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One On 1: John Pizzarelli Brings Life's Passion In Tune

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Musician John Pizzarelli, who has become a familiar figure at many of the city's top nightclubs, continues to pursue a symphony of interests on and off the stage. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

There are a lot of great musicians. But how many can say they've played clubs and concert halls all over New York and the world, performed on Broadway, been a guest on many of the big talk shows, and has called in to NY1's "Sports On 1?"

Only one -- John Pizzarelli.


With Pizzarelli, there's the sharp sense of humor, and the love of sports and music.

It may not look it, but Pizzarelli has been at this for 30 years. He's recorded some 40 albums, either on his own or in tandem with other musicians. And he is respected as one of jazz's great guitarists.
His latest CD is entitled "Rockin' In Rhythm: A Tribute To Duke Ellington."

Pizzarelli has shaped a career primarily by taking standards, the so-called Great American Songbook, and making the songs his own.

A show by John Pizzarelli and his quartet is a little bit history lesson, a little bit standup comedy, and a lot of musicianship.

"I know I can play the guitar well. It's when I really play the guitar well, once every eight weeks, 10 weeks and I feel like I really I did something well," says Pizzarelli.

Another aspect of Pizzarelli's career is that it's a family affair. His brother Martin is the quartet's bassist.

"Martin's like the consigliere. He watches everything in the house while you're playing," says Pizzarelli.

He often plays with his father, Bucky Pizzarelli, who has worked with everyone from Benny Goodman to Les Paul. And John's wife, actress and singer Jessica Molasky. Initially, they agreed not to work together.

"We just figured let's separate our worlds, let's not get involved in the whole mishigos that is the families all working together," says Pizzarelli. "I'll be about to go through the doors and my father will say, 'Oh by the way, you know that baseball mitt that you really loved all your life? I threw it out today.'"

They finally realized it had to be Jessica.

"I love Maureen McGovern. If Maureen McGovern would be there she'd be wide-eyed going, 'I can't believe they're having a fight.' And then Jessica knows that this is standard operating procedure in the Pizzarelli household," says Pizzarelli. "Bucky has traded the couch and my mother for a small Gibson guitar that he loves the sound of, ya know."


John Pizzarelli has undergone quite a transformation. He grew up a Yankee fan, but became so angry at the team when they fired manager Dick Howser in 1980 that he joined a few of his friends and became a Red Sox fan.

He's sung the national anthem at Fenway Park and does the old Carnac bit at luncheons of the Red Sox New York fan club.

Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, Pizzarelli has musical heroes like The Beatles, sports heroes like Willis Reed and his comedy heroes.

"I loved Johnny Carson and I loved watching comics because I thought it's all about timing and timing is all what jazz music is" recalls Pizzarelli.

But mostly there was his father Bucky and his musician friends, like Les Paul, who would occasionally come around the house.

Budd Mishkin: Is it safe to say that none of the rest of your friends had fathers who had friends named Zoot?

John Pizzarelli: That's what my wife says all the time is, 'Well your father he's got Bucky, Slam, Zoot.' The best part was hearing them talk because they laughed so much. They loved music but they loved being together. And I thought well, the only way to get to be a member of this club was to learn their language and the language was honeysuckle rose. You know, you had to learn the songs.

After a brief stay at the University of Tampa, Pizzarelli returned home to pursue music, including gigs with his father.

"He would just play melodies and he would look at me, and he would expect to hear chords and I'm going, I don't know what he was doing. Then he would just play louder and that was eight weeks at the Pierre. So I always say, I knew four songs on the first night and 104 at the end," recalls Pizzarelli.

He played a lot of gigs with his father, but also ventured out on his own.

"I even played down at a place called The Front with a rock band, Johnny Pick and His Scabs, a very exciting rock and roll band," says Pizzarelli. "Then ny father said I was the only guy who played jazz to support his rock and roll habit."

Playing the music of the Great American Songbook was good to Pizzarelli, and he was good at it, with fast fingers and a faster wit.
He played all over the New York area and around the country. Then in 1993, he got the call to open for Frank Sinatra.

"I met him one night, before Berlin and I shook his hand. I was about to walk away and then he said, 'Eat somethin' you look bad.' And I said, 'Okay,'" recalls Pizzarelli.

Pizzarelli and his wife Jessica have a daughter, and he has a son from a previous marriage. He says he loves playing gigs, but traveling keeps him on the road for half the year.

"The sacrifice is leaving your family for all that time. I've missed enough games and enough concerts and things already that it's just, that's a pain in the neck," says Pizzarelli.


And when he gets home, one of his first stops is the kitchen.

"I am a cover band for Mario Batali. So all I do is go through these books, because in my next life I want to be Mario Batali," says Pizzarelli.

Pizzarelli has lived in New York since the mid 80s and loves the idea of New York showbiz. But the song that has stayed with him throughout his career is "I Like Jersey Best," an homage to his home state written by his friend Joseph Cosgriff, often with new versions employing Pizzarelli's skills of impersonation.

It's all part of the John Pizzarelli package. He once saw his dad having fun, playing music and schmoozing with his friends, and wished the same for himself. Now, in concert, in the recording studio, even doing bits at a Red Sox luncheon, that wish has come true.

"We get to do this for a living. We get to do whatever we want when we get out on that stage, there's nobody saying 'Tonite, you will be playing this.' We can do whatever we want to do and it's a blessing. So we're very lucky people," says Pizzarelli.

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