1. When I Was a Little Boy
All my life I've always wanted to be somebody. Now I see I
should have been more specific.
The date written on the back of one of our family's most cherished photographs indicates that it was taken in mid-October 1966. Those were the days when Captain Kangaroo and Mister Green Jeans were sending me off to the first grade every day, Batman (on the new color TV) had replaced black-and-white Superman as my new caped hero ("Quick, Robin—hand me the shark-repellent Bat-spray!"), and Meet the Beatles was no. 1 on the Pizzarelli family hi-fi. The photo itself, an interior scene of people seated together at a dinner table, brought back fond (and fuzzy ... I wasn't yet seven years old) memories of our weekly family gatherings at the home of my uncle Pete and
aunt Honey in Clifton, New Jersey.
What I clearly recall about those Sundays is the roar of everybody trying to talk at the same time, kids running around in all directions, and gallons of red sauce simmering in immense vats on the stove. And as much as we all loved to be with one another, it was Aunt Honey's cooking that brought in the sellout crowds. As true masters do, she played to her strengths, which in her case happened to be homemade pasta, veal and chicken cutlets, and eggplant parmigiana — with and without meat — served in and around an endless vat of tomato sauce. That was the menu every Sunday — profound in its simplicity.
We joke now that Uncle Pete and Aunt Honey's dining room must have been
constructed by the same people who made Sansabelt trousers, given how the modest square footage of the dining room appeared to expand to accommodate the number and girth of the family members and their guests in attendance. Twelve or fifteen (or sometimes more) of us could gather at the table without anyone feeling crowded — at least until certain members of the family (no names, please) went for their third helpings of ziti and veal parm.
At some point in the proceedings my father and his uncle Bobby (Uncle Pete's younger brother) would grab my attention — or just grab me — lead us to a relatively quiet area of the house, and hand me a Paramount tenor banjo. That summer I had begun taking lessons with Uncle Bobby in a tiny downstairs cubicle at Victor's House of Music in Ridgewood, New Jersey, about ten minutes from our home in Saddle River, and he always wanted to break away from the group to play a few songs with me whenever the families got together.
The quiet banjo sessions with Uncle Bobby and my dad struck a stark contrast with the rollicking family sing-alongs that always followed Aunt Honey's incredible meals. Two things about Uncle Pete, Uncle Bobby, and those incredibly happy Sundays remain clear in my memory after all these years — the brothers' lightning-fast hands and their ear-to-ear smiles of joy while they were strumming. The setlist was made up of everybody's all-time banjo hits: "Bye, Bye Blues," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," "Bye Bye Blackbird," and "Alabamy Bound." Now that I think about it — it must have been more than a little out of the ordinary for a six-and-a-half-year-old to be picking up on the obscure musical references ("Well, I'm Alabamy bound") in Bugs Bunny cartoons. And I was even able to play the basic chords to the song on the banjo!
My dad — who has the same name as I do, although everyone called him Bucky, short for "Buckskin," a nickname bestowed by his onetime Texas cowhand father who eventually settled on the plains of Paterson — would often sit in with his uncles, usually playing Uncle Pete's guitar. I recall sitting at their feet, staring at their hands, and thinking, How do they do it? How do they even know what strings to play? The force of the music coming from the three instruments (all unplugged!) literally shook the lamps in the living room, as well as the pots and pans that hung in the kitchen. The sound of the banjos and
the guitar during those sing-alongs was as glorious as anything I'd ever heard. It also marked one of the first (of many) moments when I said to myself, This is what I want to do — all the time.
