The Bucky Pizzarelli Award

Bucky-Pizzarelli

The Artisan Guitar Show Bucky Pizzarelli Award

The Artisan Guitar Show features the work of the finest guitar makers in the world. Each year, master builders, performers, and guest lecturers share their craft and knowledge with the guitar community. In many respects, the show is a celebration of both greatness and community.

In 2022, the Artisan Guitar Show will begin presenting an annual award. The purpose of this award is to honor someone in the guitar community who has contributed greatly, but has not necessarily known the warmth of the spotlight. Throughout the history of music, many fine and talented players have fallen into this category. It was not that many years ago that names like the Wrecking Crew with Tommy Tedesco and the Funk Brothers with Eddie Willis were largely unknown to mainstream America. Guitarists like Dean Parks, Larry Carlton, Brent Mason, Richard Bennett, and Danny Kortchmar have quietly, but significantly impacted the music that changed many of our lives.

Bucky Pizzarelli was loved and admired. His lifetime of accomplishments is as significant as any guitar player could ever hope to achieve. He played with the Tonight Show Band and Benny Goodman. He performed session work on important works including those of Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind.

Like many guitarists, Bucky accomplished this right on the very outside edge of the spotlight known as fame. We have decided to name this annual award The Artisan Guitar Show Bucky Pizzarelli Award. The Pizzarelli family has graciously allowed us to use his name.  

John Paul Pizzarelli was born in Paterson, NJ in 1926 and he became a world-renowned jazz guitarist. The world lost this remarkable man in 2020. His career spanned a period of more than 70 years and included stints that ranged from the Vaughn Monroe Orchestra to the Johnny Carson Tonight Show under both Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen.

He performed hundreds of jazz concerts worldwide including White House performances with Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and Claude “Fiddler” Williams for much admired Presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. His work as a prominent session player also included work with Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Dion & The Belmonts. He even played on the Brian Hyland 1960 hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

His numerous worldwide tours also included performances with practically every jazz legend such as Stephane Grapelli, Slam Stewart, Tal Farlow, Rosemary Clooney, Zoot Sims, Benny Carter, Michael Feinstein, and Charlie Byrd – just to name a few. He has hundreds of jazz recordings with every major jazz great including his own solo albums and his work with his two sons, John and Martin Pizzarelli.

His film soundtrack work includes the Woody Allen jazz classic Sweet and Lowdown (1999) as well as other prominent films Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Two Family House (2000). Bucky also appeared on PBS in Jersey Jazz Guitars filmed at Rutgers University with Les Paul and Tal Farlow. He became one of the very first musicians in New Jersey to have two of his guitars, along with a recorded history of his lifetime in music, inducted into the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Bucky Pizzarelli was a gracious and kind man. The people in his life all seem to have one thing in common – they loved and admired him both as a man and as a guitarist. Duke Ellington once stated that a man cannot demand respect – he can only command respect. Bucky Pizzarelli commanded the respect not just of those who knew him, but of an industry.

The first recipient of the annual Artisan Guitar Show Bucky Pizzarelli Award is the profoundly respected and amazingly talented Gene Bertoncini. Gene is not only considered a renowned guitarist of historic note, but he is admired for his gentle and gracious nature; there could not be a more appropriate nor fitting person than Gene Bertoncini to receive this award. Mary Pizzarelli, daughter of the beloved Bucky Pizzarelli, is in total agreement. “This award could not be given to a more talented, loving, and humble guy. He is a musician who plays at the absolute highest possible levels.“

He was born in New York City and he was raised in a musical family; his father, Mario Bertoncini, played both guitar and harmonica. Gene is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Architectural Engineering. He began playing guitar at age seven and by age sixteen he was already appearing on television. The diversely talented Johnny Smith was an early guitar instructor who was influential to Gene. English guitarist Julian Bream was inspirational to Gene. “I listened to his music and I had never heard anything like it before. I just fell in love with the nylon-string classical guitar and began taking lessons.”

