had a good time, and we struggled right into World War II. You know we struggled out of the depression into the World War. But we had a lot of fun in between."

Sunday afternoons were for music. "We listened to a lot of big band music and we had a lot of music within the family circle. My uncles played guitars and banjos. My father played a little mandolin. And that was our entertainment, to take our minds off the Depression. Then we also had the big bands on the radio, and we heard broadcasts from all over the country at different times. Sometimes four different bands the same night."

When the uncles, Bobby and Pete Domenick, played at the house, young Bucky wanted to join in, and they started him on banjo, showing him where to place his fingers, how to play a few chords. Pete, the eldest, worked at a Paterson textile company but played local club dates. Bobby went out on the road with early big bands, and returned with a nice car, cash, and an expensive new guitar, a Gibson Super 400 with its $400 price tag, all dazzling in the Depression years, which inspired Pizzarelli in that direction. All the family eagerly awaited Bobby's return from a tour, for stories about celebrity meet-ups and new musical licks he had picked up that were yet unknown in Paterson.

Later, Sunday afternoons convened at Sandy's Hollywood Brick Bar Grill, a downstairs venue at 108 Market Street at Main in the center of Paterson, still a club space, now an adult go-go bar. Back then the Pizzarelli uncles played there with Joe Mooney, a blind accordionist, singer, and keyboardist, whose compositions are still in John Pizzarelli's repertoire and time-honored within swing collections.

Mooney had played with Paul Whiteman's orchestra, and was encouraged by Whiteman to step out with his own group. Mooney resided in and woodshedded in Paterson. The city was then an entertainment satellite to Manhattan, on the map for popular bands passing through, a city for out-of-town tryouts for shows destined for Broadway. Pizzarelli grew to be included in those afternoon sessions, and then for selection just out of high school to go on the road with Vaughn Monroe's big band, 200 consecutive one-nighters.

"All over Paterson a lot of people played instruments and that was their enjoyment on Sunday," Pizzarelli told Elliott Simon in 2008 for All About Jazz. "If it wasn't a trumpet or a saxophone it was an accordion." Read our coverage.

"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."

The Mooney band progressed to New York engagements, highlighted on the cover of Down Beat in October 1946 by a William Gottlieb photograph: Mooney on accordion and keyboards, Andy Fitzgerald on clarinet, Jack Hotop on guitar, and Gaeton Frega on bass. In 1951, legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder's first commercial recording teamed Mooney and Pizzarelli in a ballad on the Carousel label, "We'll Be Together Again."

Family Ways

When it came time for Bucky to nurture son John's interest in music, he decided that the best way to get the boy started was to have him learn just as he had in the 1930s, on banjo as taught by Pete and Bobby Domenick. By then, both uncles had become recognized musicians, featured on a 1958 album for Mercury called Banjorama, led by Carmen Mastren who had played guitar for Tommy Dorsey in the late 1930s and had a long career as an NBC television studio musician.

John Pizzarelli realized on those later road trips with his father that he was advancing on guitar just as Bucky had in watching Joe Mooney rehearse in Paterson and being allowed to sit in occasionally. " (T)hey'd be playing and Joe would say 'here's how it goes,' and he'd go [scats] and here's what you play, and this is what you play. And that's how he taught me. He'd go zip, zip, zip and that's what you'd do. And then he'd say, 'Let's fake this tune.' Rehearsals? There was never written out music. And it's the best thing, and it was the hardest thing."

Bucky and John Pizzarelli in 2007 with another son Martin on bass and drummer Tony Tedesco recorded Sunday at Pete's House, memorializing those old gatherings at the Pizzarelli and Domenick homesteads. The music reaches back to the early 20th century: "When You're Smiling," "Bye Bye Blues," "Whispering," "Sweet Sue" and a sultry "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," The songs are the ones John learned from age 7 on tenor banjo with Uncle Bobby; fundamental but not at all corny, updated by decades of playing. One addition was "Night on Garrett Mountain," a blues named after a favorite Bucky greenspot, an oasis of hilly parkland above Paterson.

Even late in life, Bucky continued to play, on the road but also often near home; frequently at Shanghai Jazz, a dinner house in Madison, N.J.; Mezzrow, an intimate club in Greenwich Village; open-air concerts in parks in North Jersey. He even regularly made it back to Odessa, Texas, at first intrigued to see where his father had adventured, and then annually for the jazz party of the West Texas Jazz Society. John has returned there too.

John recalled on a fan site his father's schedule in the 1960s: leaving New Jersey at 8 a.m., going into Manhattan for commercial and jingle dates, then around 4 p.m. doing the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, returning home, then back into the city to work from ten until two in the clubs, repeated the next day, grueling but by choice. John emphasized the sacrifices and successes of Bucky's career is what schooled all four of the children well and put two of them through college. He credited both his parents for maintaining a normal routine in the household.

"Family comes first and we've been lucky," Ruth Pizzarelli told Bucky's biographer, Terence Ripmaster. "Other than the normal give and take, we all adjusted to Bucky's career. Sometimes it was hard on the kids. He'd have to miss their recitals, graduations and that sort of thing. But we understood. Of course, the fact that the kids all loved music and played with Bucky made for lots of fun."

Frank Vignola, a current swing guitarist, told the Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record newspaper that Bucky Pizzarelli was "an inspiration on so many levels. When I first met him, I had four young kids and he was a father. He showed me that yes, you can be a jazz guitarist and raise a family. That may not seem like a big deal, but it was huge to me."

In the liner notes to Dear Mr. Sinatra, a tribute album by John Pizzarelli with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, with Bucky Pizzarelli on rhythm among the sidemen, John thanked his father for "the best thump in the business." Questioned by host Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air in 2006, John explained "Well, the thump you hear throughout the record is just the way he plays rhythm guitar.

"It's really thrilling to me, actually. And I just love the sound of it. And a lot of people call it a chunk, but I call it a thump because it's sort of -it's more of a heartbeat to me than it is anything else. So I call it a thump. I love his thump.

"I think that the sound of his guitar is the heartbeat of the whole band, you know?"

Photo credit: John Pizzuti

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