Bucky Pizzarelli, Master of the Jazz Guitar, Is Dead at 94

Bucky Pizzarelli, Master of the Jazz Guitar, Is Dead at 94

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Bucky Pizzarelli, who after many years as a respected but relatively anonymous session guitarist became a mainstay of the New York jazz scene in the 1970s, died on Wednesday in Saddle River, N.J. He was 94.

The guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, his son and frequent musical associate, said the cause was the coronavirus.

A master of the subtle art of rhythm guitar as well as a gifted soloist, Mr. Pizzarelli was sought after for recording sessions in the 1950s and ’60s and can be heard on hundreds of records in various genres, although he was often uncredited. He also toured with Benny Goodman and was a longtime member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra. But he was little known to all but the most knowledgeable jazz fans until he was in his 40s.

When Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” to California from New York in 1972, Mr. Pizzarelli stayed behind. He explained at the time that he did not want to uproot his four school-age children from their New Jersey home. Freed of the responsibilities of a regular job, he began performing more frequently in New York nightclubs.

Among those clubs was a Midtown Manhattan spot appropriately named the Guitar, where he had already attracted attention in a duo with his fellow guitarist George Barnes in 1970. Reviewing one of their first performances, John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote: “This is a brilliant and unique team. Mr. Barnes and Mr. Pizzarelli can be dazzling and they can be sensuously brooding. They sparkle with excitement, leap with joy or relax with a warm romantic glow.”

After Mr. Pizzarelli and Mr. Barnes parted ways in 1972, Mr. Pizzarelli began performing and recording in high-profile settings: unaccompanied, as the leader of small groups, and as a sideman with leading jazz musicians like the saxophonists Zoot Sims and Bud Freeman and the violinists Stéphane Grappelli and Joe Venuti.

In 1980 he began performing with a new duo partner: his son John, 20 years old at the time, who went on to become a jazz star in his own right. “That’s where he got his baptism of fire,” Mr. Pizzarelli told an interviewer in 1997. “With me giving him dirty looks when he played a wrong chord.”

Mr. Pizzarelli’s sons survive him, as do his wife, Ruth (Litchult) Pizzarelli; two daughters, Anne Hymes and Mary Pizzarelli; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Pizzarelli was among the few guitarists to play an instrument with seven strings rather than the customary six. (His son was another; George van Eps is believed to have been the first.) The extra string, tuned to a low A, enabled him to provide his own bass line, an important advantage when he played unaccompanied or in a duo setting.

John Paul Pizzarelli was born on Jan. 9, 1926, in Paterson, N.J., where his parents, John and Amelia (DiDomenico) Pizzarelli, owned a grocery store. Two uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, played guitar and banjo professionally, and his uncle Bobby taught him some musical rudiments.

His unlikely nickname was bestowed on him by his father, who as a teenager had decided to explore the Wild West he knew only from movies and spent some time as a ranch hand in Odessa, Texas. He returned to New Jersey with a lot of memories and a lingering love for the West that would lead him to nickname his young son Buckskin. Shortened to Bucky, the name stuck.

Mr. Pizzarelli began his professional career in his teens, touring with the singer Vaughn Monroe, best known for his hit “Racing With the Moon.” After serving two years in the Army, he rejoined the Monroe band in 1946 and remained until it broke up in 1953.

There followed a brief tenure with the popular instrumental group the Three Suns, a year with the singer Kate Smith’s television show, and a long stint as a first-call studio musician. In addition to recording with singers like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, Mr. Pizzarelli played on commercial jingles and numerous pop records, including Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and a string of hits by Dion and the Belmonts.

He also became a staff musician at NBC, where, starting in 1964, he was a member of the “Tonight Show” ensemble, led at the time by Skitch Henderson and later by Doc Severinsen. (He also worked for a while in the band the drummer Bobby Rosengarden led for Johnny Carson’s ABC competitor Dick Cavett.)

Mr. Pizzarelli began his long association with Benny Goodman in 1966, which lasted until Mr. Goodman’s death in 1986. He worked frequently in New York with small groups led by Mr. Goodman and took part in four European tours with him in the 1970s.

Mr. Pizzarelli continued to perform into his 90s, even after a stroke and pneumonia led to hospitalizations in 2015 and 2016 and left him debilitated. “I don’t remember any of it,” he said. “I never knew it until it was over.”

Friends and family members wondered if he would ever play again. But he recovered, and by the end of 2016 he was back in action.

Reviewing a June 2017 performance at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, Howard Reich of The Chicago Tribune praised Mr. Pizzarelli’s “uncommonly sweet and delicate tone” and “disarmingly straightforward approach to melodic line.” “Even at his exalted age,” Mr. Reich noted, “Pizzarelli brought considerable craft to his solos, dispatching practically every note with heightened care.”

The guitarist Ed Laub, who studied with Mr. Pizzarelli in the 1960s and went on to perform with him, summarized Mr. Pizzarelli’s philosophy in an interview with Inside Jersey magazine in 2016: “It’s about making beautiful music. It’s not about grandstanding. And that’s what his whole personality is about.”


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