The career of Gene Bertoncini can only be described with words like amazing and extraordinary. He has worked with Carmen McRae and performed with Buddy Rich. His career has included playing with Benny Goodman, Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone, Ethel Ennis, and Eydie Gorme. Gene played in house bands on television shows featuring Merv Griffin and Jack Paar. Like Bucky, Gene worked on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

His discography includes work with Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, Tony Bennett, Paul Desmond, Michel Legrand, Herbie Mann, Susannah McCorkle, Bette Midler, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Shorter, Lonnie Liston Smith, Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, Clark Terry Sextet, Grover Washington Jr., Dionne Warwick, and Nancy Wilson. If you find yourself watching the 1969 film classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and you hear B.J. Thomas perform the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, you are hearing Gene Bertoncini on guitar.

Gene has a wonderful sense of humor and approaches life with great humility. His response to receiving the Bucky Pizzarelli Award was heartwarming. “Thank you for choosing me. You know, I play guitar, so I never feel like I deserve any kind of award.” In typical fashion, Gene would rather place the appreciation on the instrument that he so loves to explore. “The guitar remains a mystery to me – an open book.”

Gene is a noted music educator who has been on the faculties of the Eastman School of Music, the New England Conservatory, New York University, and the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada. He has served on the faculty of William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and the staff of the Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camps. He his also published and his work includes the book Gene Bertoncini Plays Jazz Standards released by Hal Leonard. Gene is currently working on a new album with respected songwriter Alan Bergman.

The bond between the Pizzarelli family and Gene Bertoncini runs quite deep. When asked about Bucky, Gene replies with laughter in his voice with quips like “Pizzarelli and Bertoncini – ‘yous’ better like us!” or “Bucky got the big name – I got the long name!” Gene and Bucky met while both were working at NBC and a lifelong friendship ensued. Their ties included many common professional undertakings as well. “Bucky and I have been doing studio work for as long as I can remember – a lot of commercials and work like that. We both shared The Tonight Show for a two-year period of time.”

When asked about his friendship with Bucky, the affection he has for the Pizzarelli family again results in a heartwarming moment. “I love Bucky. I love all the Pizzarelli family – John, Mary, Martin, Anne. I am close to John – He’s just a wonderful rhythm player. I know Mary – I really love Mary. She’s just a great friend of mine.” His appreciation for Bucky as a player is profound. “He was so great – especially in terms of friendliness and generosity and playing.” Whenever they had a chance to play together, Bucky always encouraged Gene to lead the set. “He was so generous. He was a great accompanist – he accompanied a lot of singers. I tried to follow in his footsteps. He played that seven-string guitar – that’s a whole other ball game – and he developed it. He was the greatest rhythm player of all.”

Award Headstock 2022

The Artisan Guitar Show has partnered with guitar maker Gary Zimnicki to honor the career of Gene Bertoncini by presenting him with a beautiful, handcrafted instrument. Gary is a self-taught master guitar maker who has been building guitars since the 1970s. This unique “award” guitar will be unveiled by Gary on stage during the presentation of the Artisan Guitar Show Bucky Pizzarelli Award.

The Zimnicki approach to guitar making relies on objective input from guitar players to improve the quality of his instruments.  He notes “I do all of the work by myself, without assistants, so I have complete control over the guitar building process and am solely responsible for the final result.” That “objective input” has included amazing players like Bucky Pizzarelli, Earl Klugh and John Jorgenson.

Rather than limiting his customers to specific models, Gary collaborates with them to establish a design that is uniquely suited to their personal needs and tastes. Most of his customers have owned multiple instruments and they often want to combine certain features from several of those guitars into one very special instrument, and Gary welcomes that challenge.

Gary recalled his early days of guitar making “I never picked up a guitar in my life until probably March of the first year of college – with my first income tax refund I bought a cheap Japanese guitar.” He wanted an electric guitar, but as a college student it was very hard to afford, so he decided to build one. He had very little knowledge and did not even understand the fundamentals like why frets got closer together as a player moved up the neck. With the help of some reading and study he prevailed. He remembers that time clearly “You know, back when I got started, I certainly didn’t think it was going to become my career.”

