7-string guitar master Bucky Pizzarelli turns 86 today. In 2006, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece on Bucky and his son, the guitarist-singer John Pizzarelli, which I’ve appended below.
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Some fathers and sons bond over sports or cars or tools. But John “Bucky” Pizzarelli, Jr. and John Pizzarelli, III, keep Oedipal tensions at bay with music.
Both taught early on by Bucky’s uncles, each a pro, the Pizzarellis made their first 7-string duo dates for Stash in 1979 and 1984, and continued the dialogue on six disks for different labels between 1995 and 2001. As John’s career as a singer-entertainer evolved through the ‘90s, he deployed Bucky’s unparalleled rhythm guitar skills on various Telarc projects, most recently Thank You, Mr. Sinatra.
They celebrated their shared obsession at a recent taping of the the younger Pizzarelli’s syndicated radio show at Nola Studios in Midtown Manhattan on Passover Eve, marking Bucky’s eightieth birthday with a listen-and-talk session centered around his numerous influences and career landmarks.
“That’s the chords of ‘China Boy,’” Bucky remarked, as the opening bars of Wild Cat, a 1928 Eddie Lang-Joe Venuti barnburner, came through his headphones. He sat facing his son and singer Jessica Molaskey, his daughter-in-law, across a narrow rectangular table in a cramped cubicle.
“I like when they go from G7 right down with whole tones,” he continued, as Venuti swung wild violin variations, propelled by Lang’s propulsive guitar pump. “Want to buy a guitar?”
“That’s what we used to do in car rides all over the nation,” John announced on mike. “I’d make tapes like this, and he was a captive audience. That’s how I got my father to actually speak to me. Now, what guitar did Eddie Lang play? For ten points!”
“The L5 Gibson.”
“Who’s the guy I met in Salt Lake City?”
“Oh, Alvino Ray. He had one.”
“Alvino Ray told me that two of the first Lloyd Loar L5s were sent to Eddie Lang. He had Alvino Ray up to the hotel room, and said, ‘This one is great, but the finish is a little cracked on this one, so you can have it.’ Alvino showed it to me in Salt Lake City about a year before he died.
“It’s a good thing he didn’t show it to Bucky, because he wouldn’t have it any more,” Molaskey said..
“He knew. I called and said, ‘I saw the Alvino Ray guitar,’ and you were like you had seen it.”
“When I was with Vaughan Monroe on the Camel Caravan many years ago, he played Flight of the Bumble Bee on that thing. It had a big, thick neck on it, because he liked classical guitar.”
“That’s the only thing he changed. So it’s a one-of-a-kind guitar.”
Similar Bob-and-Ray meets Nick-and-Nora banter marked the ensuing 80 minutes, as Bucky—a first-call New York studio player from 1954 to 1970 who embarked on a still-efflorescent second act as a combo, solo and duo 7-string specialist—rattled off the guitar models of Freddie Greene, Tony Mottola and Carmen Mastren; told first-hand anecdotes about Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, and Les Paul; offered concise histories of Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, George Van Epps, and Zoot Sims; and parsed aesthetics with blunt, erudite precision.
Later, in Nola’s Studio A, father and son had much more to say.
TP: Tell me about your family background.
BUCKY: My grandfather came from Abruzzi, and just by accident he went back, and my mother was born in Italy after they settled in America. My father was born in the States.
TP: Your uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, played mandolin and banjo. Did they come out of an Italian vernacular music tradition?
BUCKY: No. They wanted to Americanize us, so they never even taught us the language.
TP: One was a professional musician and the other had a day job.
BUCKY: Pete worked 35 years in the office at Barbers Linen & Thread in Paterson, New Jersey. On weekends, he played gigs – weddings mostly. Bobby, the younger brother, got to play with all the bands.
JOHN: Well, Pete insisted on it. Pete sent him out.
BUCKY: He went on the road with Teddy Powell and Bob Chester, with whom he did a great record called Octave Jump. They played in a band at the Meadowbrook led by Frank Dailey. They had local guys, and Joe Mooney was the arranger. What impressed me most is that it was the Depression, people didn’t have enough money to buy two eggs, and these musicians were all dressed up all the time and driving nice cars. They made $50 a week, $35 a week in a big band! So I wanted to do what Bobby was doing. I have pictures of him and Buddy Rogers on a polo field, the whole band standing there in suits with black-and-white shoes.