Pete and Bobby Domenick were my dad's mother's brothers and were the men who taught my father how to play the banjo and guitar. Bobby (born in 1915) lived his life as a professional musician, switching from banjo to guitar and spending the better part of two decades on the road with several big bands — including those of Bob Chester (where Sinatra sang before he signed with Tommy Dorsey), Buddy Rogers (Mary Pickford's husband), and Clyde McCoy, whose relatives liked to drop the gloves with the Hatfields. Bobby also spent time with pianist and bandleader Raymond Scott, whose music was arranged and adapted by the incredible Carl Stalling for use in hundreds of Warner Brothers cartoons. Few people remember these bands of the thirties and forties, but they were all fairly popular name bands in their day. Throughout those years, Bobby would return home from his tours "looking like a million bucks," according to Bucky, always dressed in a spiffy suit and two-toned shoes, driving a new Buick, and sporting a glamorous actress or singer on his arm. He'd also bring home "a suitcase full of stories" and a slew of cutting-edge
chords and harmonics he'd learned from other musicians, which he couldn't wait to share with his brother Peter and my father.
When Bobby came off the road permanently, he was able to support himself and Aunt Anita with steady studio work in the fifties and sixties (which included sessions with Louis Armstrong), as well as in duo acts with one of "the Joes"—either the blind accordion player, pianist, organist, songwriter ("Nowhere," "Have Another One, Not Me," "Meet Me at No Special Place"), and underappreciated vocalist Joe Mooney, or the jazz violinist and All-World practical joker Joe Venuti. Because Mooney was blind, and his small groups did not use sheet music, he'd call out the licks and the chords to his sidemen—or
just allow them to feel where things were going. Bucky was steeped in this tradition — he first recorded with Mooney in 1951 — and always emphasized to my brother Martin and me the importance of listening closely to hear the changes. As for Joe Venuti — more on him later. His recordings with Eddie Lang are the gold standard among records made by early guitarists.
Bobby never missed an opportunity to credit Uncle Pete's support of the family back home for making his own professional career possible. Having remained at home to work in the silk mills of Passaic, New Jersey, Peter (b. 1908) came to be my dad's primary teacher and mentor throughout the thirties and forties. Many years later I would learn of Uncle Pete's impeccable reputation among professional musicians, even though his full-time job limited him to weekend club dates and weddings. He won particularly favorable recognition from none other than my dad's good pal and our frequent houseguest, electric guitar
pioneer Les Paul, who lived nearby in Mahwah, New Jersey, in those days. Somehow Uncle Bobby and Uncle Pete found themselves hired as the opening act for Les at an outdoor gig in northern New Jersey — outside a firehouse — and their playing that day threatened to overshadow the headliner. But Les encouraged the brothers and wanted to hear more, the result being Banjorama, a record on Mercury released in the late fifties featuring my father, pianist Dick Hyman (credited as "The Renowned Ricardo"), Uncle Bobby, and Uncle Pete, led by guitar/banjo ace Carmen Mastren (original price: $2.98). Sporting one of the coolest LP album covers out there, it's worth the ten dollars you'll pay for it on eBay, a bargain for the album art alone. Fun fact: Mastren spent some time in the 1930s working for an R. Crumb Hero of Jazz, Joe "Wingy" Mannone, the one-armed trumpet player, bandleader — and author (Trumpet on the Wing).
From the Banjorama sessions came the story Les would often tell about Uncle Pete, who, while a music veteran, had not spent a lot of time in recording studios. Mortified at hitting an off-note close to the conclusion of one of the Banjorama cuts, Peter became upset and began apologizing personally and profusely to everyone in the studio, which meant the spectators, the maintenance staff, and sixty-seven banjo players — only a slight exaggeration. He probably would have begun a second complete lap around the apology circuit had Les not explained to him that he'd fix things — they'd simply splice from an earlier cut or have Peter redo a few seconds of his part. Les said that
he'd never seen someone go from deep embarrassment to utter joy as quickly as Uncle Pete did when he understood that he'd been saved by the magic of the recording process. And if you were going to fix an error in a recording session during the late fifties, there was no one more qualified to do so than Les Paul.