The process of learning was gradual for Gary. As young builder, his work tools were not of the precision necessary for the craft of guitar making and his knowledge base was constantly expanding. As he would sell an instrument, he would reinvest in tools. There was a guitar making chapter in the book The Electric Guitar by Donald Brosnac that served as the very first educational guide for Gary. An advertisement in Mother Earth News introduced Gary to the Guild of American Luthiers and his learning advanced quickly.

Gary is a practical man. About five years ago he began exploring guitars constructed of wood reclaimed from old houses. “To me it was just a really important project to be able to take this wood and repurpose it – to rescue it from a landfill and instead make music.” The instruments never really caught on, but he takes one to every show whether it’s a guitar or a mandolin and they always get lots of attention. “Unfortunately, when people commission an instrument, most of them seem to want it to look like what they’re used to seeing. They don’t want to see a steel string guitar with an 11-piece back made out of floorboards, even though they think it sounds good and it’s really interesting. I am a little bit sad that that whole thing didn’t catch on more because I think it was very important.”

Many guitar builders select a specific discipline whether it be flat top, archtop, solid-body, or semi-hollow body instruments. Gary decided that not limiting himself to one specific style of guitar has made him a better builder because there are both structural and acoustic considerations that carry over from one style to the others.  “I wrestled with this for years and years. I thought that maybe I should just focus on one kind of instrument because it seemed like the people who were really respected and well-known to the guitar playing world took that approach. I learned that I could never settle on just one style. If I’m building a classical guitar, I love building classical guitars. If I’m building an archtop guitar, that’s my favorite thing to do. I do whatever people want and it keeps it much more interesting for me. Plus, there’s a lot of carry-over from one kind of instrument to another and you can certainly apply the principles of a classical guitar to an archtop, flat top, ukulele, or anything else.” He believes clearly that the quality of the instruments he makes today has benefitted from the knowledge gained from building instruments of all types.

Bucky Award Guitar 2022

Gary has a connection to Bucky that is best described as a cherished life memory. Bucky was playing a show with guitarist Chris Buzzelli and Chris was using a Zimnicki seven-string classical guitar. Bucky loved the guitar and decided to call Gary to talk about having a guitar built. Gary recalls “When I finished the guitar, rather than ship it my wife and I just drove out to New Jersey to deliver the instrument. We went to his house and he and his wife were there. They were like grandparents I never knew. They were just marvelous people – so sweet. We spent many hours there and I left feeling like I had known them forever. It was really nice.”

On the day that Gary and his wife delivered this 7-string classical guitar, Bucky asked Ed Laub to come to his home to see Gary and the new instrument. Ed and Bucky enjoyed a 50-year long relationship and they were professional playing partners for 17 years. They had also often teamed up with Gene and performed as a trio throughout the country. For Ed, the threads woven together by the relationships always find a way of “coming full circle” when appreciating the life of Bucky Pizzarelli. “It’s those relationships that made Bucky as famous as he was. For him, it was never about the recognition, it was always about just being able to play and to be with his family, friends, and fans.”

Gary has admired the playing of Gene Bertoncini for many years. “I remember listening to the music of Gene Bertoncini when I was much younger. Gene was such a talented guitarist – he was inspirational to me. Listening to him play inspired me to want to build a guitar that was worthy of being in his hands.” All these years later, Gary will now place a guitar of that very quality in the hands of the master that he has admired throughout his career.

Gary Zimnicki is the ideal partner to build the Artisan Guitar Show Bucky Pizzarelli Award guitar. He is a man focused on both quality instruments and quality relationships. It is hard to imagine a more deserving man and guitarist to honor than Bucky Pizzarelli. We are grateful to the Pizzarelli family for allowing us to celebrate the life and career of Bucky in this manner. In Gene Bertoncini, we chose the perfect recipient to receive the very first Artisan Guitar Show Bucky Pizzarelli Award for many reasons. We hope that you enjoy this celebration of the life and career of Bucky Pizzarelli, the fretboard magic of Gene Bertoncini, and the artistry of Gary Zimnicki.