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75 Years In Music: NJ Jazz Guitar Great Bucky Pizzarelli Dies

Frank Vignola and Bucky Pizzarelli perform "Moonglow" in 2012.
Frank Vignola and Bucky Pizzarelli perform "Moonglow" in 2012. Video Credit: Frank Vignola (http://frankvignola.com/ )

Legendary New Jersey jazz and pop guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli died Wednesday at his Saddle River home at 94.

The cause was complications from the coronavirus, his son, John, said.

A pillar of the American music scene, Pizzarelli performed for presidents, played alongside fellow legends – from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Miles Davis to Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney – and was synonymous with the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival and the Fair Lawn Summer Concert Series.

The Paterson-born Pizzarelli lived in New Jersey his entire life, settling in Saddle River with his wife, Ruth, after serving in the Army in World War II, and performed professionally for an astounding 75 years.

His style was smooth, fluid, with a richness produced by his custom-made, (Robert) Benedetto Bucky Pizzarelli Signature guitar, which included a seventh “A” string that provided a bass line for his gentle rhythm and lead playing.

No less than Stanley Jordan called Pizzarelli a “jazz icon” and “one of the creators of the genre.”

“I knew Bucky since I was a baby,” wrote drummer Jay Dittamo of Waldwick. “When I was 4 years old, he gave me a stack of albums. I practiced to those albums for hours.

“It wasn’t till years later we got together to play and also work on recordings,” Dittamo said. “I can never say enough of what he meant to me in my life. It breaks my heart not to think he’s not here.”

“He was the sweetest and most generous man,” added Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer.

John “Bucky” Pizzarelli grew up in a musical family, the son of grocery store owners in an Italian Paterson neighborhood. He learned to play guitar and banjo from his uncles and became a professional at 17, joining the Vaughn Monroe dance band in 1944.

His father nicknamed him “Buckskin,” later shortened to Bucky, after Pizzarelli fell in love with the West while working for a time on a ranch in Texas.

Pizzarelli was a member of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band, first under conductor Skitch Henderson and then Doc Severinson.

It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that Bucky’s popularity – and influence – began to grow with both fans and performers.

Pizarelli toured with Benny Goodman and recorded well-received albums of his own, in addition to being a sought-after sideman.

Among his many albums were two made with fellow guitarist George Barnes, including a 1971 live recording at The Town Hall in Manhattan.

Pizzarelli often teamed up with fellow New Jersey guitar great Les Paul – who also was 94 when he died in 2009.

Pizzarelli also performed at the White House for presidents Reagan and Clinton and was a session man on Ray Charles’ version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and McCartney’s 2012 standards album, “Kisses on the Bottom,” among many recordings.

Forty years ago, Bucky began performing regularly with son John Pizzarelli Jr., an accomplished guitarist in his own right. He also played with son Martin, a professional bassist, and daughter, Mary, is a classical guitarist.

Pizzarelli wrote three books on guitar playing, taught at William Paterson and continued to perform even after suffering a stroke and pneumonia five years ago.

He played into his 90s, in fact, including with Frank Vignola on this version of the jazz standard “Moonglow”:

Pizzarelli’s death Wednesday came on the same day as that of New Orleans jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, whose son, Branford, said was from coronavirus complications. 

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