Obituary: Bucky Pizzarelli

Versatile guitarist prominent in New York TV and studio orchestras before becoming an acclaimed jazz soloist and accompanist

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Bucky Pizzarelli’s long life and illustrious career ended abruptly on 1 April 2020 in Saddle River, New Jersey, when he died a few days after testing positive with Covid-19. A gifted guitarist, he worked with many fine musicians in jazz, popular and classical music and left behind an extensive recorded legacy.

John Paul Pizzarelli was born 9 January 1926 in Paterson, New Jersey, where his parents, John and Amelia Pizzarelli, owned a grocery store. Reportedly, his father had an abiding love for the legendary Old West and nicknamed his son Buckskin, hence Bucky. Two of the boy’s uncles on his mother’s side, Pete and Bobby Domenick, were professional musicians, the latter playing in a band led by Joe Mooney. Both uncles played guitar and banjo and it was from them that Bucky learned basics but he was largely self-taught on the same two instruments. While still in high school, Pizzarelli’s ability was such that he played in a classical music group.

He began his professional career while still in his teens, joining singer Vaughn Monroe’s dance band. This was in 1943 and apart from a two-year spell in the army he remained in the band until 1953. Through the early 1950s he was a member of trio the Three Suns, worked on Kate Smith’s television show, and recorded with several pop artists. Beginning in that decade and continuing through the 1960s his principal work was as a staff musician with NBC and ABC. In that capacity, he was in the studio orchestra led by Skitch Henderson (and later Doc Severinsen) for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and that led by Bobby Rosengarden on Dick Cavett’s show. When some of the television shows relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Pizzarelli chose not to leave the New York area because by then he was married to Ruth (née Litchult) and had small children to consider. The decision resulted in more varied work, and there was a lot of it to be had. He played regularly in New York nightclubs, including Guitar in Manhattan. Among those he worked with at Guitar were fellow guitarist George Barnes, with whom he worked in a duo (and with whom he recorded Historic Town Hall Concert and Guitars Pure And Honest).

Also in the 1970s and beyond he worked with Benny Goodman, including European tours and a performance at the White House, and he was in Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern’s Soprano Summit. He also recorded many albums as solo artist and as leader of small groups, performing with top jazz names including Bud Freeman (recording Bucky And Bud), Stéphane Grappelli, Red Norvo (Just Friends), Zoot Sims and Joe Venuti. The 1980s saw him working in another duo, this time with guitarist son John Pizzarelli, with whom he recorded Swinging Sevens. He also recorded with two other children, bassist Martin and classical guitarist Mary (and with daughter-in-law Jessica Molaskey). Other noted guitarists he worked with were Les Paul, a friend and neighbour, and George van Eps, whom he emulated by switching to a seven-string guitar. This adaptation is of special benefit to solo guitarists as it allows them to play an accompanying bass line.

Skilled as accompanist to instrumentalists and singers and as a soloist, Pizzarelli was self-effacing yet had many admirers not only among fans worldwide but also within the music profession. In an interview with Inside Jersey, guitarist Ed Laub, who had studied with him and in later years performed with him, spoke of Pizzarelli’s musical philosophy: “It’s about making beautiful music. It’s not about grandstanding. And that’s what his whole personality is about”.

Refusing to consider retirement, Pizzarelli played on, ignoring health problems that included a stroke and pneumonia. His last public performance was in 2018 and among his last recordings were those with son John, At The Vineyard Theater, Scott Hamilton, Scott Hamilton & Bucky Pizzarelli Remember Zoot Sims, Skitch Henderson, Legends, and Howard Alden, In A Mellow Tone. Bucky Pizzarelli is survived by his wife Ruth, his children Mary, Anne Hymes, Martin and John, and four grandchildren.