TP: How old were you when started gigging?
BUCKY: Around 15. $3 and $5 jobs. I made 20 bucks on my first New Year’s Eve gig.
TP: John, were you aware as a kid of all this history that informed what your father was doing?
JOHN: No. Slam Stewart stayed with us, and I knew he was a great player, but I had no idea he’d played with Art Tatum and everything else. Zoot Sims was the swingingest tenor player I’d ever heard, but we had so much fun with him, it was just, “Hey, Zoot Sims is over.” Benny Goodman is when all time stopped in the house. When he played nearby and they said, “Come over for dinner” and he accepted, it was a big deal. We had to wait upstairs and get out of the way. Everybody was on their best behavior. But we had Jimmy Rowles, Joe Venuti, Les Paul, Joe Pass. Joe Pass played the guitar in front of me when I was 15, and I remember going, “Jesus, I never heard that.” With his two fingers, not a pick. I figured, “I’ve got to get in on this.” I had to learn their tunes to talk to these guys.
BUCKY: He fit right in.
JOHN: Bucky was one of the lucky ones, because he figured out how to continue to make a living when it wasn’t that popular. He wasn’t a big star. But I loved what he did, I’d go to gigs, and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw. It still is.
TP: Bucky, you were born the same year as John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath and Randy Weston. Did bebop attract you?
BUCKY: It did, but I couldn’t make a living playing bebop. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were fantastic. But I hear 26 alto players and I couldn’t name you one of them. I always told myself, “Duke Ellington never played bebop and neither did Count Basie,” and that’s what I went by.
TP: John, were you attracted to Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Weather Report?
JOHN: No. The hippest thing we had was Kind of Blue. We also had Seven Steps To Heaven with Ron Carter, Tony Williams and everyone else.
BUCKY: See, I was playing a lot of classical guitar. Miles made a record of Rodrigo.
TP: Sketches of Spain.
BUCKY: Right. If you heard Julian Bream’s original recording of Concierto De Aranjuez, you wouldn’t like Miles. I’m telling the truth. That beautiful guitar solo is what I go by. Now, Gil Evans wrote a beautiful arrangement for Miles. Miles couldn’t hit a wrong note. Whatever he did, worked.
TP: Did you have any formal education?
BUCKY: No. It’s whatever I learned from my uncle, or stole from guys I met. I always met somebody that I got something from.
TP: Your experience was not dissimilar.
JOHN: I spent ten years at the University of Bucky Pizzarelli. In 1980 we did the Pierre Hotel for 8 weeks, 7 to 11, and I knew six songs. By the end, I had a repertoire. I did four-hour solo gigs by myself, so I had to learn tunes. Then I learned single note playing after three or four years of just playing the chords. It helped me learn how to harmonize songs I didn’t know, which was the most valuable lesson of all.
TP: A lot of guitar players say they want to phase like a horn and not guitaristically.
BUCKY: George Barnes played that way. But I think you have to go with what’s coming out of your guitar. My style is to keep everything in three notes in the chord. I syncopate them any way I want, and whatever we’re playing is always in the chord.
JOHN: Django and George Barnes and Les Paul before the multi-track each had that similar, right-on-top-of-the-beat Charlie Christian attack. With George Barnes I love the idea that if he plays one note, it’s going to swing its ass off. It’s not about the guitar being a horn. That’s how I can get around being less educated than these kids I heard when I judged the Thelonious Monk competition. They played beautiful solos on Isfahan; they can play rings around everybody, because they’ve been educated to learn all these modes. Every time the chord shifts a half, they can find it. But I find that younger players lack the idea to play one note and attack it.
BUCKY: Swing it. Above that, there was a guy called George Van Eps, who played all by himself, and it was like heaven when he played any kind of song. His harmonies… Nobody is ever going to play like that.
TP: You inherited his mantle as a 7-string player.
BUCKY: That’s where I got it. When you made up solos on 6-string, you played in open keys where you had an open string. Johnny Smith used to tune down to D, so he would have a string to give him a bass note. With 7-string, you can play in any key you want, and get a beautiful note. You get D-flat, low C, C-flat…
TP: You seem like an encyclopedia of harmony.
BUCKY: Well, that’s the whole thing! I don’t write anything down. I try to get it all in my body. Then when I have to play, it’s there.
