Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Ken Peplowski Remembers Bucky Pizzarelli

The clarinetist and saxophonist pays tribute to the guitar giant (1/9/26 – 4/1/20)

Bucky Pizzarelli
Bucky Pizzarelli, The Cutting Room, NYC, June 2014 (photo: Jeff Tamarkin)

I was trying to think of how many times I played with Bucky Pizzarelli over the years and a very conservative estimate would have to be at least a thousand. Did I ever hear him have an off night? Not a chance. Bucky was of the old school of musicians that always gave 100%, be it Carnegie Hall, a record date, or some wealthy fan’s kid’s bar mitzvah. And believe me, that was not an atypical week for him. He so loved to play music he almost literally took every gig that came his way and legendarily would not cancel a job once he booked it. (I heard a story from his agent about Bucky turning down $10,000 and a first-class air ticket to play one 40-minute set for a night honoring Chuck Berry because he was already booked that night to play with his friend, bassist Jerry Bruno, in a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey.)

He also dressed to the nines for everything: record dates, plane flights, hotel breakfasts. He showed up early, did his job with grace and good humor, dressed to both show respect and earn it, and played with an unparalleled consistency which not only is a lost art but was a thing of wonder to behold. We used to joke amongst ourselves that Bucky never spent a dime of his own money on anything—not because he was cheap, mind you, but because everyone knew and loved him. He got his guitars for free; he got his meals paid for everywhere; he was usually bumped up to first class; he got his Brooks Brothers suits for free and somehow they never looked even slightly wrinkled! He actually was generous to a fault—he always championed up-and-coming musicians (myself included—I can still hear him saying, “Ya gotta hear this kid play, he’s somethin’ else!” about me and many, many others). And he taught me the value of having the personal pride of playing at your best always, despite the mood of people around you, indifferent audiences, bad recording situations, etc.

I had a run of about eight years of a week apiece at Dizzy’s Club in NYC and I wanted a band that just had fun and knew lots of tunes, so I hired some of the best people I knew at that time for that particular job: Derek Smith on piano, Chuck Redd on drums and vibes, usually Dave Finck on bass (I think Milt Hinton might have done one year), and Bucky. From the first downbeat they hit every ball clear out of the park and wowed the audience, the staff, everyone. Between Derek and Bucky, it was literally impossible to not play well! We just called whatever songs occurred to us, and it made no difference what mood we had when we entered the room—you had to rise to the fore with Bucky at his most infectiously swinging.

One more thing: Not only was Bucky one of the great guitar soloists ever, he was unquestionably one of the best rhythm guitarists who ever lived. There was Freddie Green and there was Bucky, and then came everyone else. He had the ability to lift a band—any band, any style (it’s safe to say he’s the only person to have performed and recorded with Dion and the Belmonts, Benny Goodman, and Miles Davis)—with his unerring sense of time, taste, and swing. And he always hit the perfect tempo, even gently correcting wrong tempos by subtly shifting the band’s time during the song! All with that contagious smile on his face.

I can honestly say I never met a person who had an unkind word about him. He loved people; he loved to sit in airports three hours early and watch people’s expressions, strike up conversations, and even on occasion get out his guitar and play for them. He even loved Benny Goodman, and vice versa (but that’s a story for another time). I know it’s a cliché to say everybody’s the greatest and the most inspiring, but he truly was. 

In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats