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'Fresh Air' Remembers Jazz Guitar Great Bucky Pizzarelli


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to remember three people from the music world who died this week of the coronavirus.

We start with jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. He died Wednesday at age 94. He was one of the great rhythm guitarists. Listening to him play was like listening to a history of jazz guitar. He played with Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Zoot Sims, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee. He played in The Tonight Show orchestra when the show was broadcast from New York. In an era when studio musicians were in demand, he was one of the most sought-after. He also recorded with his son, guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli.

We'll hear an interview with John and Bucky a little later, but we'll start with a 1992 interview and performance we recorded at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York in front of a studio audience.


GROSS: Let's get started with a tune. Why don't we start with a ballad?

BUCKY PIZZARELLI: I'd like to do a number written by Ray Noble called "The Very Thought Of You."


GROSS: That was great.


GROSS: I should mention, your guitar is not the kind of standard guitar; it's a seven-, not a six-string guitar.

B PIZZARELLI: It's a seven-string guitar developed by George Van Eps, who was - who lives in California at the moment.

GROSS: So what do you do with the seventh string?

B PIZZARELLI: Well, it's good for accompanying. If I'm playing with another guitarist or a singer, I'm doing this.


B PIZZARELLI: That gives me a bass. That's like a bass and a guitar playing together. Without the seventh string, it would just sound...


B PIZZARELLI: So it gives it that low note.


GROSS: That's nice, yeah. Speaking of which, you are one of the great rhythm guitar players. For our listeners who don't know what we mean when we say rhythm guitar, play a little bit of rhythm guitar and show us what...

B PIZZARELLI: Well, rhythm guitar is the very most important thing of playing the guitar. If - I advise anybody that wants to play guitar to learn how to play the chords first. That's how I learned. You know, in the old days of Gene Autry on the radio, he was doing...


B PIZZARELLI: But it's very important to know the chords. You know, it's funny, but it's important. A lot of young guitarists start playing solos, and they forget about playing chords. And I'll show you - I'll give you an example how Freddie Green - probably the greatest, the rhythm guitar player with the Count Basie Orchestra - played the rhythm. And if you listen to any of the old Count Basie bands, the most predominant thing of the band and the sound of the band is the rhythm guitar. And he's only playing a few notes and a chord - not a full chord.


B PIZZARELLI: He's not doing that. He's playing...


GROSS: What's the hardest thing about playing rhythm guitar?

B PIZZARELLI: Well, getting a beat out of it. You become a drummer...

GROSS: Right.

B PIZZARELLI: ...That one spot. And if you don't come down after the bass player plays the downbeat - you're playing the second and fourth beats of the bar of music. And it's that commitment. If it's a slow - the slower the song is, the harder it is, and you better be right when you come down with it.

GROSS: You know, you've had such an interesting career just playing with all the jazz musicians, doing all the studio work. I mean, I can't believe you're on sessions with Dion and the Belmonts.

B PIZZARELLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: Does that - were you into the music, or was it just a gig - you show up, you play it?

B PIZZARELLI: No, really, I learned a lot from a lot of those people, you know?

GROSS: Yeah?

B PIZZARELLI: Because in those days, mostly everybody was trying to play jazz gigs or play with dance bands. And dance bands were just fading then, and everybody was migrating back to New York. And if you owned a guitar, they put you on a rock 'n' roll date, you know? And a lot of people don't know that some of the best jazz guitar players were on the best rock 'n' roll dates (laughter).

GROSS: Barney Kessel's on a lot of them, too, yeah.

B PIZZARELLI: Oh, everybody.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

B PIZZARELLI: George Barnes, Tony Mottola and Mondello - we all did sessions every day, and we never had the kind of guitars that the kids are buying today to play those sessions. We had all jazz guitars (laughter).

GROSS: You know, I put on "Teenager In Love" to see if I could hear you, and I heard what sounded like a banjo.

B PIZZARELLI: (Laughter) Oh, yeah. We've got a...


B PIZZARELLI: That's it.


B PIZZARELLI: But all those dates were - they were more or less faked. One - we would have three or four guitar players, and one would go...


GROSS: (Laughter).

B PIZZARELLI: Another guy would go...


GROSS: (Laughter). Do you miss those days when there was a lot of studio work? 'Cause there - it isn't like that anymore.

B PIZZARELLI: No, I didn't like it because it got - the music - you know, we only played three chords. You know, you do that all year, it'd drive you up the walls.


GROSS: That was Bucky Pizzarelli, recorded in front of a studio audience in 1992 at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. He died Wednesday of the coronavirus at the age of 94. After we take a short break, we'll listen to the interview I recorded with Bucky and his son, guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, in 2006. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our remembrance of jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who died of the coronavirus Wednesday at the age of 94. His son John Pizzarelli is also a jazz guitarist, as well as a singer, who's performed on our show several times. In 2006, after John recorded an album that also featured his father, they joined us together for an interview we're about to hear. The album was called "Dear Mr. Sinatra." We started with a song from the album, "Can't We Be Friends?"