JOHN: He has a basic sense of what the harmonies are supposed to do. I’ve heard him learn songs four different times over the 25 years, and come up with another way out of the woods. He doesn’t want to get too crazy with the harmonies either. But he always wants to make sure there’s a bass note with the chord.
TP: Bucky, did you ever sing like your son?
BUCKY: Never did.
TP: Do you know the lyrics?
BUCKY: No. Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You, that’s about as far as I go. It’s a short song.
JOHN: But there’s a way he plays the melody on ballads. He approaches Body and Soul like Coleman Hawkins does, but the way he plays it on the guitar is so right. The ballad things. On Polka Dots and Moonbeams or These Foolish Things, the way he milks the melody, there’s a class to it that’s untouched.
TP: Bucky, you don’t mind staying in the background. You can play just rhythm guitar and be very happy.
BUCKY: Rhythm guitar is more important than the guy playing the melody sometimes. I make records with a lot of guitar players, and I’m very content to play in the background.
TP: But you, John, have an extroverted personality.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s like Pete and Bobby. They were real crazy guys, and he’s always been studious and smart!
TP: But you’re also a studious and learned guitar player. Are you content to just play rhythm guitar?
JOHN: If it’s a good band, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. I like playing rhythm with my brother Martin because he plays the bass like the way rhythm guitar should be. I always thought we play ballads really well because we learned it from him.
BUCKY: A lot of the new guitar players don’t know how to play rhythm.
TP: Is it a lost art?
BUCKY: Yes. When the bands died out, nobody wanted to play rhythm any more. Today, when your kid goes to school, “I wrote this and I’m going to play this, and I’ll make an album of my own music,” and [SINGS SEQUENCE OF 16th NOTES], all over the place.
JOHN: They don’t even learn to comp behind soloists.
BUCKY: Turn around and comp.
JOHN: Or play behind a singer. An 8-bar solo. He does that better than anybody. If I say, “Just noodle underneath the singer,” he knows what to do.
BUCKY: When they stop, you jump in. If they don’t stop, you’ve got to get out of the way.
JOHN: You hear him do all of that with Rosemary Clooney. He does the chords, accompanies her, and then plays single note lines underneath it.
TP: Bucky, I don’t know exactly what you mean by “new guitar players.”
BUCKY: Well, the younger guys.
JOHN: [LAUGHS] But you’re 80!
TP: You’ve done so many records in the last 6-7 years, it’s impossible to claim anything as your latest…
JOHN: I can’t keep up with him.
TP: But your new DVD with Frank Vignola [Favorite Solos, Mel-Bay] blew me away.
BUCKY: But what did I do on that? I just played rhythm behind him. I only improvise on one number, Moonglow.
JOHN: Frank’s a banjo player.
BUCKY: Frank’s got that wrist.
JOHN: Howard Alden, too.
TP: What do you think of the European Django players, the new Gypsy Swing people?
BUCKY: There are so many of them, they cancel each other out. They learn the solos from the record. We don’t. We have to formulate those solos, make them work.
TP: As a kid, did you learn solos from records, like Charlie Christian solos?
BUCKY: I think I got halfway through Rose Room that he played with Benny Goodman.
TP: But you told John to learn Django’s solo on Rose Room.
JOHN: He never learned any of that.
BUCKY: I could never do it.
JOHN: You learned the songs, though, like Sweet Chorus and Tears. Also Solo Flight.
BUCKY: Yeah, I recorded that, just the solo. No chords on it.
JOHN: He was playing it backstage with Tal Farlow. Tal said, “Yeah, it was the first thing I learned,” and they played it together, note-for-note, at the same time.
BUCKY: Charlie Christian was a big, big factor. I had Charlie Christian on those 78s. The bartender let me take them home. I played them on my victrola.
TP: It must feel great to be able to express yourself on recordings in so many different contexts.
BUCKY: When I do what I want to do on a guitar, yes, it feels great. Sometimes it doesn’t come out the way you want it. Playing an instrument makes you get up for whatever you have to do. If it’s going to be a bossa-nova, you’ve got to do this; for a swing thing, do that; for a ballad, do that; behind a singer, it’s something else.
TP: You make it sound very simple.
JOHN: It’s not simple.
BUCKY: You know what the hardest thing is? Playing four-four rhythm on a slow ballad. It is! BOOM. [REST] CHICK [REST] BOOM [REST] CHICK. And make it…
TP: I want to rush while you’re saying it!
