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Bucky Pizzarelli, a master jazz guitarist, dies at 94 of coronavirus

Bucky Pizzarelli, one of the nation’s preeminent seven-string jazz guitarists, who began his career as a coveted sideman and studio musician before stepping out on his own and forming an acclaimed duo with one of his sons, died April 1 at his home in Saddle River, N.J. He was 94.

The cause was the coronavirus disease COVID-19, said his son John Pizzarelli, a guitarist and singer with whom Mr. Pizzarelli formed one of the rare father-son duos in jazz.

Mr. Pizzarelli honed a gentle, richly textured sound while playing as an accompanist solo artist, performing improvised solos that typically featured chords rather than single notes.


Although he began his career in the 1940s, touring as a teenager with singer Vaughn Monroe’s dance band, he came into his own after acquiring a seven-string Gretsch guitar in 1969, inspired by seven-string pioneer George Van Eps.

A fixture of the New York jazz scene for decades, he was also a staff musician at ABC and NBC, where he played with the ‘‘Tonight Show’’ band and tuned Tiny Tim’s ukulele before the musician got married in front of a TV audience of millions in 1969.

Mr. Pizzarelli spent much of the 1950s and ’60s inside recording studios, where he arrived early to practice his nylon-string classical guitar and did three sessions a day.

He was perhaps best known for his work in guitar duos, including with George Barnes, one of the first artists to record with an electric guitar. ‘‘Their duets are built on the contrast between the soft, dark sound of Mr. Pizzarelli’s thumb and finger plucking and Mr. Barnes’s use of a pick to produce high, tight phrases that dart and dazzle over his partner’s foundation lines,’’ New York Times jazz critic John Wilson wrote in 1970.

‘‘They may be light and airy — a perfect soufflé of sound — and then go rollicking off through rapid-fire lines that wrap around each other, chase each other, join in unison and set up challenges of the musicians and the listening ear,’’ he added. ‘‘This is a brilliant and unique team.’’


Mr. Pizzarelli and Barnes recorded a 1971 album, ‘‘Guitars Pure and Honest,’’ but within a year began ‘‘to detest one another,’’ according to a report from the New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who witnessed a chaotic performance at the St. Regis Room in Manhattan that brought the musicians’ rivalry into public view.

Mr. Pizzarelli found far less drama while performing with members of his own family. His 1972 album, ‘‘Green Guitar Blues,’’ featured a duet with his 14-year-old daughter, Mary, whom he taught classical guitar. By the end of the decade he was working with his son John.

In time, they also performed with Mr. Pizzarelli’s other son, bassist Martin Pizzarelli, and with John’s wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, forming a group that John Pizzarelli likened to ‘‘the von Trapp family on martinis.’’

‘‘I learned by sitting with him on the bandstand,’’ John Pizzarelli told TV interviewer Steve Adubato in 2013, accompanied by his father. “It was trial by fire. He would just play melodies and stare at me.”

Mr. Pizzarelli was born John Pizzarelli on Jan. 9, 1926, in Paterson, N.J., where his childhood classmates included poet Allen Ginsberg. His parents owned a grocery store, and his father played the mandolin and nicknamed his only son Bucky, out of a love for cowboys and the American West that he had nurtured since working in Texas as a teenager.


His uncle Bobby Dominick was a banjo and guitar player who ‘‘looked like a million dollars every time I saw him,’’ Mr. Pizzarelli told George Cole, author of the Miles Davis history ‘‘The Last Miles.’’ ‘‘He had a suit, a new car and he was picking up 50 bucks a week on the road with all his bands. . . . When I saw that, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”

Mr. Pizzarelli learned the basics of music during Sunday jam sessions that included Bobby and another uncle, Pete Dominick.

He was soon drafted into the Army and, at the close of World War II, served in Europe and the Philippines, where he ‘‘spent nine months doing nothing,’’ as he put it, aside from playing guitar. He returned home to spend five years with Monroe and join NBC.

Mr. Pizzarelli’s wife of 66 years, the former Ruth Litchult, did not play an instrument but ‘‘knows music and can say what’s good and bad,’’ her husband told the Times in 1973.

‘‘I’m a critic mostly when he plays too long or when it’s time for dinner,’’ she said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Pizzarelli leaves four children, Anne Hymes of Orlando, Martin Pizzarelli of Saddle River, and John and Mary Pizzarelli, both of Manhattan; a sister; and four grandchildren.