JOHN PIZZARELLI: (Singing) I thought I found the girl of my dreams. Now it seems this is how the story ends. She's going to turn me down and say, can't we be friends? I thought for once it couldn't go wrong - not for long. I can see the way this ends. She's going to turn me down and say, can't we be friends?

GROSS: That's from John Pizzarelli's new CD, "Dear Mr. Sinatra." And we heard John singing and Bucky Pizzarelli, his father, featured on guitar. Welcome, both of you, back to FRESH AIR.

B PIZZARELLI: Thank you.

J PIZZARELLI: Nice to be here.

GROSS: John, on the liner notes of your new CD, you thank your father for the best thump in the business. What do you mean by that?

J PIZZARELLI: Well, the thump you hear throughout the record is just the way he plays rhythm guitar. I think that the sound of his guitar is the heartbeat of the whole band, you know? Jeff Hamilton will tell you, too, how great that sound of that is. As a drummer, to hear that rhythm guitar sound is - 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 (laughter).

GROSS: But, John, you play rhythm guitar yourself. So why do you prefer, on this album, for instance, to have your father playing rhythm?

J PIZZARELLI: Because he's better than me. So if you have...

B PIZZARELLI: (Laughter).

J PIZZARELLI: ...Somebody who's better than you at rhythm guitar, it's always good, especially if he's related because he'll work for scale.

B PIZZARELLI: (Laughter).

J PIZZARELLI: But in this case, that's really the reason. I mean, he's the best doing what he does. So I always try to hire the best musicians. And I can play rhythm guitar, but not like him.

GROSS: Bucky, when John was a boy, did you think at some point that one day you'd be playing on his records in addition to him playing on yours?

B PIZZARELLI: No. I never thought of that. You know, he had a little band. And every time the band rehearsed in the garage, the cops would show up.

J PIZZARELLI: (Laughter).

B PIZZARELLI: And it was so loud (laughter).

GROSS: Seriously?

B PIZZARELLI: Yeah. I'm not kidding.

J PIZZARELLI: That's true.

GROSS: This must have been rock and not jazz.

B PIZZARELLI: Well, he had so many amplifiers I couldn't park the car.


J PIZZARELLI: They were all in the garage.


GROSS: So, John, what were you playing in the garage when the police were coming?

J PIZZARELLI: Oh, I was playing - our band just played songs that we could play that had three or four chords. So we played the Allman Brothers. We played some Eric Clapton and mostly Peter Frampton - I liked him - and the Eagles and James Taylor and Jackson Browne and those kind of bands. And we liked to play outside in the summer. And that's what got us in a lot of trouble, from playing outside. So...

GROSS: So what got you from there back into the kind of jazz that your father had played?

J PIZZARELLI: Well, he never said any of that was bad. He just didn't like the volume. So, you know, that was the thing. We loved music so much. And then he had said in an interview once years ago - and I didn't even realize it - is that I had learned Chick Corea's "Spain" off of a record to play with a bunch of our friends at a talent show. This kid wanted to play it on the trombone, so we all learned it. And he was impressed that I learned this difficult song off the record because that's how I learned songs - rock songs.

That's when the Django Reinhardt lesson came up, you know? I learned "Rose Room" off of a Django Reinhardt record. And then I learned some of the duets that he did with George Barnes off of the record. So I got to do gigs with him. And then I would do my Rock ’n’ roll gigs. He said I was the only jazz musician who played jazz to support his Rock ’n’ roll habit.


J PIZZARELLI: It was usually the other way around.

GROSS: Bucky, when John was a boy, did you intentionally try to do things to expose him to music and to the music that you particularly loved?


GROSS: Obviously, you probably heard a lot of it just in the course of things. But, you know, like, some people will actually, like, make sure that they're playing certain records to their children when their children are around so that...


GROSS: Yeah.

B PIZZARELLI: Well, you know, actually, we had a lot of people come over to the house like Joe Venuti and Zoot Sims. Benny Goodman was over many times. And when they saw these big figures, you know, I think it made a big impression, especially Zoot (laughter).

J PIZZARELLI: Yeah. They were like stars, you know? So that was sort of - that was the thing, too. If you really wanted to speak my father's language, you had to learn his songs, you know? You had to learn "Honeysuckle Rose," "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Rose Room" because that way, you could get in on the jam session, you know? Otherwise, you were sort of outside the circle.

GROSS: Bucky, were there things you didn't want to expose John to about your musician friends? Did they have any, like, bad habits or crude language that you didn't want to expose your son to?

B PIZZARELLI: No. I mean, they heard that in high school anyway. So - (laughter).

J PIZZARELLI: It was probably worse in high school.

B PIZZARELLI: That's right.

J PIZZARELLI: You know, everybody was gentlemanly around the house. Zoot Sims was one of the greatest guys to hang around. He would like to play Ping-Pong. We'd played Ping-Pong with him. And he was drinking scotch the whole time, but we never thought anything about him drinking scotch, you know, and hanging out all day with us.

B PIZZARELLI: Oh, he'd slam (unintelligible) and Ovaltine every night (laughter).

J PIZZARELLI: Yeah. That was the - everybody was fun (laughter).

GROSS: John, how old were you when you started playing with your father?

