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Jersey Jazz Great Bucky Pizzarelli Performs with Long-Time Friend

Forty-five years ago, a then 16-year-old Ed Laub was a young guitar enthusiast dumbfounded to learn who his guitar teacher would be — jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli.

“My uncle was a professional musician… He had gotten me the introduction to Bucky,” Laub recounted. “I lived in Upper Saddle River and [Bucky] lived in Saddle River… I used to strap my guitar on my back with some clothesline and ride my bicycle down to his house and go for a Saturday morning lesson.”

Laub had been a fan of Pizzarelli before they ever met, having heard him play on an album of Tony Mottola’s, another New Jersey guitarist who played regularly with Frank Sinatra.

“I kept hearing this other guitar with a unique sound because it was a seven-string guitar and had a low bass ring on it,” he remembered. “As it turns out, it was Bucky Pizzarelli.”

Pizzarelli was born in 1926 into a family with professional guitarists. Growing up in Paterson, he first became interested in the instrument listening to his two uncles play.

“Every Sunday at my house…they’d be playing guitar, and I wanted to join in,” said Pizzarelli. “So they showed me a few chords, and little by little I started playing with them.”

By his late teens, Pizzarelli was playing professionally with the Vaughn Monroe Band. After serving two years in the Army during World War II, where he also played in what he calls an “unauthorized dance band,” Pizzarelli returned home and continued on his career path, touring, playing on studio recordings and later performing as a member of The Tonight Show Band on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Over his career, Pizzarelli has worked with such acclaimed artists as Benny Goodman and Les Paul, and has performed for dignitaries like Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Still, he remains humble and enthusiastic to continue doing what he loves.

“I liked them all,” he said of the many celebrities and figureheads he has met. “I knew what they did, and I was so happy to be in their company [that] I just shut up and played.”

That mentality is one he seems to have passed on to Laub. Laub continued playing the guitar through college and for a while afterwards, but as time went on, he didn’t spend quite as much time on it as he used to — until one special birthday present from his former teacher.

“When I turned 50, he came over to a surprise birthday party at my house, and he gave me a birthday card…and his present to me was lessons for life,” shared Laub. “So we started working together every day…and then finally one day he asked me what I was doing one night. I said ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Come on, you’re playing a gig with me.’”

Ten years later, the former student and teacher continue to perform together regularly as a duo, in trio, and quartets. They will perform together this Sunday at Princeton Palmer Square’s 22nd annual JazzFeast as The Bucky Pizzarelli Quartet along with two other Jersey jazz musicians — Bob DeCaro from Wyckoff on drums, and Pizzarelli’s long-time friend Jerry Bruno, a 93-year-old jazz great from Fort Lee, on bass.

While many music-lovers will be excited for the opportunity to hear the Garden State-native guitarist play, they will be hard-pressed to match Laub’s enthusiasm for playing up there with him.

“I never stop being awed and delighted and thrilled at the prospect of sitting alongside him,” said Laub. “He’s such an incredible master of his art, and so I never ever take it for granted. Not one day.”

Palmer Square’s JazzFeast will take place Sunday, Sept. 15 from noon to 5 p.m. This year’s lineup also includes performances by the Princeton University Jazztet, Alan Dale and the New Legacy Jazz Band, Mark Shane Trio with Holli Ross, and the Bria Skonberg Sextet. The festival will also feature food choices from nearly 20 area restaurants.