John Pizzarelli grew up in a home steeped in music. His first instrument was a tenor banjo, which he was taught by his great-uncle starting at age 6.
To the observation that jazz might not be the most familiar musical genre in Bristol, Tennessee, the New Jersey native is quick to point out the connection: country, jazz and other forms of American music – they all have related roots.
“When I was about 12 years old, there were a lot of guitars in the house, and I started to teach myself guitar. Somewhere along the way, my father heard me learning rock ‘n’ roll songs off of records, and he said, ‘I’ll give you $5 if you learn this Django Reinhardt single,’” he recalls. (His father, Bucky Pizzarelli, is known as one of jazz’s great chord soloists and was a member of “The Tonight Show” band.)
“He started pointing me in the direction of jazz records that I could try and learn so we could play duets together on gigs.”
Now nearly 30 years into his career as a musician in his own right, Pizzarelli has done a lot of different shows over the years. His performances are all about crossing the lines of musical genre in an artful way — from turning pop songs into jazz to giving classic jazz a relevant appeal to those not acquainted with the genre. For example, after he released an album devoted to the Beatles, Pizzarelli was asked by Sir Paul McCartney to translate his songs into a jazz setting which led to “Midnight McCartney.”
For the decade before he formed his own group in 1990, he says he was kind of an apprentice to his father, who’d first learned to play guitar from his uncles and made a living playing jazz. It was in that time frame, around 1980, that he discovered the Nat King Cole Trio — an experience he describes as an ‘Aha’ moment that profoundly influenced his life.
“I say he’s the reason I do what I do. It was just a life-changing moment,” he says. “The songs were fun, and as a 20-year-old, to sing ‘Straighten Up & Fly Right’ or ‘[It’s Only A] Paper Moon’ or ‘The Frim Fram Sauce’ … it was really something that was fun to do with my father.”
About 20 years ago, he says, he and his father finally met on level ground, recording duets together.
Now 93, his father no longer plays — but Pizzarelli is still singing those songs.
The music of Nat King Cole is the focus of his shows this year, including the one at Paramount Bristol on Oct. 11. This year is the centennial of Cole’s birth, Pizzarelli says, so it seemed like a good time to revisit the sound of the drum-less trio, which made its mark on the American music scene in the mid-20th century.
The show, “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole,” will feature Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals, with Mike Karn on double bass and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano. Pizzarelli describes it as “a retrospective on how I got to Nat Cole and how Nat Cole got to me.”
Tickets are $22-$42 (plus applicable taxes and fees), and more information is available online at ParamountBristol.org.
Pizzarelli says that, for him, the enduring beauty of jazz is in its improv and its energy — which are both still very much alive in this music.
“There’s this wonderful idea of improvisation that goes on. After we state the song, after you sing the song, you then as the piano player get to improvise on the song, and the beauty of it is that there’s this sort of conversation that goes on that I think people find fascinating,” he says.
“Everybody gets to ‘tell their story’ on the song, and I learned that idea from the Oscar Peterson Trio, Benny Goodman, Les Paul, those kind of people — and my father. I grew up in a house where I got to meet a lot of these people … so I grew up hearing this music played at the top of its level.”
He says this is one show that IS for the faint of heart – and it will provide a satisfying evening of entertainment.
“It’s a great evening of swing jazz and storytelling, about Nat Cole and jazz and family and things like that,” he says. “It’s a very simple group, but it’s a pretty powerful little unit there. We’re pretty good.”