Swing Guitarist John Pizzarelli Really Does Have the World on a String

If there is a jazz talent who is more consistently underrated and underestimated, than guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli, I don’t know him. Pizzarelli’s problem is not that he isn’t blessed with dazzling talent. He is. But alas, he can be easy to underestimate for several reasons.

First, though he is one of the most formidable guitar players in jazz, he is marketed more as a singer. And his singing is sly rather than histrionic, witty and understated rather than big. Second, even as a guitar player, Pizzarelli works mostly within a style confined to swing era virtues rather than in a bebop or modern jazz (or fusion) style like almost every major jazz guitarist on the scene.

Finally, John Pizzarelli has combined great ambition and hard work in music with a genial “I’m just a Jersey Guy” persona that may make him seem less like a musical giant than like a buddy of yours who happens to have been a friend of Frank Sinatra’s and happens to tour the world making music.

In fact, Pizzarelli is that genial Jersey Guy—and he actually is a blazing jazz player whose band and records have been among the most consistent pleasures and most reliably smart expressions of the “The Great American Songbook” of the last 25 years, easily the equal of Diana Krall’s output and 20 times hipper than the crooning of Harry Connick or Michael Bublé or any of the other “Young Fogies” who end up being cut-rate Sinatras until they can find their own voice.

Pizzarelli has had his original voice from the start, a mixture of the swing guitar tradition he picked up from his uncles and his dad (the great Bucky Pizzarelli, whose playing has quietly graced more great records than you can imagine) and his own smart-ass absorption of comedy, TV, pop music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and every lesson available from the musicians his dad brought through his North Jersey household when he was a kid.

He just released a hilarious and heartfelt auto-biography, World on a String: A Musical Memoir, which takes the reader through his childhood learning banjo and guitar from his family, his apprenticeship playing gigs with his dad (and hanging out with the likes of Zoot Simms and even Benny Goodman in his own kitchen), playing in rock bands or hosting a radio show along the way, then finally setting out to make career as a jazz musician—developing the kind of chops and sensibility that would put him on the same stage with Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney and, ultimately, allow his own musical identity to blossom.

Because Pizzarelli is simply one of the smartest and funniest guys you will ever encounter, the book is a delight on every level—light and serious at once, quick and wide-ranging and laugh-at-loud funny, and musically wise at so many turns. And speaking to Pizzarelli is an equal delight. I asked him about his persona, his playing and singing, his book, and about the challenge of making a full career in music these days.

(Full disclosure: I have known John Pizzarelli for some time, because he went to college with a close friend of mine, putting me in a position to sit with him during the set breaks in clubs and listen to him to do his riffs on The Honeymooners or his Christopher Walken.)

You embody some seeming contradictions: you are a relatively young guy playing the music of a previous generation; you are a really funny and entertaining guy who plays jazz; your present yourself as both very elegant—the suits, the vintage vibe—yet you embody the state of New Jersey. How did all that come together?

All the ingredients come from different places. I got interested early on in the idea of presenting my music a certain way. Around 1984-1986, I saw Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra all in New Jersey. Their presentations were so interesting. I loved all the stuff that happened between the songs. Billy Joel had incredible pacing: three quick songs, then he sat and talked, then he went off and did something else.

I had made my second record around that time, and I was trying to apply these ideas of presentation in playing duos with Bucky [Pizzarelli’s dad] and then even more as I got my trio together for touring. I didn’t know half of what Springsteen played, but it was a hell of a concert because I couldn’t wait to hear what was next. I thought, This is something that applies to any kind of music.

The suits came from the idea I had from way back that when you go to work you put on a jacket and tie. I still can’t stand the idea that somebody would go on television to report the news without a tie. If you’re going to tell me that somebody got blown up, what, you were too lazy to put on a tie? In my band, we wear a suit and tie. We want to express that we care about what we do. We take it seriously.

You wear suits, but you also tell a lot of jokes, you do voices, you kind of undercut any pretentiousness that might arise.

Maybe that’s confusing to some people. But I’ve never been afraid to say that if you’re going to come to my shows, you’re going to have a good time. The jazz is going to be at the highest level that we can put it at. But I also think we’re as entertaining as anybody. There are non-jazz listeners in the audience. Why get up there and say [pretentious and flat voice]: “And now a performance of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’.”

I was as much a fan of Bill Cosby and George Carlin and everyone I saw as a kid on Carson’s Tonight Show as I was of music. I got just as much of an education watching those guys as did watching Zoot Simms play. I just like the ingredients of all of that in one big soup. I enjoy doing it all and want to put it together.