It wasn't lost on me that I was learning the fundamentals of the banjo and guitar from the same two men who had taught my dad to play. And not only was I learning from Dad's teachers — I was playing the stringed instruments in the same order that my dad had learned them — first banjo, then guitar. Dad has always been a believer that the banjo trains guitarists to correctly develop
and strengthen wrist action. Also, he never misses a chance to tell interviewers, students, and college master classes that learning the banjo provides the proper foundation for learning rhythm, which he believes to be an essential-yet-overlooked skill for anyone serious about playing the guitar.
It's probably a good idea at this point to dispel the notion that it was all banjos, guitars, and music lessons at the Pizzarelli house 24/7/365. I had been a decent pitcher and shortstop in Little League until, in just one daunting off-season, I lost my mojo (story to follow), the other kids had growth spurts, and their pitches seemed to gain in velocity. I survived for another season as a good-field/no-hit, concave-chested outfielder, making highlight-reel running catches in the outfield before there was ESPN and Web Gems. Reflecting on those days, I wonder whether I might have spent too little time on batting practice and too much time on batting stances. Or mumbled my evening prayers, so that instead of winding up as the best banjo-playing baseball player, I asked to be the best banjo-hitting player.
Like most Little Leaguers in the late sixties and early seventies, I imitated the players with the most distinctive batting stances. As I did successfully by imitating the icons of the guitar — Uncle Bobby and Uncle Pete, George Barnes, Freddie Green, and Dad — I should have modeled myself after some of the greats in the game — Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Jimmy Piersall. But instead, my favorite baseball stances to replicate in front of the mirror each day in those years belonged to Horace Clarke, Steve Whitaker, Joe Pepitone, and Ron Woods of the shockingly bad Yankee teams that followed the Bombers' consecutive World Series appearances of 1960–64. All four of these players looked great getting ready in the batter's box — until they were forced to deal with the harsh reality of professionally pitched baseballs, which turned all four into virtually automatic outs. The same way certain numbers are memorable to me — 1492, 1776, 1812, and 1915 (Sinatra born) — I recall .117 — Steve Whitaker's batting average in 1968. Even in an era dominated by extraordinary pitching, .117 was just too low. Whitaker, the man I imitated in front of the mirror each day, was let go in the expansion draft. Learning that one of my mirror guys had been sent packing was a traumatic moment for an eight-year-
old, who spent sleepless nights in fear of the "expansion draft," wondering if he, too, could be "left unprotected."
Additional information for the back of my Jazz Heroes of Jersey trading card would include the fact that I was captain of the Wandell School's eighth-grade basketball team. Our squad found itself pitted against nearby towns such as Upper Saddle River, Ho-Ho-Kus, and Hackensack, all of which seemed to be producing eighth-graders who were six foot two with Joe Torre–like five o'clock shadows. If their ages were to be believed, they must have reached puberty in the third grade. Or the kids must have red-shirted kindergarten. I remember my mother's support — showing up for the games, encouraging me at all times, and urging me to calm down after being called for questionable fouls, one for having my jaw inconveniently in the path of an opponent's flying elbow. But our team's problems began squarely with the team captain — I could not make a layup to save my life, a sentence you will not read in basketball legend Jerry West's critically acclaimed memoir.
Whatever the outcome (and it was always the same), Mom's cooking, especially her fabulous pot roast, ensured that the agony of defeat did not extend one minute past the start of dinner hour. When I was about to turn twelve, my mom and dad faced a significant family decision. For the previous six years, my father had a dream job, holding The Tonight Show's guitar chair after sharing it with Gene Bertoncini and Tony Mottola at various times during the mid-sixties. But when Johnny Carson announced that The Tonight Show was leaving New York and heading to Burbank, California, where the show would be based full-time beginning in May 1972, my parents were forced to decide whether our family would be following the Carson entourage out to the West Coast.
