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'World On A String': John Pizzarelli Jazzes It Up

Brothers John and Martin Pizzarelli were born into a family of musicians. Their father is the famed jazz guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli, who, during the 1960s, performed in the Tonight Show Band and who worked as a session player for rock acts such as Dion and the Belmonts. Musical greats, too, were in and out of the Pizzarelli house in Paterson, New Jersey, as John and Martin were growing up. It makes perfect sense then that, eventually, Martin picked up the upright bass professionally and John found his calling with jazz guitar, singing and songwriting. John also has new a memoir out called World On A String, about his musician life among the legends.

Good Italian Jersey boys, John and Martin have played together in various bands since high school, bands with names like Omega — which John calls, "the last word in rock and roll"-- and San Pacu and As Is. For a time in their twenties, the brothers played a club in Manhattan under the name "Johnny Pick and His Scabs," because they were filling in on that gig for a friend. If the spirit so moved them, they'd occasionally switch up the band name for kicks, calling themselves Johnny Ride and the Waves one week, Johnny Shuck and the Clams another week.

It was only after this stint in their younger years as aspiring rock and rollers that both of them eventually found their way to jazz and the American songbook. "I heard 'Straighten Up and Fly Right,' and 'Paper Moon' and 'Frim Fram Sauce' and 'Route 66' and I went crazy," John Pizzarelli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "and I thought that was the foundation for what I was going to do, because it was great music. It was fun. It was swinging. The guitar had to play everything: rhythm guitar, lead guitar. ... And it just evolved into me doing that more and more with my father, and probably making more of a living doing that as trying to be Billy Joel, so it worked out better to be Nat King Cole than Billy Joel, which," he says after a pause, "should be a song title."

Brothers John and Martin Pizzarelli grew up in a household where jazz greats like Benny Goodman and Les Paul were family friends.
Eugene Parciasepe Jr. / Eugene Parciasepe Jr.
Eugene Parciasepe Jr.
Brothers John and Martin Pizzarelli grew up in a household where jazz greats like Benny Goodman and Les Paul were family friends.

Interview Highlights

On his father, Bucky Pizzarelli, appearing on many iconic pop albums from the 1960s, including the Del Shannon record "Runaway"

"We even had a gentleman who brought the contract from the session of 'Runaway,' the Del Shannon record and [told] my father, 'You're on this record,' and he wanted to interview him and set up a big camera and a microphone and said to my father, 'Please tell me all about the 'Runaway' session. Del Shannon. You're the surviving member.' And my father said, 'Oh, I don't remember that at all.' ... He said, 'I did so many dates.' ... So there were a lot of jazz musicians making all those records in those days ... I don't know exactly what he played and I don't think he does either, but there's a picture of Del Shannon in front of my father on the Del Shannon website. He's playing a big A minor, and my father's looking up at him, I guess, he's sort of looking at him going like 'Really?'... [And] there's Del with the big pompadour and a big a minor chord.'"

On what it was like to tour with — and open for — Frank Sinatra

"The funny thing was in Atlantic City, after the gigs, and you'd be hanging around the hotel and people thought you really ... were hanging out with Frank, so they would come up to you and say, 'I've got this song about Hoboken. You've got to give it to Frank.' And I was like, 'You know, you have to understand, I'm lucky if I see Frank Sinatra in the wings before the show.' ...

"I spoke to him once before the show in Berlin. It was a rather funny meeting because Hank Cattaneo, who ran everything, felt it was the right time to go say hello to Frank and when ... he was going to introduce me, he got nervous and it messed the whole thing up. ... [H]e sort of coughed out the words, 'opening act,' to Frank Sinatra and I swung around and shook his hand and said, 'It's nice to meet you,' and I was about to walk away and Frank said to me, 'Eat something. You look bad,' and that was pretty much all I got out of Frank Sinatra the whole tour."

On working Rosemary Clooney while her health was deteriorating

"There was one concert in Mackinac Island at the Grand Hotel where she kept singing. It was a big room and it was hot in there ... but she'd turn around and say 'I don't know if can ...We're going to have to cut a number, John,' she'd say to John Oddo, her piano player. And I was right there and I was scared. [But] the more people who applauded, she'd just turn around and keep singing .... [T]he crowd would always inform her. If they were really going crazy she could get by bad breathing ... and plus the way she delivered the song, she could do that, on any given day, there was always something magical that she could do."

On making an album of Beatles songs in the mid-1990s and then collaborating later on an album with Paul McCartney

"[My album of Beatles covers] is the one record of my out of 21, of vocal records, that has the most reviews and the most disparate reviews [on Amazon]. Some that say, 'John Pizzarelli is the greatest interpreter of these songs,' and there's one where the subject matter says, "Abbey Roadkill' ... There must be 50 of them, and there's also 'A person from New York writes, 'John Pizzarelli's a genius.' And those are written by me to try and knock off the 'Abbey Roadkill' reviews ...

"[B]ut when I met Paul McCartney at the session he walked in and he said, 'hello' to Diana Krall and then her bass player and then her drummer, and then they came over to me and they said, 'This is Paul McCartney,' and I said, 'It's nice to meet you,' and he went, 'You made a Beatles CD,' and I went, 'Oh boy, here it comes,' and he said to me, 'It's very good,' and I was like, 'Oh, could you write that on Amazon, please?'"

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