Selflessness is not a quality one often associates with artists. After all, creative people have their personal visions and usually spend their careers trying to get other people to help them realize those aspirations. Jazz guitarist John Pisano, known as a musician’s musician, is universally regarded as an empathetic player. That collaborative gene has served the Los Angeles jazz community well. The weekly Guitar Night he’s hosted will mark its 15th anniversary this Tuesday at Lucy’s 51 in Toluca Lake. It’s a milestone worthy of note.
The popular Tuesday night showcase has had several homes (Papashon, Rocco, Spazio’s, Vitello’s) since the 81-year-old Pisano founded it in 1997. It’s been an ongoing focal point for jazz guitarists of all stripes, and his efforts have fostered a sense of community among guitarists. Virtually every local jazz guitarist has duetted with Pisano.
“We took it to Birdland in New York a couple of years ago,” Pisano says proudly from his Studio City home. “George Benson and all of the New York guys came in and we were sold out every night.”
Last March Pisano installed Guitar Night at Lucy’s 51 in Toluca Lake, a popular lunch-dinner-and-drinks destination. He’s had management construct a bandstand and invest in a sound system. “They’ve been very accommodating,” he smiles.
Pisano first gained national interest when he joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1957. Fred Katz played cello in the band and wrote and arranged much of the music. “John a lot of technique and facility,” he relates from his home in Fullerton, “but I loved that he was so lyrical. I wrote a piece and there was a place where I didn’t know what to do. I gave eight bars over to John and he played such a beautiful melodic solo that I wish I had written it.”
Putter Smith, whose older brother, Carson, was the Hamilton Quintet bassist, has played bass at some of the Guitar Nights. “I’ve known John for 55 years,” he offers, “and I’ve worked more with him in the last two years than ever before. He’s a very deep player and his generosity of spirit shows in the way he supports other musicians.”
Guitarist Pat Kelley has been playing Guitar Night since the Papashon days. “John’s format is very loose,” he says, “I like to swing and play melodically and John is great at accompanying for that.”
A key to Pisano’s protean nature is his tenure as a rhythm accompanist for virtuoso guitarist Joe Pass. Dave Koonse succeeded John in the Hamilton band. Koonse observes: “Rhythm guitar is a study. It teaches you how to look for open spaces and to sing on the instrument. John and I each like rhythm playing, but he allows you to have the spotlight because it’s your night.”
Sid Jacobs, a guitarist who’s been a frequent Pisano guest, stresses a point: “John brings in lots of guitar players — some with big names and some who aren’t very well known. They call him from New York and other places to let him know when they’ll be in town so they can do a Guitar Night. John doesn’t get any more money for a famous name, and they don’t ask for it. They just want to play with John.”
The Los Angeles Jazz Society has also taken notice of Pisano’s ongoing efforts at Lucy’s 51. At its 29th Annual Jazz Tribute dinner and show on October 21 at the Hilton Universal City, Pisano will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.
John Pisano’s Guitar Night 15th Anniversary
When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Where: Lucy’s 51, 10149 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (818) 763-5200, www.lucys51.com