J PIZZARELLI: I guess it had to be 16, 17, 18 - somewhere in there is when I first - I would come on at the end of gigs that he would do as solo concerts and play either "Chicken A La Swing" and "Stage Fright" or "Honeysuckle Rose." Those were, like, the three things that I knew.

GROSS: How did you both feel about that? John, how did you feel about playing with your father?

J PIZZARELLI: Oh, I always loved it. That was fun for me to go to the gigs. I loved hearing him play. And whoever he was playing with was fun. So I loved going with him to record dates when I was a little kid. I could sit in a studio all day and listen to him play.

GROSS: And, Bucky, what was it like for you to bring your son onstage? Were you convinced he was really talented at this point? Or did it just feel like...

B PIZZARELLI: Well, he had this...

GROSS: ...OK, I'm going to give my son a little showcase...

J PIZZARELLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Because, you know, a lot of parents just want to show off their children.

B PIZZARELLI: Well, he had the passion. I know...

GROSS: Yeah.

B PIZZARELLI: ...He had the passion to want to play. I knew that. So I didn't want to stop him from doing anything, you know? And then if I brought him up on stage, I knew what he was going to play. So it worked out.

GROSS: Well, John, your new CD is songs associated with Frank Sinatra. But I want to go back to an earlier CD of duets between the two of you. And this is an album called "Contrasts" that was released back in 1998. And I thought we'd play "Stage Fright," which is a composition that was originally recorded as a duet by the guitarists Carl Kress and Dick McDonough. So how did you start working this up together as a duet?

B PIZZARELLI: Well, it was a part of the repertoire in the Pizzarelli family. I learned from my uncles. And they told me, listen to Dick McDonough and Carl Kress. And listen to George Van Eps and Allan Reuss. And...

J PIZZARELLI: And you had the original records of...


J PIZZARELLI: ...Of Carl and Dick playing "Stage Fright."

B PIZZARELLI: We had, yeah, the old 78s. So we listened to them. And then we found the music somehow. And all of a sudden, we start playing it.

J PIZZARELLI: Yeah. He had, like, a third-generation photocopy of "Stage Fright" and "Chicken A La Swing." And he originally - it is part of the Pizzarelli repertoire. My sister Mary originally played the parts - the second parts that I play on this recording. He would sit down and say, here's what you got to do. And we'd learn - we'd do eight bars at a time. And I'd get hit over the head a couple of times. But by the end (laughter), we'd have it all worked out. But it was - this is really, like, one of the first things that we played together.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pizzarelli, father and son, from a 1998 album called Contrasts.


GROSS: How would you each describe your guitar styles? How would you compare them? Bucky, how would you compare your style and John's?


J PIZZARELLI: (Laughter).

B PIZZARELLI: ...I started back in the '30s, when I was taking lessons from my uncles, Peter and Bobby Domenick. And Bobby was on the road with a lot of dance bands - Clyde McCoy, Buddy Rogers, Frank Daly (ph). Every time he came off the road, you know, during the Depression, he had a little Dodge, he had a gabardine suit on (laughter) and a big, beautiful Gibson guitar. And boy, my eyes opened up. And the next thing, he'd show me a few chords that nobody in Paterson ever saw (laughter).

So that's what got me started. I just followed his career. And I said, when I get older, I'd like to do the same thing. And luckily, when I was 17, I got out of high school, and I went with Vaughn Monroe's band, only to be drafted then about four months later. But I did get a taste of it when I was a kid.

J PIZZARELLI: So you're a product of the big bands.

B PIZZARELLI: Oh, yeah. And, I mean, everything was a big-band setting for me.

GROSS: John, how would you compare your style to your father's?

J PIZZARELLI: Well, I think he was - like he said, he's sort of more of a product of guys all playing together and learning from my - his uncles. I learned more off of records and then from playing with my father. We had the seven-string guitars with the low A. It's a regular guitar with a low A on it that George Van Eps had invented. And we got the guitars and learned that. And we could accompany each other because we had the bass notes.

And I think that my guitar style is a little - it's a little - you can - it's just a little more - it's a little coarser. It's a little - got a little more point to it. I think he's more of a chord melody, and there's more of a real sensitive style to the way he plays.

You know, it's funny, though, is that I had - he came to a gig that we did once, and he played my guitar. I called him up to play my guitar and play a couple of solos on it. And when he played my guitar, which is a different brand and, you know, just different everything - and he played my guitar, and he sounded like him on his guitar. So I was like, well, that's obviously not the guitar.


J PIZZARELLI: It's something inside his hands that's where his sound comes from. So there's something about his style that captures every guitar player who listens to him.

GROSS: Bucky and John Pizzarelli, recorded in 2006. Bucky Pizzarelli died of the coronavirus Wednesday at the age of 94. We send our sympathies to John and the rest of Bucky's family and friends.

After we take a short break, we remember two other people from the music world who died of COVID-19 this week - pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of the music family that includes Wynton and Branford Marsalis; and Adam Schlesinger, who co-founded the band Fountains of Wayne, wrote songs for the movies "That Thing You Do!" and "Music And Lyrics" and for the TV show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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