At an event like the Miami Beach Jazz Festival’s Living Legends of Jazz, the performers rarely boast the immediate, mass appeal of today’s chart-topping, Photoshopped pop stars. And although the stories behind the faces aren’t trending on social media, they’re often so much richer, so saturated with history that it’s like opening an encyclopedia of music.
Take jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who will kick off the show Saturday night at the magnificent New World Center for the Arts in Miami Beach. The New Jersey ax man’s six-decade career has seen him share the stage with the “King of Swing,” bandleader Benny Goodman, and electric guitar pioneer and good friend Les Paul, among many others.
He also became a member of The Tonight Show Band in 1964 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, during which he performed with Tiny Tim the night he married Miss Vicki on live television.
“Yeah, I played the wedding!” Pizzarelli recalls. “I tuned [Tiny Tim’s] ukulele.”
Pizzarelli calls his time with Carson “sensational,” praising both the beloved late TV host’s gracious off-camera demeanor and the show’s treatment of him.
“The first night I played there with them, they featured me — they gave me a spot and I played a couple solos on classical guitar,” he says. “And they featured me like once a week on the show. You can’t beat that.”
Pizzarelli adds that his bandmates were the cream of the crop back then, plucked from Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington’s orchestras.
“It was an unbelievable band,” he says. “Today, there’s not one good band on television — it’s a bunch of junk. You ask them to play Stardust — I don’t think one guy in the band would know that song.”
Although many of Pizzarelli’s fondest musical memories happened several decades ago, his glory days aren’t all in the past. Paul McCartney flew him and his son John out to Los Angeles to work on the ex-Beatle’s 2012 love letter to the Great American Songbook, Kisses on the Bottom.
“We did what we thought we should do — he didn’t tell us what to do,” says Pizzarelli, of McCartney’s instructions to the two. “He said, ‘Play here,’ and we played.” They must have played well, because the record won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album in 2013.
The Living Legends of Jazz festival — billed as “jazz and only pure jazz” — is aptly named, featuring musicians that true connoisseurs will drool over. In addition to Pizzarelli, the lineup includes Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander, who appropriately adds a touch of reggae to his sound, and has worked with icons from Frank Sinatra to Dizzy Gillespie to Quincy Jones to Sly & Robbie; bassist Rufus Reid, a favorite of sax legend Dexter Gordon; scat-tastic vocalist Giacomo Gates, whose mellifluous voice was honed by none other than Sarah Vaughn; operatically named New York City swing and be-bop singer Aria Hendricks, daughter of vocalese pioneer Jon Hendricks; and violinist and composer Federico Britos, concertmaster of the Miami Symphony Orchestra who has performed with Latin American stars including Joao Gilberto and Cachao.
And you can expect plenty of surprise guests, plus a good old-fashioned, climactic community jam at the evening’s end.
Pizzarelli is well-known for mastering the seven-string guitar, a technique he learned in 1969 from one of his idols.
“George Van Eps was a hero of mine, and he invented that guitar,” Pizzarelli says. “We heard him play live that same week — he was performing [in New York] at the Berkshire Hotel on the seven-string, and after we heard him play, we all went to Manny’s Music store on 48th Street and bought out the store of seven-strings. We actually did that [laughs]. We bought ‘em all.”
The extra low string allows him to work in a bass line along with the chords he’s playing (“It’s like the left hand of a piano”).
Pizzarelli says his set on Saturday night naturally will draw heavily from the Great American Songbook.
“They’re all good songs,” he says. “That’s what you don’t hear anymore, you know? Because when you listen to the rock-’n’-roll guys today, they’re singing one note and one beat on the drum. And it’s very boring — there’s no melody, no nothing. We don’t do that [laughs].”