April 2, 2020

Bucky Pizzarelli, 1926-2020

This is a really hard one.
Part of being involved in an oral history project that has lasted 25 years is watching people pass on who you’ve come to know and feel strongly about. It’s the nature of the business, and one of the prime reasons that such projects exist, so that the words, images and stories of these people will stay with us after they’re gone.
Bucky Pizzarelli was a musician’s musician; an overused phrase but highly appropriate in this case. Well-known in the world of guitar players, Bucky was never a household name because he was the ultimate team player, the impeccable guitarist behind the scenes who knew what was required for every gig. His career spanned over seven decades and every conceivable situation, ranging from playing Tiny Tim’s wedding on The Tonight Show, (which included tuning Tiny Tim’s ukulele) to performing at the White House with Frank Sinatra.
Bucky’s attitude about music was, “What is required here? I can do it and feel good about it.” He was one of the many jazz players who moved into the active studio recording scene in New York City in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Bucky is the only interviewee who has had three sessions with the Fillius Jazz Archive, in 1997, 2003, and in 2014, when my wife and I traveled to his home to interview Bucky along with his lovely and gracious wife, Ruth.
In our first interview, I asked Bucky about playing what was referred to as “three-chord” rock & roll as part of a studio gig:
MR:  How did you guys feel about this music?
BP: Well we were making money you know, and we could play gigs at night, but we got so busy we had no time to play gigs, no time. But I used to do, on Fridays and Saturdays, I played over in Jersey with a trio — piano, bass and guitar — all the time. I always had a little thing like that going on the side.
MR: To keep your jazz chops?
BP: Well not to keep them but I just did it automatically because I felt that this is what I like to do so I’ll make some money and support the family and everything doing the recordings, and go play for — I don’t know it was $35 or $40 a night to play that kind of music.
Like most musicians of his generation, Bucky learned from mentors, relatives, and by listening to recordings. He had a strong attitude about extensive formal jazz education.
MR: You were talking about music education. You seemed to say that the musicians were over-educated these days.
BP: Yes. Over trained. Everybody goes in school and they want to be a soloist today. So they go and they learn how to read and they do ensemble playing and they learn to read so well that when they get with a band, a commercial band, it’s boring. They could play it, like I said before, without even thinking about it. So when boredom sets in on any musician, you better quit the business. You’ve got to like what you’re doing.
Bucky received an Honorary Doctorate from Hamilton in 2003 and Ruth and his children traveled to the college to partake in the ceremony. He was also part of a team of musicians who performed annually at Hamilton College’s Fallcoming event. This annual gathering of jazz luminaries is in its 26th year, and Bucky played at 12 of these events. One of our favorite memories is the year we brought his son John’s trio with John’s brother Martin on bass and Bucky as special guest. When John introduced Bucky to the stage, he referred to his father as “The Pope.” We previously blogged about this event, which occurred in 2004, and you can read it here, entitled Family Matters.
I was in attendance when John’s trio was playing at a swank supper club in New York City. After one virtuosic number, when the applause died down, a voice came out of the audience directed at John, saying, “That’s not so hard.” John said, “What do you mean?” The voice repeated sarcastically, “That’s not so hard.” John replied (acting annoyed), “Well would you like to come up here and try it?” The voice said, “All right I will,” and guess who strode up to the stage? Bucky. He was a plant, a set-up that was artfully executed.
After a number of years booking the Fallcoming jazz group, I was invited to play an entire set and, pretending to be reluctant, I knew I would be striding into a musical heaven. I remember Bucky sitting next to me playing Dick Hyman charts and there is a particular photograph which graces the home page of my website, where Bucky seems to be beaming approval at my soloing efforts.
Bucky’s job was doing what he loved. He played in every possible situation with every conceivable musician both here in America and abroad. He and his gracious wife Ruth had a wonderful family with four beautiful and caring children: Mary, Martin, John, and Ann. What more can you ask for?
The Hamilton community sends its deepest sympathies to the entire Pizzarelli family, for we will always carry loving remembrances of him in our hearts.