Remembering guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli, mainstay of Morristown Jazz & Blues Fest, who has died from coronavirus

LOOKING GOOD: Bucky Pizzarelli, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
LOOKING GOOD: Bucky Pizzarelli, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Bucky Pizzarelli, the legendary jazz guitarist who died Wednesday at 94 from the coronavirus, was a tough interview.

He preferred to let his seven-string electric guitar do the talking.

“Keep playing. That’s all,” Pizzarelli told Morristown Green in 2016 when asked for his secret to longevity.

Bucky Pizzarelli , 91, rebounded from health setbacks to perform at the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival, Aug. 19, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli , 91, rebounded from health setbacks to perform at the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival, Aug. 19, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The New Jersey Hall of Fame member, a veteran of the Tonight Show Band who played with everyone from Benny Goodman to Paul McCartney, was rebounding from a mini-stroke and pneumonia, and preparing to play the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival, as he had done every year since 2011.

Pizzarelli’s longtime accompanist, Ed Laub, urged him to take his time easing back into performing. He would hear none of it.

“You just start playing your instrument, and you forget about everything else,” said Pizzarelli.

Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove and Kevin Coughlin

Bucky Pizzarelli made a comeback at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Jeff Sovelove
IF THERE WERE A MT. RUSHMORE FOR JAZZ... Bucky Pizzarelli, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
LOOKING GOOD: Bucky Pizzarelli, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli awaits start of his set at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
BASKING IN THE SUN: Bucky Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky birthday cake at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Jeff Sovelove
Martin Pizzarelli and Grover Kemble at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Martin Pizzarelli gets a pointer from his dad, Bucky Pizzarelli, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub discuss their set list, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ed Laub at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
STILL PLAYING: Bucky Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Pam Wahlberg and Steve Lucas performed a tribute to the late Rusty Paul, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
TEAMWORK: Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Martin Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Jeff Sovelove
MUSICAL FAMILY TREE: Martin Pizzarelli and his dad, Bucky, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky and Ruth Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Aaron Weinstein at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub perform at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ruth and Bucky Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli signs a poster at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival, for promoters Linda and Don Jay Smith. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli with Morristown First Lady Mary Dougherty and Mayor Tim Dougherty, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Steve Lucas performs tribute to his late bandmate, Rusty Paul, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Marco Palos snaps selfie with Bucky Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli draws a crowd, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli, a colorful sight at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bucky Pizzarelli and Joe Jokes of the George Gee Swing Orchestra, at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Aaron Weinstein and Martin Pizzarelli at the 2016 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub at The Minstrel in Morris Township in 2011. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As a teen, Laub bicycled to Pizzarelli’s Saddle River home for guitar lessons. He returned his mentor’s kindness by helping Pizzarelli relearn Honeysuckle Rose and other standards when he was convalescing from his stroke.

Those visits were therapeutic for Laub, too. He had just lost his wife Bonnie to breast cancer.

“He was in bad shape,” Pizzarelli said of his grieving friend. “The music kept him going.”

Video: Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub, ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’ 2017 in Morristown:

Pizzarelli’s voice was gravelly, but by all accounts, his heart was as sweet as the notes he wrung so masterfully from the fretboard.

JAZZ ROYALTY: Grover Kemble, John Pizzarelli, Bucky Pizzarelli and Don Jay Smith at the Bickford, April 1, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
JAZZ ROYALTY: Grover Kemble, John Pizzarelli, Bucky Pizzarelli and Don Jay Smith at the Bickford, April 1, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Don and Linda Smith promoted numerous shows with Pizzarelli, starting more than 30 years ago when the Paterson native appeared with Stephane Grappelli at Morristown’s Community Theatre, now known as the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

Pizzarelli endeared himself to generations of fans “not only with his melodic seven-string guitar but also with his warm personality,” said Don Jay Smith.

Video: Bucky shares another secret to his vitality, in 2014 at age 88, at The Minstrel (now The Troubadour) in Morris Township:

One of his favorite memories of Bucky Pizzarelli is a photo shoot Bucky did years ago with his son John, then an up-and-coming jazz star, for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

“Between photos they would play blistering versions of Sweet Georgia Brown and Sing Sing Sing,” Smith said. “We’ve lost one of New Jersey’s great musicians.”

Video: Bucky and an all-star band play ‘Sing Sing Sing’ at Bucky’s Birthday Bash, 2014, at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township:

Grover Kemble, another jazz stylist who performed for years with John Pizzarelli, said he treasures the encouragement, wisdom and playing pointers Bucky shared with him.

“Bucky was a gentleman, a mentor, a role model of class and discipline for budding guitarists,” Kemble said.

“I once did an opening up gig with him and wore what I thought was a hip shirt and hat… He said, ‘Where’s your suit fella?’ and we laughed. But I knew he was a stickler for professionalism in every category of your performance.”

Laub said Pizzarelli never considered other guitar-slingers as rivals; he was generous with tips and techniques.

“He gets so much pleasure out of teaching someone and watching them learn, he’s like a kid opening presents on Christmas Day,” Laub told Morristown Green in 2016.

‘Guitar Summit’:  Frank Vignola, Ed Laub and Gene Bertoncini join Bucky at the 2013 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival:

Pizzarelli lived by a lesson he imparted to Laub decades ago.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘If you’re going to be a professional musician, your first job is always to make the other guy sound as good as you can make him sound. It’s not about you. It will come back to you,’” Laub recounted.

That August, Bucky Pizzarelli shed his customary blazer and performed for 90 minutes in the blazing sun on the historic Morristown Green.

“I didn’t want to miss this. And I was lucky I made it,” Bucky said backstage that day.

We were lucky, too.

Video: Bucky Pizzarelli at the Morristown Jazz & Blues Fest in 2016, after recovering from a stroke:

Correction: Bucky Pizzarelli died on Wednesday, not Sunday.

MORE COVERAGE OF BUCKY PIZZARELLI ON MORRISTOWN GREEN

REPLAY OF BUCKY 2017 BICKFORD THEATRE CONCERT

OBITUARY ON NJARTS.NET

OBITUARY ON NEW YORK TIMES

MORE COVERAGE OF THE CORONAVIRUS

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1 COMMENT

  1. Loved his music and the man himself. One of the many blessings of living in Morristown was to benefit from his presence, every time he performed.

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