On our new audio Mark Steyn Show, we've been memorializing some of those taken, day after day after day, by this stinking Coronavirus. As Gary Alexander, of Washington State's KLOI and of our Steyn Club family, has pointed out, Covid-19 has cut a particular swathe through the jazz world, in part because two of its grisliest American epicenters are New York and suburban New Jersey.
Still and all, I was saddened to hear that the virus had claimed, at the age of 94, Bucky Pizzarelli. He was a maestro of the seven-string guitar, a mainstay of Doc Severinson's "Tonight Show" band during Johnny Carson's New York years, and he played with everyone from Benny Goodman and Sarah Vaughan to Carly Simon and Paul McCartney. Along the way, he found time to sire an army of talent: guitarist/vocalist John, bassist Martin, classical guitarist Mary... Unlike many great but somewhat surly artistes, he was a joyful presence on stage: He entered beaming a gleeful, mischievous smile, which was very cheering, so you felt better before he'd played a note. And then he played a note or two, and you felt great for the rest of the night.
My Granite State neighbor Betty Johnson (a child singer with the Johnson Family gospel group in the Forties, and then an accomplished interpreter of grown-up pop in the Fifties) went way back with Bucky, and to my amazement a couple of years ago managed to persuade him to come to northern New Hampshire, which is to jazz what the Maine interior is to Gregorian chant. Here's what I wrote back then:
Over the weekend at SteynOnline, we aired a reprise of my Artie Shaw special, with the man himself in characteristically feisty form. Clarinet-wise, my teenage daughter is more of a Benny Goodman fan. Don't ask me how, but, a while back, she stumbled across the Goodman magnum opus "Sing Sing Sing", stuck it on her iPod, and has never stopped playing it. That suits me fine. Compared to Macklemore and most of the other stuff seeping through the walls of her room, "Sing Sing Sing" is about as good as it gets.
So, somewhat late in the day, I discovered that the great Bucky Pizzarelli and two of his fellow guitarists, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo, were coming to perform at Alumni Hall in Haverhill, New Hampshire. Which kinda stunned me. Because, while I love living in the North Country, if you want to see world-class musicians round here, it usually involves a drive to Montreal. So I asked my daughter if she wanted to go see Bucky, and she demanded to know his bona fides.
"He's performed with Tony Bennett," I said.
She rolled her eyes. "Who hasn't?" Which is a fair point. Bennett's done duets with Elton John, Lady Gaga, Anthony Weiner, Kim Jong Un and the plumber who came by the house to change a leaking flange.
"Okay," I said. "He's played with Sinatra."
She was more impressed by that. "Who else?"
"He'll probably do 'Sing Sing Sing'."
"Yeah, right," she scoffed. "You can't do 'Sing Sing Sing' on the guitar."
Well, some school event intervened, so my daughter couldn't go, and my youngest wound up going in her stead. Alumni Hall isn't as grand as it sounds: it was the county courthouse in the 19th century, and then the school gym in the 20th, and now it's a small performance space. Very small, considering these guys had been at Lincoln Center the night before. The act is billed as "three generations of swing guitar" - in the sense that Pizzarelli is 88, Raniolo is in his twenties, and Vignola is somewhere in between. So it's not just "fun for young and old", but fun for young and old and middle-aged, too. They did "These Foolish Things" and "Moonglow" and "Tangerine" and "All The Things You Are". And the two younger guys threw in a bit of Shadows and the Godfather theme and even "Stairway To Heaven". All the old favorites are there, including the jokes. Just before the First Act finale, Frank Vignola announced that they'd be signing CDs in the lobby during intermission, and then asked Bucky whether he had any product he was selling.
"I've got some 78s in the car," he said. Which I think I first heard him do back in the Nineties.
And then Frank Vignola announced that to close out the first act they were going to do "Sing Sing Sing". And to my son's amazement three guitarists in a tiny little school hall in Haverhill proceeded to do the work of the entire Goodman band and blew up a storm.
The evening ended with Pizzarelli doing a lovely quiet solo on my Ontario compatriot Ruth Lowe's "Put Your Dreams Away", Sinatra's closing theme on TV and radio for decades. It seemed faintly surreal hearing it live in Haverhill. My kid talked about "Sing Sing Sing" all the next day, but his sister thinks he's making it up, and it's still impossible to do on the guitar.
His old friend Betty Johnson was there with her daughter Lydia Gray and joined the trio for a freewheeling "Fly Me to the Moon". And, just before the show began, another neighbor of mine sat down on the opposite side of the room: He'd had a totally crappy last few years: The dirty rotten corrupt federal Justice Department had turned over his life on some cockamamie charge that eventually the jury threw out in half-an-hour - but not before draining his savings, greying his hair, killing his marriage, and driving him to a fortunately bungled suicide attempt. He was on a first date, so I waved and left him in peace, but I glanced across every so often and mid-number he had a rapturous look on his face that wiped away the dirty rotten corrupt feds' maliciously inflicted half-decade of pain.
Three weeks into this lousy house-arrest shtick, I'd love to drive down the road and see that gig all over again. But no chance of that. So cheer yourself up: here's Pizzarelli, Vignola and Raniolo with a fourth (?) generation of guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel, whipping their way through "Whispering":
And finally, just for my skeptic daughter, here's Bucky and "Sing Sing Sing:
Rest in peace.
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