Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Bucky Pizzarelli

COVID-19 has certainly left us devoid from us this year. We’ve lost family, friends, and others we admire. One of those wonderful New Jerseyans of Italian heritage we lost to the virus is John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli.

Born in Paterson in 1926 to the owners of a local grocery store, Pizzarelli picked up the guitar for the first time at the age of nine. At 17, he embarked on his professional career when he joined the Vaughn Monroe dance band in 1944. Over his amazing career, he played with an incredible list of iconic musicians that included Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Paul McCartney. He was also a long-time member of the “Tonight Show Band.” When Johnny Carson decided to move the show to California, he opted to stay in New Jersey, unwilling to uproot his young and growing family.

John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli.
Source: johnpizzarelli.com

After his time with the Tonight Show Band, he began to play regularly at clubs in Manhattan with long-time friend and collaborator, George Barnes. Additionally, he began performing and recording with top jazz musicians. In 1980, he also began collaborating with one special individual – his son John. The father-son duo would perform and record together many times, often joined by Bucky’s other son, Martin, a bassist, and vocalist Jessica Molaskey, John’s wife. John once described them as “the von Trapp family on martinis.”

He never had plans on ever retiring. In a 2015 profile in New Jersey Monthly, Pizzarelli, then 89, said, “Retire?! Why am I gonna retire? I’m gonna sit home and watch Judge Judy all day? No thanks!”

He was a force of nature until the very end and made incredible contributions to jazz music. He passed at home in April of this year due to complications from COVID-19 with his wife of 66 years, Ruth, by his side in Bergen County. Sadly, she passed one week after suffering his loss. May she be continue to be serenated by him in Heaven.

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