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.
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
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.
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.