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JACKI LYDEN, host:

The jazz world didn't have many guitar heroes before Bucky Pizzarelli came on the scene in the 1940s. Sure, there were guys like Django Reinhardt and Les Paul, but they were a different breed. They were front men. Bucky Pizzarelli was a dedicated side man, a rhythm guitarist, seldom one to steal the spotlight from the bandleader, and it made him a coveted member of some of the swingingest combos in jazz and big band, the ones fronted by Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Vaughn Monroe and Stephane Grappelli. And in his most high-profile gig?

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: He played Johnny Carson onto the stage every weeknight as a member of "The Tonight Show" band under the direction of Skip Henderson and then Doc Severinsen. I caught up with Bucky Pizzarelli last week at his home in New Jersey.

(Soundbite of song, "Darn That Dream")

LYDEN: At 83 years old, Bucky's still playing. Just before our interview, he picked up one of his acoustic guitars and strummed out the old standard, "Darn That Dream."

(Soundbite of song, "Darn That Dream")

LYDEN: That was absolutely beautiful.

Mr. BUCKY PIZZARELLI (Jazz Guitarist): Oh, thank you.

LYDEN: I want to talk about a couple of moments over your long career. Tell me about how you got started.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: I started in New Jersey, and I was inspired by Joe Mooney, a great, blind accordion player who played with my uncle Bobby Dominick. I heard them play every Sunday at our house. I had to take some lessons from both of them, actually, just so I could join in the fun. And when I got out of high school, I went with Vaughn Monroe's band, did Scranton, Binghamton and Rochester. I came back and went to school for another two weeks before I graduated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: How old were you?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: I was 17.

LYDEN: Seventeen and playing gigs. You must have felt just terrific.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Well, I went bananas, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Here I am playing with a big dance band, you know? And I used to listen to them all on the radio, but about four months later, I got drafted. I was fortunate that Vaughn called me just as I was being discharged. And he asked my mother, when is Bucky getting back? And he'll be back next week. Okay. Tell him to meet us up in Boston.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PIZZARELLI: So I stayed with the band about five years.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You were lucky you had that job waiting for you.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: I know. I couldn't believe it. I went right from the Army right back on a bus, you know, and we played all those one-nighters all over the country.

(Soundbite of song, "When The Lights Go On Again")

Mr. VAUGHN MONROE (Singer): (Singing) When the lights go on again all over the world, and the boys are home again all over the world.

LYDEN: You never got to play with Django Reinhardt. Is that right?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: No, I never - in fact, at the end of the war, I had to go in a jeep all the way from Austria to La Harve. But as we were going through a town called Nancy, Django Reinhardt was playing there that night. I had no way of getting over to where he was playing. I did get to play with his partner, Stephane Grappelli, the violinist.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: What did Grappelli tell you about how Reinhardt used to work?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PIZZARELLI: He used to say to me, you know, it's a wonder you don't break your strings, the way I play and the way he was playing. He always loved the way Django played. And of course, they were a great team.

LYDEN: Did you have to mimic Django Reinhardt's style?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Oh, not at all. I just played the way I always played, you know? And I think he liked that. You just can't copy somebody else note for note. You can't do what he did.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: How many years were you on "The Tonight Show"?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Oh, I don't know. I think it's from '56 to around '70, '71, when they went to California.

LYDEN: And they brought in all kinds of different talent on the show, and you had to accommodate their styles. What are some of the wilder acts that you remember supporting when you were on "The Tonight Show"?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Well, we did Tiny Tim's wedding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Oh, really? "Tiptoe Through The Tulips."

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Right.

(Soundbite of song, "Tiptoe Through The Tulips")

TINY TIM: (Singing) Oh, tiptoe through the window...

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Well, he got married on "The Tonight Show." I tuned his ukulele that day.

LYDEN: I wonder if that marriage was as long as your career.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: I have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: A lot of younger people might recognize the name Pizzarelli because your son, John, has…

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Yes.

LYDEN: …gone on to have such a fabulous career in jazz.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Right.

LYDEN: When did he pick up the guitar for the first time?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Well, shortly - while I was doing a lot of studio work in New York, he was banging around, doing a rock and roll band, you know, and all of a sudden, I heard him play "Chicory of Spain." I said, how'd you learn that? He said, I copied it from the record. I said, if you can do that, you ought to take a Django Reinhardt record and try to copy one of his solos, and he did that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PIZZARELLI: And then he was off and running, playing jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: What comes over you when you do a big band performance as opposed to something smaller?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Well, you know, I like to play in a big band. I mean, I hate to say it. They're sort of dead. Of course, they were dance bands. You know, people went to an old dance floor that was on an amusement park with an upright piano, and everybody danced. But today, they don't dance the way they did.

LYDEN: I just saw you with Michael Feinstein, and you were backing him in a big band. And I have to say, this is at the Hotel Regency in New York, I really wanted to dance, and there wasn't even a dance floor.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: You're right. You know, and I was looking at the faces of the people. And when that band started to play, they were all rocking, you know, with their eyes. I could see their faces uplifted.

LYDEN: Bucky, you've been live before audiences when you were 17 years old, and you are live before audiences today at 83.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Do you think that you get something back from the audience? Do you see (unintelligible)?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Oh, all the time. We never fail. When you've got an audience sitting down in front of you, it works.

LYDEN: You're one of those people who forgot to retire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PIZZARELLI: I know.

LYDEN: Legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. He was just honored by the New York Public Library as one of their speakers at the Duke Jazz Talks. His most recent collection is called "So Hard to Forget" on Arbors Records. Mr. Pizzarelli, it's been a real pleasure.

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Well, thank you very much.

LYDEN: Would you please give us one more tune?

Mr. PIZZARELLI: Yeah, I'll do "Easy to Remember."

(Soundbite of song, "Easy to Remember")

LYDEN: And you can hear the full performance on our music Web site, nprmusic.org.

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