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John Pizzarelli charms in person and in his new book, 'World on a String'

John and his father, Bucky
Photo by John Whiting
John Pizzarelli performing with his father, Bucky, at the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival.

If you want to grow up to be a famous jazz guitarist and singer, radio host, recording artist, in-demand live performer and (most recently) author, do like John Pizzarelli. Be born into a musical family, discover early in life that music is your passion, play gigs with your dad, and get signed to a major label between sets at a jazz club. And be sure to meet your idols and play with them, too: people like Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett, James Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Paul McCartney.

For Pizzarelli, the road to happiness, success, and fame was the path of least resistance. He followed his fingers, his heart, and the footsteps of his father, the revered Bucky Pizzarelli.

His new memoir, “World on a String,” written with Joseph Cosgriff, takes you inside the life of a man his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, claims is even nicer than he seems. If you’re looking for showbiz dish, you won’t find it here. Even Pizzarelli’s accounts of a disastrous manager and diva actress are handled with a light, humorous touch. He reports the end of his first marriage like a gentleman. He sounds on the page like he does on stage, on the radio, and on the phone: warm, genuine, fun to talk to, full of stories. MinnPost spoke with him last week, ahead of his two-night appearance at the Dakota on Wednesday and Thursday.

MinnPost: Thanks for writing a book I enjoyed reading.

John Pizzarelli: We’ve been really pleased with the response. A lot of people are saying, “What a nice book!”

MP: Where did the title come from?

JP: It’s just a play on words from the Harold Arlen song, “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Since I play the guitar, when we suggested it everyone said OK. Some things about writing a book are easier than others. You have to get permission to use five words from a song lyric. Luckily, we know a lot of people.

MP: Much of your book is about your father, the guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. He turns 87 in January. How is he? 

JP: He’s really well. He’s fantastic. I talked with him this morning, as I try to do every day. I was really happy to put a lot about him in the book. Even my son, John, said, “I never knew all this stuff about Pop-Pop!” I learned things about him I didn’t know. His life informs why I do what I do. 

MP: Your book is full of jokes. I’ve seen you on stage often enough to know this is part of who you are.

JP: It’s true. It started when I first heard Bill Cosby’s record “Why Is There Air”? At first I thought, “Why is this person just talking?” Then I realized, “This is the greatest thing I ever heard.” Then I saw George Carlin on the Flip Wilson show, and I became a big Johnny Carson guy.

For me, it was all about timing. I loved to watch how a guy set up a joke. All that was very intriguing to me – delivering a joke, telling a story in the right way, knowing when to hit it. Setups to songs are important to me. I like to get a laugh on. Instead of just saying, “Here’s a song written by Duke Ellington,” I like to get you ready for what’s coming up, but in a humorous way.

MP: Was there a particular moment in your life when you realized you were funny?

JP: I think it was when I learned all that Bill Cosby material. I went to my father’s friend’s house, and he had a microphone on a mic stand, and he’d say, “Do that Bill Cosby routine!” I’d stand in front of the mic and say, “I was a poor black kid growing up in Philadelphia. ..." Later I’d do George Carlin’s Wonderful Wino and Hippy Dippy Weatherman. My father would make me do it at parties when all the relatives were over.

MP: How old were you?

JP: About 7 or 8 when I did the Cosby stuff. A little older when I did the Carlin.

MP: What was the most challenging part of writing “World on a String”?

JP: The personal stuff. Do you want to talk about your crazy manager? What about your divorce? Trying to find the right tone inside that kind of stuff was probably the hardest part. Joe [Cosgriff, Pizzarelli’s coauthor] would say, “You tell me how you want to frame it, I’ll write it down, and you tell me if that’s the way you want it.”

We actually took a lot out, and a lot got edited out. There really wasn’t much to dish about. It was more about the stories and the jazz guys and the life than it was about saying, “Here’s what so-and-so-did!” Those were better tales. 

MP: What comes through in your book is a happy man.