Of all the younger singers doing The Great American Songbook, you have always seemed the most playful, the least encased in a museum atmosphere. Was that your intention?

The thing I got very lucky with was – for some reason I didn’t start with Sinatra but with Nat Cole. This was a gift. The playfulness comes from Nat. It’s perfect for what I do. Of course, some people think I still shouldn’t be singing, 30 years later.

Sometimes you joke like that about your singing voice. Do you feel the need to be defensive about it?

Ten years ago I was still kind of defensive about it, but not any more. It’s been over 20 years I’ve been putting my singing out there, and people are buying the records. I think I’ve done what I’ve done as well as I can do it. It has developed. All singers develop.

Nobody was doing Nat “King” Cole in 1983. I was lucky to have that material to start with. Right around 1980, this double-disc reissue of Nat’s trio’s material came out, and I wore out the grooves.

His style was perfect for the timbre of my voice, for the kind of jazz I wanted to play and really all of what I wanted to do. Having this material to work with meant that I was able to take my time to get to all the other stuff I would want to do but needed a more mature personality to understand. I don’t look too reverentially on anything, but as I got older I could make better choices. Sometimes kids who get quick record deals in their 20s think, “Oh, that’s a great song,” but they don’t understand the material yet.

Your strengths as a guitar player were perfect for the Nat Cole material as well.

My dad had the same instrumentation in his group at the Pierre Hotel: guitar, piano, and bass. I loved that sound, and my dad wanted to hit me over the head—That’s the Nat Cole Trio, stupid! I’d been hearing it and loving it, but there it was in the original.

Diana Krall went through an early Nat Cole phase.

It was the perfect place for Diana to start too. It was right up her alley. I had just made a very successful record with Benny Green and Christian McBride, Dear Mr. Cole, a year before her record came out. (I had wanted to make that record with my regular trio, but it was made for the Japanese market, so they wanted a different band.) Benny and Christian were with the same agent Diana had and, though I don’t think my record was a catalyst for her, Cole’s music was more in the air at that point.

Was that why you ended up on the road opening for Sinatra—as somebody who was doing something different, looking at the Great American Songbook from a different angle?

I was the right guy to open because my thing was different. Sinatra’s people had heard my records and knew that I could choose enough material that would not collide with Sinatra’s stuff. When Frank, Jr. and Bill Miller sat in front of us at the rehearsal, they knew that it was going to work perfectly. We knew what we had. And Sinatra himself was great. He’d be listening to us from the wings, snapping his fingers. I still can’t believe it!

Early on I was still trying to really understand the Sinatra thing. I found myself on the radio in New York on WNEW with Jonathan Schwartz trying to understand why it was so good. My favorite Sinatra album, the only one I owned early on, was Sinatra with Strings because I liked the Don Costa arrangements. I wasn’t really into the stuff with Nelson Riddle until later—and then I was just digging the harmonies. I was so late to the game.

You are pretty unique among jazz musicians of your generation in not really playing at all in the modern jazz style. Have you consciously kept your playing, harmonically and rhythmically, tied mostly to the swing style?

I come from that earlier style of jazz, and that is the music I want to play. I’ve been in bands that want to do something else—when I played with Buddy DeFranco, who is the bebop derivative of Benny Goodman, I didn’t sound good in that style. When one guy is outside the style, it doesn’t sound good. In my band, we all stay inside the swing style because that’s what we want to do, and we all want to be together.

It’s interesting that on your new record you “mash-up” rock-era songs with jazz tunes but choose some jazz that is more modern—stuff by Lee Morgan and Miles Davis, for example.

For Double Exposure we made a conscious decision to update the references by about ten years. On the Beatles record that we did [1998’s John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles], we chose older styles as the lens for interpreting the rock tunes. “Can’t Buy Me Love” was Woody Herman, Count Basie was the basis for “Oh, Darlin’”. Maybe we used Wes Montgomery on “Get Back”, but basically we were in the swing bag. On the new record we moved the references up, and there are things I can play within those styles, but I feel like I can just barely get away with it. So on the combination of “Diamond Girl” and Miles Davis’s “So What” I felt I had to put that trumpet solo in to get a Miles Davis voice.