Bucky had started on the show full-time in 1966, working for one of his true pals in all of music, Skitch Henderson. Things happened fast, so here goes — Skitch, in his second stint as The Tonight Show's bandleader (he had skipped the Jack Paar years after working for Steve Allen) was replaced for about ten minutes by Milton DeLugg. (Carson's first choice was said to have been Ray "The Very Thought of You" Noble, of whom George Van Eps had always spoken so highly.) DeLugg was quickly succeeded by Carl "Doc" Severinsen in 1967. So
in a little over a year it was Skitch, DeLugg (instead of Ray Noble), then Severinsen.
Doc brought the musical chairs to an end, taking over Carson's band until Johnny's final show in 1992, after a twenty-five-year run as The Tonight Show's bandleader and a forty-year stint with the program in its various incarnations. Known best for his collection of flashy shirts and leisure suits — and later, linoleum sport jackets — that complemented his hipster persona (and gave fits to camera operators and color TV manufacturers), Doc helped raise the profile of Carson's orchestra to rock-band status in the seventies. And for all his style and sizzle, Severinsen was known among musicians as someone who had earned his stripes. A fixture in Skitch's first trumpet chair since 1952, he was known among the guys as a musician's musician — a man who knew the music and the arrangements, and who, even at the top of his career, still practiced for several hours each day. Stories still circulate among his colleagues in the band who can recall instances of Doc losing himself in practice sessions at his home studio for up to a full day, blowing through scheduled appointments and mealtimes. For his part, Bucky loved working with and for Doc Severinsen, although he is quick to point out that Doc "dressed like a Princeton kid right up until he got the leader's job."
As much as my dad likes to get on Doc for the way he dressed in those days, not many musicians escaped the early and mid-seventies unscathed — the 1972–78 period features a little more Doc in my dad's wardrobe than he'd like to admit, as we remind him when we dig out his old album covers. Skitch and Doc had assembled an all-star lineup of jazz musicians in New York — Clark Terry, Ed Shaughnessy, Snooky Young, Tommy Newsom, Grady Tate, Walt Levinsky, and Bob Haggart. To this day, my father's face lights up when he speaks of The Tonight Show years, and not simply for the obvious blessing it was for a musician and the father of four kids to have a steady, well-paying gig. It was exciting, he still says, to go to work every day with guys who were both the best musicians in town and his closest friends.
Yet as much as my dad loved Doc, the guys on the bandstand, and job security, our family's roots and our hearts were in the New York/New Jersey area. It was where our relatives lived (and ate), it was home to Dad's studio work, and it was where he was in demand at the best jazz clubs in the world. Also, my parents were outspoken about not wanting Anne, Mary, Martin, and me to grow up in Los Angeles, at least not the city they viewed from afar in 1972. So the decision was made that we would be staying in New Jersey. Let the record show that the Tonight Show did not allow my father to leave the band without some behind-the-scenes pleading for a change of heart. I remember picking up more than a few phone calls from Doc during that time, and his message would always be the same: "Tell your Dad we need him!" But Mom and Dad's decision stood firm, and we stayed in New York. I did get to see the final concert given by the New York Tonight Show Orchestra at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall before the band left for the West Coast. My grade-school buddy Bill Burke still recalls the concert vividly, especially going backstage and meeting drummer Grady Tate, a singular character and a wonderful, distinctive drummer. Check out Grady on Stan Getz's Sweet Rain album. Or his work with Wes Montgomery. Or singing "Naughty Number Nine" and "I Got Six" on Schoolhouse Rock.
A few short months after we made the decision to remain in New Jersey and near our close-knit relatives, our family's world was turned upside down. A week after breezing through his annual physical exam, Uncle Bobby died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. His death shook our family to its core. With Uncle Bobby's passing, Dad and I began a new routine — the Sunday drive from Saddle River to Clifton to take lessons with and to comfort Uncle Pete. An important part of learning the basics from Uncle Pete was the tablature he made with numbers, where he listed the number of strums and put a circle around the melody note. This allowed me to play songs ("Bye, Bye Blues") while I was learning the full range of chords, an approach that allowed me to strum away like a big leaguer even as a banjo novice. I am convinced that being taught by my father's mentors ramped up my learning curve on the early duo gigs with Bucky, when my father would essentially throw me into the water, and his eyes would shout, "Swim!"