BUCKY: [LAUGHS] That’s what I mean.
JOHN: There’s a great record of Prelude To A Kiss where he did that. Dave Grusin made an Ellington record, and he plays rhythm. Norris Turney played it.
BUCKY: It’s in a movie.
TP: What kind of guy was Vaughan Monroe?
BUCKY: Oh, great bandleader. He was a good musician. He sang, he read music, and he played good trumpet. had good… I just worked with the Moon Maids. They’re all pushing 80.
JOHN: You had a big band and strings. Right?
BUCKY: Well, we only had 6 strings, but when we did the radio show every Saturday, we added 6 more local guys.
TP: But you were never a guitar soloist in that band?
BUCKY: No. I played rhythm. I played The Third Man theme. [SINGS REFRAIN] It was in an Orson Welles movie, and it was the popular song on our show, so I played it about 6 weeks in a row. Whenever the band took a rest, I’d play Stompin’ At the Savoy or something like that, then the band would play the last chorus.
TP: Another thing you mentioned learning from your father is presentation and comportment. Dressing clean.
JOHN: That’s how his uncles were, too. He spent a lot of time with Uncle Pete, who was like his father, and Uncle Pete wore pressed shirts, tie, suspenders, gorgeous suits. A saved-his-money-and-looked-great guy.
TP: It must be nice to get validation from Bucky Pizzarelli and his peer group.
JOHN: He’s the hardest. I played rhythm on the James Taylor record of Mean Old Man [October Road] and I played the verse on it. When I played him the record, he looked up and said, “Who’s playing rhythm?” “That’s me.” “Oh.” He knows the guitars and the players, and he thought, “Well, that’s got to be somebody.” That’s a good thing.
TP: He doesn’t sound at all overbearing.
JOHN: I wanted to play guitar because I liked it. I had a good time playing with my friends, and we had equipment, so everybody wanted to come to my house. Every once in a while he’d say, “It goes like this.” He gave me little pointers here and there.
TP: And he wouldn’t say “turn that shit off.”
JOHN: He’d say “turn it down.” But never, “Turn that shit off.” Once I was listening to My Old School on a cassette in the dining room. There’s a lick he plays on the out chorus, and my father came in and said, “That’s the one you want to learn, because that’s the hot lick.”
I took Bucky to see Pat Metheny on the First Circle tour, and he really got it. I was crying, I thought it was so good. Pat would switch guitars, and my father kept saying, “Who’s the guy who comes out with the guitars?” “He’s the tech; he takes them and tunes them.” “He tunes them?!” Here’s Bucky with one guitar while this guy has 12. The synthguitar came out. He’d say, “Oh, he’s got the Screamer now.” He said, “Oh, he gets a big, round classical sound. That’s great. How does he do that?”
TP: Jim Hall had a great influence on Metheny and a lot of the guitarists of that generation.
JOHN: In the late ‘80s I was in a trio that wanted to play a lot of Bill Evans songs, and they were always talking about Jim Hall, so I went to hear him with Gil Goldstein, Steve LaSpina and a drummer. I remember thinking, “Well, he’s Bill Evans.” It wasn’t ding-ding-a-ding Charlie Christian, even though he’s a huge Charlie Christian fan. Jim Hall was totally beyond me – in a good way. It’s like Van Eps is for us, Jim Hall is for other guys. He was one of the 12 guitarists at the table at the Thelonious Monk competition I judged. I said, “Why are you asking guitar players to learn Donna Lee? They should learn Slipped Disk.” He looked at me and goes, “Charlie Christian.” “They should be learning guitar pieces,” I said. Then I wasn’t allowed to speak any more. It was like, “No-no, they’re going to learn Donna Lee and they’re going to like it.” [BUCKY COMES IN AS JOHN SINGS REFRAIN]
BUCKY: Slipped Disk.
JOHN: Yeah. I said, “That’s the guitar piece.”
BUCKY: [SINGS REFRAIN]
JOHN: 7 Come 11.
BUCKY: That’s guitaristic.
JOHN: Guitar players should learn guitar solos. That’s the history of the guitar. Charlie Parker is Charlie Parker. That’s the alto contest. It shouldn’t be the guitar contest. There’s enough hard guitar shit to learn.
BUCKY: That’s true.
JOHN: Learn a Van Eps solo. Try that.