Entertainment Bucky Pizzarelli, Master of the Jazz Guitar, Is Dead...

Bucky Pizzarelli, Master of the Jazz Guitar, Is Dead at 94

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Bucky Pizzarelli, who after many years as a respected but relatively anonymous session guitarist became a mainstay of the New York jazz scene in the 1970s, died on Wednesday in Saddle River, N.J. He was 94.

The guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, his son and frequent musical associate, said the cause was the coronavirus.

A master of the subtle art of rhythm guitar as well as a gifted soloist, Mr. Pizzarelli was sought after for recording sessions in the 1950s and ’60s and can be heard on hundreds of records in various genres, although he was often uncredited. He also toured with Benny Goodman and was a longtime member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra. But he was little known to all but the most knowledgeable jazz fans until he was in his 40s.

Mr. Pizzarelli’s sons survive him, as do his wife, Ruth (Litchult) Pizzarelli; two daughters, Anne Hymes and Mary Pizzarelli; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Pizzarelli was among the few guitarists (his son was another; George van Eps is believed to have been the first) to play an instrument with seven strings rather than the customary six. The extra string, tuned to a low A, enabled him to provide his own bass line, an important advantage when he played unaccompanied or in a duo setting.

John Paul Pizzarelli was born on Jan. 9, 1926, in Paterson, N.J., where his parents, John and Amelia (DiDomenico) Pizzarelli, owned a grocery store. Two uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, played guitar and banjo professionally, and his uncle Bobby taught him some musical rudiments.

His unlikely nickname was bestowed on him by his father, who as a teenager had decided to explore the Wild West he knew only from movies and spent some time as a ranch hand in Odessa, Texas. He returned to New Jersey with a lot of memories and a lingering love for the West that would lead him to nickname his young son Buckskin. Shortened to Bucky, the name stuck.

Mr. Pizzarelli began his professional career in his teens, touring with the singer Vaughn Monroe, best known for his hit “Racing With the Moon.” After serving two years in the Army, he rejoined the Monroe band in 1946 and remained until it broke up in 1953.

There followed a brief tenure with the popular instrumental group the Three Suns, a year with the singer Kate Smith’s television show and a long stint as a first-call studio musician. In addition to recording with singers like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, he played on commercial jingles and numerous pop records, including Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and a string of hits by Dion and the Belmonts.

He also became a staff musician at NBC, where starting in 1964 he was a member of the “Tonight Show” ensemble, led at the time by Skitch Henderson and later by Doc Severinsen. (He also worked for a while in the band the drummer Bobby Rosengarden led for Johnny Carson’s ABC competitor Dick Cavett.)

In 1966 Mr. Pizzarelli began his long association with Benny Goodman, which lasted until Mr. Goodman’s death in 1986. He worked frequently in New York with small groups led by Mr. Goodman and took part in four European tours with him in the 1970s.

Mr. Pizzarelli continued to perform into his 90s, even after a stroke and pneumonia led to several hospitalizations in 2015 and 2016 and left him debilitated. “I don’t remember any of it,” he said later. “I never knew it until it was over.”

Friends and family members wondered if he would ever play again. But he recovered, and by the end of 2016 he was back in action.

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