Jazz Legend
10:19 am
Mon August 5, 2013

The Pizzarelli Patriarch Still Swings At 87

Bucky Pizzarelli is the patriarch of one of America’s great jazz families.  His talented offspring include guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli and bassist Martin Pizzarelli.  The Pizzarellis often perform standards from the Great American Songbook together at jazz clubs and music festivals around the world. 

Prior to a weekend of performances with the family band at Jazz Alley in Seattle last weekend, Bucky Pizzarelli brought in his signature seven-string guitar and played live music in the KUOW Performance Studio.

Bucky Pizzarelli, 87, was born in Paterson, New Jersey. Just off a flight to Seattle from New York, and decked out in a snazzy seersucker suit, Pizzarelli reminisced between tunes at KUOW about his early start in music. 

Jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, left, with KUOW's Dave Beck in the KUOW Performance Studio control room.
Credit KUOW Photo/Tim Meinig

His first teachers were his uncles, Pete and Bobby Dominick, the banjo playing brothers. During Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Pizzarelli's family home, the uncles taught Pizzarelli where to put his fingers, how to listen carefully to what other players are doing around you and, most importantly, how much fun it is to make music. Those lessons helped launch Pizzarelli on a career that is still going strong 70 years later. 

Pizzarelli’s collaborators going back to the 1940s include band leaders like Vaughn Monroe and Benny Goodman. Pizzarelli played in bands with Miles Davis and Stephane Grappelli, was the featured guitarist in Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show orchestra and played on early rock 'n' roll recordings by Neil Sedaka, and Dion and the Belmonts. Pizzarelli was a favorite side man of singers like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett. 

Pizzarelli saw to it that his son John got the same kind of musical education that he did.  When John Pizzarelli showed an interest in music, Bucky Pizzarelli enlisted those same uncles to get him started on his own musical journey.  

Bucky Pizzarelli also took his son along with him to work.  As John Pizzarelli was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the elder Pizzarelli would sometimes leave their New Jersey home at  8:00 a.m. for a day of recording, TV broadcasts and club work late at night. He would then return back home at 2:00 a.m. and repeat it all over again the next day.

Bucky Pizzarelli said it was important to take his son to work every once in a while, “I wanted him to know what I was doing when I was away from home all the time.”

John Pizzarelli was provided a musical education that couldn’t be duplicated in any music school, conservatory or university. He visited the Tonight Show set, the New York City studios where Bucky Pizzarelli recorded commercial jingles, and met many of his father’s collaborators like Zoot Sims, Wes Montgomery, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich. 

John Pizzarelli played in a rock 'n' roll band and learned a lot of guitar licks from Peter Frampton records. Bucky Pizzarelli encouraged his son to branch out from rock 'n' roll.  “If you can learn those rock licks,” Bucky Pizzarelli said, “then you can learn classic jazz guitar licks, like Django Rheinhart.”

And that’s exactly what John Pizzarelli did.

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