While I sat for lessons with Pete, my dad would go pick up a tub of Country Club Ice Cream. At the conclusion of my lesson we'd each knock back a bowl or two, then grab our instruments — Dad would play Uncle Pete's guitar, with Pete and me on banjo — and begin a joyful jam. And as Bobby had done when he and I played songs together, Pete and my father had a way of accompanying me that made the music sound far better than the notes and chords I was actually playing. After a few songs, one of us would ask, "Hey, how about some more ice cream?" so we'd take a short break, then pick up the instruments again. This was a great time in my life — learning from my dad's teacher, playing notes and chords that seemed impossible only a few years before, trading licks with my dad and our beloved uncle, unlimited ice cream. Twelve years old. It didn't get better than this.
The Sunday lessons and ice cream–fueled jam sessions ended abruptly and sadly about five months later, when Uncle Pete died on Christmas Eve, also of a heart attack and far too early in his life. While Uncle Pete had always perked up for our Sunday sessions, Aunt Honey believed that her husband never got over his younger brother's sudden and unexpected passing. Even as we played and tried to have fun, Peter would often grow melancholy during the breaks in our Sunday banjo lessons, reminding us, "It's just not the same without Bobby." The deaths of both uncles within a five-month period left a gaping hole in the center of our large extended family. Even though it was not in my father's DNA to deal with sadness by talking things out, I could tell in his eyes and by the way he carried himself that this was a particularly rough period for him. All these years later, when my dad, Martin, and I reminisce about Pete and Bobby, usually when we're strumming guitars on my parents' porch, I have begun to fully understand how much Dad was affected when he lost the two men who had sat next to him for over forty years and filled his head and heart with music. Our conversations about Pete and Bobby led to the cathartic experience of making the 2007 album Sunday at Pete's, which paid tribute to my uncles' lives, their music, and the impromptu guitar and banjo gatherings that brought joy to our family for so many years. Whenever I find myself taking part in a family sing-along, and it doesn't need to be my family, I invariably think of Bobby and Pete and make sure I strum hard enough to rattle the pots and pans.
Without a teacher who knew the method I had learned from my uncles, I stopped taking banjo lessons. Part of it was sadness; I had lost my two beloved uncles and teachers almost overnight, and I needed to mourn them and all they meant to me. I also didn't want to start from scratch with a new teacher who'd be using new methods. Make no mistake: Dad was still encouraging me to play, but this was the beginning of his post-Carson days, which meant his working all day in studio sessions, often coming home for dinner with Mom and the kids, then heading back to Manhattan to play with George Barnes and various duos at night. But one day I picked up one of Dad's Gibson guitars from the couch, studied the tablatures in an Elton John songbook one of my sisters was using, and figured out the rest from playing along with the records. A light bulb appeared, along with an uncomplicated epiphany that ranks up there with "They're undefeated in games in which they scored more runs than their opponent" — The guitar plays just like the banjo — it just has more strings.
A pal who had stuck with me through grammar school and then Don Bosco Preparatory High School, guitarist and bassist Steve Lafiosca would visit our home often in those days, always eyeing the music equipment that occupied every room of our house. "Hey," Steve told me one day, "we can start a rock band — you have a bass, an amp, and a guitar." Had Steve paid more attention, he'd have noticed that we had at least one bass, amp, and guitar in every room. But while I might have had the hardware to start a band, I didn't know much about actually playing the instruments. What I did know was that I liked plugging in and experimenting with all the electronic features, especially the wah-wah pedal. It all sounded so cool to us. Soon, mostly through trial-and-error, we produced sounds close enough to the ones we were trying to create — sounding like Peter Frampton in the Humble Pie days or early Robin Trower. Or Johnny Winter on "Bony Moronie." Almost immediately, my rehearsing and playing with that first band quickly moved beyond fooling around with knobs, dials, bells, and whistles, and became more about wanting to become a more serious guitar player.
