World on a String: A Musical Memoir
By John Pizzarelli and Joseph Cosgriff
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
282 pages, Hardcover, $26.39
If you’ve ever attended a John Pizzarelli concert, you know you get a lot of conversation and banter along with some swinging tunes and vocals. In his book, World on a String, John runs true to form as he romps through the first 50 years of his life.
John learned to play the banjo and guitar in a family setting under the tutelage of his father, the legendary John Paul “Bucky” Pizzarelli and his two uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick. Bucky stressed that learning the banjo provided the proper foundation for learning rhythm, which he maintained to be an essential-yet-overlooked skill for anyone serious about playing the guitar.
Many of Bucky’s contemporaries like Les Paul, Joe Pass, Zoot Sims and Slam Stewart frequently came by the Pizzarelli home for a meal and jam session, with John and brother Martin getting to hear great stories and gaining insight as to the realities of being a professional musician. “All the jazz I heard at home was being played at the highest level, so if I wanted to join in, I had to bring my best game. I always wanted to be an extension of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio. They had all the ingredients of everything I like about jazz.”
A recent stroke has slowed Bucky down, but he still occasionally climbs on stage to perform. Between sets at a jazz party, he’ll usually be found amiably chatting with fans. John is constant motion, performing up to 175 times a year and hosting a radio talk with his wife from their Manhattan apartment. He controls the conversation, bouncing from subject to subject. He’s glib, but always entertaining.
There is no shortage of insider tales from this congenial musician. With so much home-grown material, he has easily earned the reputation of a jazz raconteur. Before a show in the Pacific Northwest, the local paper quipped, “John Pizzarelli is so impossibly cool, he shouldn’t be legally allowed to enter Oregon.”
One of his classic stories involves Frank Sinatra. John’s quartet was the opening act on a European tour, and he tells about his one encounter with The Legend when he was invited to visit Sinarta’s dressing room. “I coughed up the words ‘It’s nice to meet you’ and was about to walk away when Frank said to me, “Eat something, Kid. You look bad.’”
Being an outstanding performer doesn’t automatically means you will write an effective autobiography. The challenge is tone, a subtle, but complex factor when it comes to self-expression. If you are excessive in touting you accomplishments, it comes across as an ego trip. If you minimize those accomplishments, it seems like false modesty. Pizzarelli and his collaborator struggle to find that balance.
Jokes and quips do not make a book – unless your name is Bennett Cerf. Pizzarelli seems to be trying too hard to entertain us, especially when it carries through a 266-page book. The book portrays John’s personality and style, but he comes across as a name-dropper – especially those names that are not familiar to the average jazz fan. Sure, readers know Benny Goodman (whom he refers to as ‘KOS’ – King of Swing), Rosemary Clooney, Sir Paul McCartney and Sinatra, but how many people outside of the New York City metropolitan area know radio personalities Jonathan Schwartz and Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins, who get considerable ink in the book. He even gives you the names of every musician who played in Sinatra’s touring orchestra.
Definitely too much inside stuff, but characteristic of a fun-loving guy who has been described as “Hip with a Wink”.