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Enlivening the Old Standards: When the Late Bucky Pizzarelli Played Fort Lee

Soon after I moved into our Fort Lee co-op building, almost 15 years ago, I struck up conversations with my neighbor—jazz bassist Jerry Bruno. The enormous instrument that this small, frail-looking man regularly lugged to his car in our building’s basement garage, on his way to his jazz gigs, was a natural ice-breaker. I learned that Jerry had regularly accompanied legendary performers—among them, Frank Sinatra. But more recently, he was appearing at clubs with jazz guitarist (and fellow New Jersey resident) Bucky Pizzarelli, whose guitarist son John had eclipsed him in fame (if not in talent).

The senior Pizzarelli died Wednesday, at 94, of coronavirus. Although the significant role that Jerry had played in Bucky’s late-life career didn’t make it into the obits, I was glad to see that his photo did.

Here he is, unobtrusively plying his instrument, at the top of the NY Times‘ tribute in today’s paper:

At Jerry’s invitation, I caught them twice at a Fort Lee restaurant. They did swinging renditions of the old standards from my parents’ generation (which I love), but then something astonishing happened: Bucky caught fire and unleashed some jolting, virtuosic improvisations, like nothing I’d ever heard. Wow!

Here’s own my photo of them from September 2008, as they prepared to play in Fort Lee:

Bucky Pizzarelli and Jerry Bruno in Fort Lee
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I think those old standards must have helped musicians stay young. My father, an amateur jazz pianist, never stopped playing, even as his mind grew dim in his mid-90s:

My Dad at the piano, accompanying his singing army buddies in Europe during World War II

But back to my neighbor: On Feb. 19 (just before the coronavirus became a scourge here), Jerry Bruno celebrated his 100th birthday at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, NJ.

And as a coda, here’s Bucky’s masterful improvisation on “Body and Soul.” (I loved to sing along with my father’s rendition of that one.)

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