Dec 08, 2012 - Bucky Pizzarelli to be inducted

Legendary Jazz Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli Set to perform December 15 at Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Induction

            When Bucky Pizzarelli takes the Jazz Depot stage Saturday night during the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Induction Gala, it’ll mark the first time in a long time that Oklahomans have had a chance to see the award-winning jazz guitarist.

            “When I was in the service, out there at Camp Gruber [southeast of Muskogee], I passed through a couple of times,” he says with a chuckle. “But no, I haven’t played in Tulsa very much.  When I was with Vaughn Monroe, we did. We played Tulsa and all over.”

            That would have been the mid-1940s into the ‘50s, beginning in 1944, when Pizzarelli was only 17. Monroe, a big-band and pre-rock-era vocalist whose list of major pop hits includes “Racing with the Moon,” “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” and “There, I’ve Said It Again,” found himself in the position of a number of other bandleaders of the day: World War II had taken many of his players, and he needed replacements.

            “Vaughn had tried to get in the service, too, but he’d gotten a 4F,” recalls Pizzarelli. “He was trying to keep the band together, to keep the one-nighters going, and there were a lot of chairs empty.

            “I was going to high school and was just about to graduate. His trumpet player knew that I sat in with Joe Mooney a lot, one of the great accordion players who was really a father figure for all the jazz guys in Paterson, New Jersey.  So I went in and played with the band in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was 17 [below draft age], so Vaughn said, `C’m’on, stay with the band.’

            “We did shows in movie theaters – the movie, a Mickey Mouse [cartoon], then the band, then the movie and Mickey Mouse again, four times a day,” he adds. “We did Pittsburgh, Boston, all over. “

            The following January, however, Pizzarelli turned 18, and Uncle Sam came calling. Discharged in 1946, after the end of the war, Pizzarelli found his old job waiting.

            “Vaughn happened to call my mother and ask her, `When’s Bucky getting out?’ She said, `He’s getting out next week.’

            “`Well,” he said, `tell him to join the band in Providence.’

            Pizzarelli laughs. “I got home, jumped on a train, went up to Providence and joined the band, and I stayed five years.”

            In addition to touring and recording with the group, Pizzarelli worked on Monroe’s nationally broadcast radio show. That marked the beginning of a long association with the NBC network, where Pizzarelli eventually landed with the Tonight Show orchestra.  

            “I was on staff at NBC in the ‘50s with Kate Smith [The Kate Smith Evening Hour, 1951-52] for a year. Then when the show closed, that was the end of my job, you know. They didn’t need me any more.

            “The Tonight Show was much later. I did a lot of studio work before that. I did a lot of rock ‘n’ roll records. I did all those Dion and the Belmonts records, the first ones – `The Wanderer,’ `Teenager in Love.’ I can’t remember them all, but the first four were million-sellers.”

            Finding himself less than challenged by his rock ‘n’ roll work, Pizzarelli jumped at the chance to play with the Tonight Show band, and its leader, Skitch Henderson. That job began in the early ‘60s, adding to a resume that included work with such diverse acts as Zoot Sims, Stephane Grappelli, and the Three Suns, the latter an easy-listening “hotel- jazz” outfit popular in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

            “They knew what they were doing,” he says of the latter group. “We played for 2,000 people at a dance one night, and that’s a pretty big thing to do with a trio.”

            “Mr. Pizzarelli is a real national treasure, one of the truly great players starting from the swing period when jazz was the heart of popular music. Mr. Pizzarelli is a direct heir to Charlie Christian, Eldon Shamblin, Barney Kessel and epitomizes the swing tradition more so than any musician alive today,” said Jason McIntosh, CEO of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.  Interestingly, Mr. Pizzarelli’s other collaborators over the years include Muskogee native Jay McShann, the pioneering jazz-blues pianist. The night of the Induction Gala, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is  awarding Mr. Pizzarelli with the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award.

            “We worked together many times,” Pizzarelli says of McShann. “We’d play jazz parties, mostly on the weekends. Fans get together and have these parties – it started in Denver, now they’re all over. We played together in Odessa, Texas and Denver, a lot of places. He was easy to play with and a fantastic man – and he was the guy who should’ve been the leader of the Count Basie band when Basie left!” 

            The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Induction Gala is set for Saturday, Nov. 15, at downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St. Dress is black-tie optional. A reception starts at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m., p.m., followed by the awards show. Tickets are $100 from the Jazz Hall’s Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. Corporate tables are available.

            The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.