Jazz Is Not a Dirty Word

John Pizzarelli isn't a name you hear bantered about much when critics discuss the "young lions" of jazz. And this is unjust. Pizzarelli's gifts as a guitarist/singer are a match for anyone his vintage and beyond in jazz, but since he's youngish by jazz standards at 42, of Italian-American rather than African-American stock, and projects a goofy demeanor closer to a Baldwin brother than a Marsalis brother, he doesn't have the requisite enigmatic image to fully intrigue some potty jazz scribes.

Which is a damned shame. Let it be said here and now: Pizzarelli's music is more pleasurable than anything being currently served up in the genre, and the guy has a lot of interesting things to say, even if he's not interested in acting like a surly poseur or lemon-sucking museum-keeper in the process of relating his opinions.

Mostly, though, Pizzarelli proffers such a purely joyous, dance-happy sound that any hints of darkness are swallowed up by the easy swing in his voice and the deft glee with which he attacks his seven strings. (Like his father, legendary jazz axebo Bucky Pizzarelli, John opted for a seven- rather than six-stringed instrument—the extra string is tuned to a low A.) Of the 15 albums he has released in the past two decades, Pizzarelli has mostly traded in standards. The approach Pizzarelli and his trio—brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass and the amazing Ray Kennedy on piano—take is something akin to vintage King Cole Trio with a severe case of coffee jitters: fast tempos and a near rock & roll energy level accompany a sound that's respectful of tradition without being piously retro.

"It's partly my Italian blood, I think," Pizzarelli says. "And it's funny because my father is completely the opposite. He plays very delicately. I think I got a lot from George Barnes, the old jazz guitarist. And I like that lead trumpet kind of attack, that go-get-'em kind of thing. But, look, I liked Peter Frampton, too. Don't hold that against me, but I really loved the way he played guitar."

And while Pizzarelli is quick to acknowledge his influences and favored artists, he's just as quick to point fingers at those whom he feels have represented jazz in a bad light. Perhaps because Papa Bucky has a good chunk of history under his belt—the list of his studio contributions is longer than an Orrin Hatch filibuster—Pizzarelli is keen to recycle jazz's most noble customs, to be something of a goodwill ambassador for the music. What galls him more than anything are the pop singers who tread into jazz territory with a lot of hype and not much of a clue.

"I've been wanting to say this for a long time but haven't yet, so you get the first crack at it. It's like this new Rod Stewart album, for example," he says, referring to Stewart's It Had to Be You—The Great American Songbook. "The problem is that this is what's being represented as the music I've been playing for 22 years—that my father has been playing for 50 years. Legitimate musicians go out and make great records of these songs, and then a guy like that comes along and does it in a real half-assed way, and since he's who he is, he gets all this publicity, like, 'Wow, this guy's a genius.' Meanwhile, the record's horrible, and people think that's what we do. It kills it for everybody else."

Pizzarelli considers himself a bit of a crusader as well as a musician. Because his style appeals to a wider audience than many jazz artists, he has gotten a good deal of exposure, including appearances on the David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien shows just within the past year. And he believes that part of his responsibility as a high-profile jazz artist is to educate in an entertaining manner so as to not reinforce the notion of jazz as an "eat-your-peas" genre.

"We're dedicated just as Nat 'King' Cole and Benny Goodman and Oscar Peterson were dedicated to it," he says. "But we've also always felt that entertainment is just as important as good jazz. People pay a lot of money to come and hear you play, and you can't just sit there and go, 'You will listen to this, and you will like it.' You have to entertain them, too—you have to talk to them and tell them about the songs you're doing."

He closes the conversation with one final, fervent plea for the average Joe to give jazz a chance.

"People shouldn't be afraid of jazz," he says. "I mean, Diana Krall was up for Best Album of the Year [at the 2000 Grammy Awards], and they wouldn't let her do a song from her album on TV; they made her sing with Eryka Badu because they were afraid people were going to turn the channel. It's B.S. That's what bugs me—that people think jazz is a dirty word. In a perfect world, that's what I'd want—that the world didn't have to be all about the Billboard Top 10 all the time. People aren't that stupid."


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