JP: I get to play “I Got Rhythm” for a living. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do. Why would I not be happy? I’ve always wanted to stay outside of everyone’s rules and do what I want to do. Not a lot of musicians have that luxury. And even if there are certain restrictions, you still find at the end of the day that it’s fun to play an instrument for a living. At the very least of it, I get to play the guitar to make a living.

MP: On stage, you’re a sunny guy. It’s part of what makes your shows so appealing.

JP: People have enough things to worry about on the outside. When they come in to see me play, they should have a good time. Not “I’m now going to create some things, man, that are so inside, it’s my soul.” But “Here’s some really good music. Go home happy.” 

MP: Can you share a story that didn’t make it into the book? 

JP: I was touring with Frank Sinatra [in 1993; Sinatra was then 78]. I had played a duet with my father and we walked offstage to watch from the wings. Sinatra finished singing and came offstage the wrong way. Instead of going toward his manager, he walked toward my brother and his girlfriend. My brother gave him a towel. Sinatra said, “What a great crowd tonight!” and gave him back the towel.

Everybody’s scrambling to find Sinatra, and now he’s walking toward my father and me. I’m thinking, “We may actually, finally, have a conversation with Sinatra. This could be a nice little moment. Maybe Sinatra will say something to my father.”

Then out of the clear blue sky there’s a tall blonde next to me, 6'2", maybe 35. I don’t know where she came from, but she’s standing next to me. Sinatra walks up to Bucky and says, “Thanks for helping us out tonight.” And I think, “Sinatra is now going to shake my hand, and maybe we will have a conversation.” Then he sees the blonde and walks right past me.

I’ve never seen a man look at a woman the way he looked at her. His back straightened, his eyes cleared, and he went, “Hello, darling.” All of a sudden, he was 40 years younger and having clear thoughts. Then he walked out the door.

I hadn’t seen that Frank Sinatra during the entire tour. It was an amazing sight. And this was the man who had been married to Ava Gardner.

MP: Who tops your list of people you want to perform or record with but haven’t yet?

JP: Pat Metheny. That would be one. I’ve never played with Wynton Marsalis. Billy Joel would be another one on the list. But it’s amazing – I’ve met many of the people I’ve wanted to meet.

I met Paul McCartney a year before I got called to do his record, “Kisses on the Bottom.” We met in the Carlyle [Hotel]. He was living there while his apartment was being renovated. Jessica and I were about to go on and do our second show, we’re standing in front of the elevators, near the doors, and Paul walks in. I’m holding my guitar. He looks at me and puts his hands out and says, “Come on, what have you got?” I play the opening to the Beatles song, “Money” – “The best things in life are free.” And he joined in and sang, “But you can give them to the birds and bees.” That was a scene from a movie.

MP: I hope you’ll tell some Paul McCartney stories at the Dakota so you can use your Paul McCartney accent.

JP: We do one of the songs from “Kisses on the Bottom.” I talk about some of the experiences. So I’ll pull in my Paul McCartney. When Johnny Pick & His Scabs were big [one of the early John Pizzarelli rock bands], we all talked in English accents. 

****

“World on a String: A Musical Memoir” (John Wiley & Sons) by John Pizzarelli and Joseph Cosgriff went on sale Nov. 12, 2012, so it’s brand-new. Pizzarelli and his excellent quartet – Larry Fuller on piano, John’s brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass, Tony Tedesco on drums – will be at the Dakota Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 12 and 13, for two shows both nights, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets. They’re touring behind their latest CD on Telarc, “Double Exposure,” a blend of pop tunes and traditional jazz arrangements. (Or, as Pizzarelli said during our interview – he really can’t help himself – “ ‘Double Exposure’ is touring behind me. I’m dragging it along. We’re trying to get it into the hundreds of records sold.”) Here's a video preview. “Radio Deluxe,” Pizzarelli’s jazz-and-repartee radio show with his wife, Jessica Molaskey, airs every Saturday afternoon on KBEM (88.5 FM) from 4-6 p.m.

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Also worthy of note...

Molaskey has teamed with St. Paul's own (and my best high school friend) Dave Frishberg for several top NY nightclub gigs.