Bucky Pizzarelli, a tasteful sage of jazz guitar who spent the first phase of his career as a prolific session player and the last phase as a celebrated patriarch, died on Wednesday in Saddle River, N.J. Guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, his oldest son and regular musical partner, said the cause was the coronavirus. He was 94.
A longtime jazz institution in the greater New York area and a lifelong resident of New Jersey, Pizzarelli was revered for the technical aplomb that enabled him to combine intricate runs, full chordal accompaniment and even his own walking bass lines. His rock-solid rhythmic footing and broad harmonic understanding were hallmarks of a warmly understated style that always drew attention to the song he was playing, rather than the playing itself.
If that disinclination to seek the spotlight came naturally to Pizzarelli, it was surely reinforced during his years of commercial studio work in the 1950s and '60s. He played on hundreds of recordings — including some landmarks, like Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind." He can also be heard backing teen heartthrobs Frankie Avalon and Fabian; pop vocal group Dion & The Belmonts; and Brian Hyland, on the 1960 novelty smash "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."
Pizzarelli began to gain more recognition in jazz circles during the 1970s, partly through his associations with Benny Goodman, violinists Stéphane Grappelli and Joe Venuti, among others. He had a close collegial bond with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims; one of their several albums together, Nirvana, featured a gold-standard rhythm team of Milt Hinton on bass and Buddy Rich on drums.
At the same time, Pizzarelli was distinguishing himself in more intimate settings, notably the guitar duo. He worked in the early 1970s with George Barnes, in a partnership that drew high critical praise. It established a dual-guitar precedent that Pizzarelli would continue for the rest of his life, with such impeccable partners as Frank Vignola, Howard Alden and Ed Laub.
But over the last 40 years, the guitarist most often found alongside Pizzarelli was his son John, who learned at his elbow. They appeared on a number of albums together and played countless engagements, starting with a four-week booking at the Pierre Hotel in 1980.
"The whole foundation of everything I know about music comes from being around my father," John Pizzarelli said in a statement to NPR. "Being able to go to gigs with him and meet all the musicians that he played with, this amazing crew of people. And then, really, the way I learned the guitar was that I accompanied him."
Among Bucky's most recent recording credits was his son's album Midnight McCartney, released in 2015. Father and son both appeared on the 2012 Paul McCartney standards album Kisses on the Bottom. Bucky also joined the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011.
He was born John Paul Pizzarelli in Paterson, N.J. on Jan. 9, 1926; his enduring nickname, an abbreviation of "buckshot," was bestowed by his father, who owned a grocery store. Young Bucky didn't have to travel far for guitar instruction: he was taught by two uncles, Peter and Bobby Domenick.
In his teens, Bucky often sat in with a pianist and accordionist named Joe Mooney, who had a band in Paterson. His first real professional experience in 1943, with a popular big band led by Vaughn Monroe. The following year he turned 18 and was drafted into the Army, serving in the 86th infantry division in Germany during the last several months of the war. He played in dance bands during his service, and rejoined Monroe afterward, staying with the band for five years.
Pizzarelli was employed as a staff musician for NBC from 1952 through the mid-'60s, playing in the Tonight Show band under both Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen. He then moved to ABC, working for the competition on the Dick Cavett Show, whose band was led by drummer Bobby Rosengarden.
In the late '60s, Pizzarelli had his head turned by a fellow guitarist, George Van Eps, who was making a signature out of an instrument with an additional bass string. (In 1967 he released an album titled George Van Eps' Seven-String Guitar, as if announcing an exotic circus animal.)
"I always wanted to do solo guitar playing," Pizzarelli told NPR in 2009 in an interview with All Things Considered, "and when we heard George play, he was demonstrating the Gretsch seven-string that he developed. He was knocking everybody out. After that, we all went to Manny's Music Store on 48th Street and bought out whatever seven-strings they had."
In short order, Pizzarelli made the seven-string guitar a trademark himself, developing a technique that took advantage of the extra low end. "It's actually much easier," he told JazzTimes in 1999, "because on the six-string you run out of notes. You've got no D-flat. I could never play 'Lush Life' until I got a seven-string." He was also known for his facility on a nylon-stringed classical guitar, which wasn't at all common for a jazz player in the 1960s.
Bucky often worked in recent years not only with John but also with John's wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, and with his younger son, Martin, a bass player. They survive him along with his wife, the former Ruth Pizzarelli (née Litchult); two daughters, Anne Hymes and Mary Pizzarelli, another guitarist; and four grandchildren.