By Maddie Orton
He plays Shanghai Jazz in Madison every month, but this performance is special. It’s jazz great Bucky Pizzarelli’s 89th birthday, and his bassist and long-time friend Jerry Bruno’s 95th.
“I’m 95 years old and that’s what’s keeping me going — playing with him,” Jerry Bruno said.
Growing up in Paterson, Bucky Pizzarelli came from a musical family.
“My Uncle Bobby Dominick was with a lot of bands. And he was forever coming home looking like a million dollars — you know, he had a big suit on and everything –and I said, ‘I’d like to do that myself!’” he said.
Bucky started working professionally at 17 while he was still in high school. And then he was drafted — Bruno was as well. They would meet after the war playing with the Vaughn Monroe Orchestra at a time when big band jazz was everywhere.
“Oh, it was big time. We loved that,” Bucky said.
Bucky has had a lot of highlights in his career, including being inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and recording with Paul McCartney on a Grammy-winning album.
When ask what’s been the most exciting accomplishment for him, Bucky said, “I don’t know. I played with Frank Sinatra at the White House.”
But what really gets him jazzed is watching his children, including Grammy-nominated guitarist John Pizzarelli, perform.
“Boy, I get a big thrill when I see him play,” Bucky said.
Much like the thrill so many birthday-celebrating fans feel when seeing Bucky play.
“This is one of my biggest influences. Seriously! Taste, tone, swing. Things that you can’t get in a school,” said guitarist Russell Malone.
You can get it at Shanghai Jazz though. The restaurant club has been called one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world.
Shanghai Jazz takes inspiration from the restaurants namesake, Shanghai, which was known as the Paris of the Orient in the 1920s and 30s.
For co-owner and music lover Martha Chang, hosting Bucky regularly is a thrill. And celebrating his birthday with him? Even better.
“Who doesn’t want to throw Bucky a birthday party? He epitomizes all that is wonderful about great musicians,” she said.
So what’s Bucky’s advice for musicians looking to follow in his footsteps?
“Well, if you want to be a musician, you’ve got to learn a lot of songs,” he said.
With birthday hat on head and guitar in hand, Bucky and his music show fans and friends why he’s one of the greats.