Jazz Guitar Legend
By Bill Johnson
He never wanted to be anything else -- just a musician, a jazz guitar player. As a boy, he heard his uncle play music and thought, "That's for me. That's what I want to do."
It was 1944. He was 17 years old when he was hired to play for singer and bandleader Vaughn Monroe.
Now, more than 60 years later, Bucky Pizzarelli is a legend in the jazz world. At 85 years old, he is still going strong, traveling the world, often playing three concerts a week.
While most guitarists play a six-string guitar, Bucky is known for playing a seven-string guitar. This allows him to establish a strong bass line in his playing. His style can be considered mainstream jazz with a strong melody complimenting his improvisation.
Throughout his illustrious career, Pizzarelli has played the best jazz clubs, festivals and concert halls. He played with too many stars to count and for U.S presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
In 1944, World War II stalled Pizzarelli's rise to prominence in the jazz world. "The army got me," he says. And the army sent him to Germany and the Philippines. Following the war, Pizzarelli's career took off. Among other things, he joined Benny Goodman's band. As a staff musician for NBC, he played on The Pat Boone Show and in Doc Severinsen's band on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
When NBC musicians were required to play more and more rock 'n' roll, Pizzarelli went out on his own. "I had it up to here," he says, running his hand over the top of his head. Out on his own, he played the type of music he loves to play. Onstage, his love of music -- and the joy he takes from it -- are evident as he smiles at an innovative bass solo, chuckles with delight over a creative drum riff or simply looks gleeful as he interacts with his musical partners.
Last April, for a Gold Coast Jazz Society concert at Fort Lauderdale's Amaturo Theater, Pizzarelli earned a standing ovation for his solo style and shared the fans' ovation after delivering rapid-fire presentations with inter-nationally known saxophonist Harry Allen and a driving rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.
Before taking the stage, Pizzarelli seemed pleased to be asked about his second artistic passion -- painting. For some reason, he says, he was first attracted to disasters and painted large pictures of the Titanic and the Hindenburg airship that exploded and burned in New Jersey in 1937. Such disasters inspired his early paintings.
As he traveled the world, Pizzarelli painted 80-inch wide pictures of what he saw outside his hotel window, including New York's Central Park as seen from the window of Dizzy Gillespie's jazz club. He still paints regularly, using acrylics because he doesn't have the patience to wait for oil paints to dry.
After sixty-plus years of playing multiple concerts each week, Pizzarelli practices every day at 7 a.m. Asked if he practices technique or new songs, he says, "No," with a self-deprecating grin, "I practice what I messed up the night before."
Bucky's real first name is John. So you won't be surprised to know he is the father of the popular singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli. Bucky lives in Saddle River, New Jersey, with his wife Ruth.
At 85, Bucky Pizzarelli has miles to go and many gigs to play on his unusual seven-string guitar. His most recent recording is on Paul McCartney's latest album. Think about this: how many musicians have a career that spans the eras of Vaughn Monroe and Benny Goodman to Paul McCartney? Bucky Pizzarelli is a most unusual man and musician.