Bucky Pizzarelli — the legendary jazz and pop guitarist who was a lifelong New Jersey resident and a member of the New Jersey Hall of Fame — has died at the age of 94.
He was a longtime mainstay of the state’s music scene — for many years, his afternoon sets were highlights of the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival — but he was also world-renowned for his smooth, fluid, tasteful playing. He performed at the White House for presidents Reagan and Clinton, and in Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band, and worked with Frank Sinatra, Les Paul, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole and countless others.
As a session musician, he played on hits ranging from Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” and Bryan Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” and he also performed on Paul McCartney’s 2012 standards album, Kisses on the Bottom.
He has been battling several serious health problems in recent years. His daughter Mary told the Daily Record of Morristown that he had tested positive for coronavirus on March 29, though the cause of death has not been determined yet.
He was born in Paterson as John Pizzarelli — his father gave him the nickname Bucky — and served in the army during World War II. After the war, he became a professional musician and moved with his wife, Ruth, to Clifton and then Saddle River.
Their son, John Pizzarelli Jr., also became a well known guitarist, as well as a singer, and another son, Martin, is a professional bassist who has often worked with both.
One of Bucky’s last recordings was on Stanley Jordan’s 2011 album Friends, which featured collaborations with various artists.
“To me Bucky Pizzarelli is a jazz icon,” said Jordan, at the time. “I play jazz guitar, but Bucky Pizzarelli is one of the creators of the genre. I can hear so much history in his notes, and yet his sound is always fresh.”
After his death, Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer posted on Facebook: “We say a reluctant goodbye to the great guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli this evening. Rest in power dear man. I had the great pleasure of recording a bit with him and he was the sweetest and most generous man.”
“I’m so sad to learn that we have lost one of the giants of the music world. … He captivated everyone not only with his impeccable 7-string guitar playing, but with his wonderful personality and great sense of humor,” posted Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival producer Don Jay Smith on Facebook.
John Pizzarelli Jr. has also posted a tribute on Facebook, concluding with the following: “He was a wonderful dad. He was a decent bocce player, a New York football Giants fan and for some reason liked the Yankees. But, he was music first and foremost and it showed in his artistry. He taught himself classical guitar! Played the literature, like a jazz guitarist, which is the only way I can hear it now. I’ll add more later but I wanted to raise my glass to this amazing man. If you want to do him a favor, send some money to the Jazz Foundation … or call Joe Petrucelli there at 212-245-3999, ext. 10.”
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