When Ray Pizzi, whose woodwind artistry has been tapped by such Oscar-winning film composers as Henry Mancini, decided to move from Boston in 1970, some of the forces propelling him to Southern California were obvious.
He wanted to see if he could make it in the musical major leagues.
But there was another reason for the move: Pizzi wanted to study the bassoon.
At the time, Pizzi, who received his BA from the jazz-based Berklee School of Music and his MA in music performance from the Boston Conservatory, had been teaching music in a secondary school near Boston for over five years.
And while he liked the work, and relished exercising his jazz saxophone chops with some of Boston's best bands--from Herb Pomeroy's big band to Gene di Stacio's Brass Menagerie--Pizzi believed he owed it to himself to take a shot at the big time.
Plus he wanted to take lessons from Simon Kovar. Pizzi discovered from associates that Kovar, a former second bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic, was considered to be one of the finest teachers of the large double-reed instrument--along with former Los Angeles Philharmonic bassoonist Frederic Moritz.
"I figured I had to either go to New York or L.A., so when I found out that Simon lived in Los Angeles, I moved here," Pizzi said while standing in the small guest house behind his Van Nuys home that serves as his studio.
In his almost 20 years here, he's played or recorded with the cream of the crop: Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Frank Zappa, Shelly Manne, Horace Silver, Bobby McFerrin. And Pizzi, who, like idol Sonny Rollins, is rarely seen without a hat of one kind or another, has become a bassoon whiz.
In Kovar's hands, Pizzi--who began on clarinet at age 5 and added tenor saxophone at 14--showed a real talent for the instrument that he laughingly admitted he "couldn't figure out how to put together" when he first got it in 1968.
"Simon was retired but he took me on, and really took an interest in me," said Pizzi, dressed in a black sweat shirt, jeans and Panama hat. "I studied with him three times a week. Sometimes the lessons ran three hours, and because of his devotion to me, I really developed."
From 1980 through 1984, he was voted the Most Valuable Player on bassoon by his studio session colleagues, the performing members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
"That felt fantastic, to be chosen by your peers," he said in the kitchen of the home he shares with his wife, Marilyn, and their two children, Alicia and Michael.
In 1981, when Mancini was commissioned by the New American Orchestra to write a piece, his opus was titled "Piece for Jazz Bassoon and Orchestra." It was written specifically for Pizzi and premiered by him with the orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that year.
"When I heard what he could do with it, his command of the instrument was so awesome, I said, 'I gotta write this piece,' " said Mancini--who first used Pizzi on "The Mancini Generation" CBS TV show in 1972. "Bassoon is not an easy instrument to play and to pick it up and play it like a flute or a saxophone is quite an accomplishment."
Nowadays, Pizzi makes most of his public appearances on bassoon with the Wind Syndicate, a trio that includes clarinetist Morton Lewis and flutist Miriam Sosewitz, which was spotlighted at a recent Royce Hall concert with the New American Orchestra and can be heard Jan. 24 at the Comeback Inn in Venice.
"I can't say enough about these people," he said. "They take those notes on the paper and make it music. I haven't been this excited about a project of mine in a long time."
"We've been playing together for three years, the regular classical literature," he continued. "But since I came back from Germany, where I toured for three weeks last May strictly as a jazz artist, I have been orchestrating my originals for the group."
How does Pizzi describe his trio's music? "Oh, man," he said, stopping, spreading his hands in frustration, searching for words. "I call it third-stream jazz-classical. There are pieces that are kind of classical, kind of jazz, some humorous, some passionate, with little improvising."
Though it might seem that bassoon is Pizzi's main instrument, he quickly begs to differ. "Bassoon, saxophones, flute, clarinet, I love them all," he said, "but if there is one main horn, the tenor saxophone would be that. All of the hard work, the learning about music, came about on the saxophone. My personal maturity is most evident on the tenor."
The tenor side of "Pizzaman," as Pizzi jokingly calls himself, is on tap at Residuals in Studio City where he appears Sunday, and Jan. 25 at Alfonse's in Toluca Lake with accordionist Frank Marocco, guitarist Al Viola and drummer Paul Humphrey.
Behind closed doors, Pizzi remains active in the Los Angeles studio scene, where recent assignments have included work with Mancini and with Jeremy Lubbock, who used the multi-reedman in a big-band setting behind Madonna on the score of the upcoming Warren Beatty film "Dick Tracy" and a couple of TV films with Johnny Mandel, best known for his haunting ballad, "The Shadow of Your Smile."
Asked why he has been so successful, Pizzi thought a moment, then said: "These guys hire me to do what I do, to make it music. If a note needs an attitude, I can give it. I play silly, I play funny, I play sad."
Like many top-flight session players, the 46-year-old Pizzi also works the occasional "casual"--musicians' parlance for private parties. He likes the balance, not to mention the income, they provide.
"I'm versatile, so it never gets to be boring," he said, smiling. "Sure, it's not busy all the time, but I do enough things that I'm not depending on one arm of the business to keep me busy. I have done nothing but play my instruments for the past 20 years. No day gigs. Not a one. And that's lucky. You can be a fine musician but you still have to be lucky. Timing is everything.
"My thing, and this is what I've been trying to teach my kids, is that it's got to be fun. If it's not fun, forget it. I'll play tunes for people at parties who want to dance. Fine. I ain't that proud. If I'm playing good music and I'm playing my heart, that's all I need to do."
As for career highlights, Pizzi listed the following: "Working with people like Hank Mancini, Johnny Mandel, Dan Foliart, John Williams and Jack Elliot, who have all been so loyal. Playing the Mancini piece at the Hollywood Bowl in 1987, with my mother in the audience. Getting in some hot tenor solos on the sound track of 'Grease,' playing my bassoon in the score for that weird nightclub scene in 'Return of the Jedi,' appearing at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Bobby McFerrin and Toots Thielemans in 1987, and, of course, the movie."
"The movie" is "End of the Rainbow," a short art film by Laszlo Papas and Marino Colmano in which Pizzi stars as a down-and-out saxophonist, freezing in a squalid London flat (it was actually shot in downtown Los Angeles). He hallucinates and thinks he sees a rainbow, and this inspires him to pick up his saxophone, walk to the fire escape and play "Over the Rainbow." But he can't remember the bridge, the two-note-based middle portion that fits the words, "Someday I'll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. . . ." He's so depressed at forgetting the passage that he jumps from the fire escape, and as he lies dying in the street, he opens his eyes and, in an ironic twist, recognizes that the two notes of the arriving ambulance's swaying Klaxon horn are the very notes that begin the portion of the song he had forgotten.
"That was probably the high point of my life," he said. "I was spoiled rotten for seven days. The star of the movie. 'What would you like now, Mr. Pizzi?' An unbelievable experience."
Pizzi, who goes to the Soviet Union to perform next May, said, pointing toward his studio, "The great thing is from that little room, I've reached that far. That's encouraging. I'll be happy with more of the same, quite frankly."
Ray Pizzi will play tenor saxophone 9 p.m. Sunday at Residuals, 11042 Ventura Blvd., Studio City (818) 761-8301, and 9:15 p.m. Jan. 25 at Alfonse's, 10057 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake (818) 761-3511. There are no cover charges for either sets.