I thought, it can’t be me—even my blowing at the end, there was just enough so we could get it to fade out. Same thing with the saxophone solo—those guys can play that way, and I liked the idea of using “So What” enough to keep it in. We had tried it out live at Birdland with the full-throttle idea of both songs, so we had the “So What” bass line going underneath all the Seals and Crofts song. We even had the Bill Evans piano introduction transcribed for this—and it was getting laughs. For the record we did all the right edits to change things a bit and get it to the right place.

Some of these combinations I still think work really well: the Thad Jones introduction to “Walk Between the Raindrops”, the Wes Montgomery sound on “Elizabeth Reed” and the way “Sidewinder” interlocks with “I Feel Fine.”

I admire the way you fused the Tom Waits song “Drunk on Moon” with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”.

Thanks. That arrangement was that way all along. For me, the saxophone solo was so good on that arrangement—it brought it home. I like that record. I think we were able to make 85-90 percent of that record work out.

You’re also doing interesting work in rescuing some material from the ‘70s singer-songwriters that is as good as “Great American Songbook” writing but hasn’t been covered as much. Like “I Can Let Go Now” by Michael McDonald.

Sure. That’s a great song. Now you have rock artists like Paul McCartney recording pre-rock material that they grew up with [Pizzarelli played on McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom] and jazz artists like me recording rock era songs, demonstrating that the Great American Songbook really doesn’t end in 1964. Our listeners grew up with Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and Michael McDonald. I’m 52, and even folks ten and 20 years older than me know that material.

I think there’s a real conversation between the swing-style jazz you play and the singer-songwriter material you are talking about. You sound more natural playing with James Taylor or Rickie Lee Jones than you might on a modern jazz date.

True, sir.

Your career would seem to be a model for what jazz musicians have to pull off today. You really can’t just make records any more. You have the book, your radio show, work on Broadway, and you’re a touring jazz musician. Have you cobbled together this “career” as a musician in a way that is conscious of this diversity of elements? It’s different than when your dad could just be the best jazz guitar player out there.

In my father’s day, he could stay home a lot, get a ton of studio work in New York. He didn’t have to travel as much, even after his gig with The Tonight Show band moved to California and he stayed in New Jersey. I’m trying to stay in New York as much as I can. And as much work as I can so that I can just take time off and do nothing for a stretch.

All the other stuff—the radio show, the book, all that—is just about helping the live performance. I don’t make almost any money from the rest of it. Even making a record, you just do that so you have a reason to go to Seattle. If the radio show is on in that market, then that helps: “I’ve heard the show, I’ve got to go see it now.” We have gotten gigs from requests that we do a live radio show in Toronto, say, and then you play live. I’ll go to St. Louis a day early to talk about the book, but that I say, “I’m going to be at the club all week—come!” It’s all self-promotion. You can be the best band around, but the club owner only cares whether people show up are your gigs! It’s always been that story.

Your book is so much about growing up in a house and family and world of music. Your wife Jessica is a great singer and musician. What about your kids? Playing guitar?

My 14-year-old daughter is built for playing guitar. She’s got four guitars out in her room, all in different tunings. She’s got the Joni Mitchell book out. She’s learning to play things from YouTube. She’s got the banjo out and she’s playing Mumford and Sons. She’s a music fiend. And I’ve heard none of it. She has an insanely diverse playlist of what is the popular scene now.

My dad let me play what I wanted. I’d have rehearsals, loud, in the house. He heard it all: Peter Frampton, Steely Dan. My daughter is playing her stuff, and I’ll stand by the door and think, She’s playing the shit out of that thing!. She’s going to LaGuardia High School for music and singing. There was no pushing. It just happened. I put a guitar in the room and next thing you know it’s tuned all weird and she’s banging away.

What’s next?

I’m mostly touring now. And I’m on the fence about the next record. I had wanted to make Double Exposure for 20 years. You don’t necessarily just want to do another record that has no identity, but producers have various ideas, like, Hey, how about a Blossom Dearie tribute? But there are only so many of those ideas that work. We will see.

Let me close the way you often do, with “I Like Jersey Best”. You recorded that song way back in 1983 and you’re still doing it, getting mileage out of its charm and humor. Was it your lucky break, the way it got airplay in the New York area back then, or is it a burden you have to carry around?

It’s one of those things I love to do. It’s still fun. I love to hear people laugh. Some nights we don’t do it because you can just tell it’s not an “I Love Jersey Best” kind of night. But I’ve done it in Japan and Brazil and even in Germany. Who would be requesting a song about the Garden State Parkway in Europe? But people ask for it all over.

Every band has a sure-fire thing. That song is it for us. You tee up the ball and—it’s just right there. I know I’m going to hit it.