Let's backtrack here — I always loved music and participated in a handful of "rock" bands in the sixties and seventies; the good news is that none of them required me to wear mascara. Okay, I am not sure if the official scorer will be counting the Tomahawks, with yours truly on the Susan Dey–model tambourine, Bill Hunt on the Melodica, and anchored on the drums by Bill Burke. Our band's performances at school included the Monkees' covers and a few originals about war and peace (lower case, not the Tolstoy version), all within the confines of a hard seven o'clock bedtime. As I spent my early high school days learning solos from rock records and playing in more bands, my dad casually listened from a distance, showing me a few things but always taking a hands-off approach, allowing me to play the music I liked and never forcing his tastes or his style on me. Then when I was about sixteen, Dad came into the room after hearing me play and threw down the gauntlet. "Okay, you've learned all these Frampton licks. How about learning 'Rose Room' from this Django Reinhardt record?" He even tossed in a five-dollar kicker if I could play it all the way through in one take. Five dollars. Adjusted for inflation (1976) and for the exchange rate in "Bucky Bucks," this would equate to roughly twenty-five thousand dollars today.
Two things immediately became apparent: (a) learning "Rose Room" would be more difficult than playing "Country Comfort" and "Show Me the Way" and (b) I was blown away by Django's guitar playing, which I later learned he'd achieved with two- or three-fingered chords — his third and fourth fingers were fused together and not usable after being burned in a home fire. But in the process of falling a couple of choruses (okay, more than a couple of choruses) short of the five-dollar reward, I succeeded in wearing out the grooves on the Django record, first finding my way to the other cuts of that album (like "Nuages"), and then moving on to albums by other artists in that same world, such as Clifford Brown and Billie Holiday. It wasn't far from there to the impressive George Barnes parts from a duo album that he and my dad made in 1971 (Guitars Pure and Honest). Barnes's playing always made sense to me at an age when I was casting about for a sound of my own. Even today, when I listen closely to playbacks at recording sessions, I can still pick up hints of George's sound lurking within my playing.
At that time I frequently accompanied my father to his solo club gigs and solo concerts in the New York/New Jersey area, one of my dad's acoustic guitars in hand — sometimes to warm up with him offstage, mostly for more credibility when I'd put my head down and mumble to gain access to the clubs and concert halls without a ticket. Then one night I couldn't believe my ears — it was Dad's voice coming from the stage. "Bring up your guitar, John," he announced. "My son is going to play 'Honeysuckle Rose.'" I remember that introduction from my dad the same way ballplayers talk about their first introduction by the peerless Bob Sheppard over the old Yankee Stadium public
address system ("Numbah 7, Mickey Mantle, centa-field, numbah 7").
In the spirit of Uncle Pete and Uncle Bobby when they accompanied me, my dad made me sound better than I deserved to that night (as he still does today) by a factor of several hundred. In 1976 my dad and I began working together occasionally, starting with a song or two whenever I accompanied him to gigs. When I played with Dad in those days, I accompanied him on an Aria copy of a Gibson ES175, a six-string guitar similar to the one George Barnes and all the jazz guys were playing in those days. Around the house my dad would often hand me the George Van Eps model seven-string, which Van Eps had designed for Gretsch — the seventh string being the low A below the E — and demonstrate all the different keys and walking baselines that this guitar and the additional string made possible. Though my dad was nothing but supportive and reassuring about my progress, these sporadic, trial-by-fire experiences represented an obvious wake-up call. As much as audiences like rooting for an underdog, I would need to show considerable improvement and expand my repertoire beyond two songs if I wanted to amount to something more than an earnest kid who'd been brought out to show how the guitar lessons were coming along.
World on A String by John Pizzarelli. Copyright 2012 by John Pizzarelli. Excerpted by permission of John Wiley & Sons.