John Pisano, dean of L.A. jazz guitar, dies at 93

A man plays a jazz guitar
John Pisano
(Bob Barry / Jazzography)

Jazz guitarist extraordinaire John Pisano, renowned for his solid rhythm, melodic solo lines and generosity, died May 2 at his home in Studio City with his wife Jeanne by his side. He was 93 years old.

Pisano’s career spanned seven decades and included sharing the stage or recording studio with many jazz luminaries, including Chico Hamilton, Herb Alpert, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, his longtime friend Joe Pass, and nearly every notable guitarist in the business as host for 22 years of his Guitar Night at Spazio Restaurant in Sherman Oaks.

Bob Bakert, editor of Jazz Guitar Today, said, “A finer gentleman I’ve never met. John was a consummate gentleman and a gracious, truly caring guy. It was always about the music and camaraderie and his love for his fellow musicians. John was a master craftsman.” Bakert noted that Pisano’s Guitar Night tradition lives on in distinguished guitarist Frank Vignola’s Guitar Night at Birdland in New York, an intentional tribute to Pisano.


Vignola said, “At the age of 5, one of the first recordings I heard was Joe Pass’ ‘For Django.’ My guitar teacher, Jimmy George, and my father used to tell me to listen to the rhythm guitarist, John. I got to know him and record with him in the early 2000s when I played a rare touring appearance with Les Paul. He had me over to his house, made me a pizza and we recorded all afternoon. What a swinging guitar player. Later, while on tour with Vinny Raniolo, we played Guitar Night.

John Pisano and Chris Conner in 2017.
(Bob Barry / Jazzography)

“This totally inspired me to aspire to having a Guitar Night in New York City. After COVID, Ryan Paternite reached out to me … asking if I would consider a weekly Guitar Night, ‘like John Pisano’s,’ as he put it. I was pleasantly surprised that he knew of John and how awesome his Guitar Night was. I immediately jumped at the opportunity, and we’ve been there almost three years now, every Wednesday night playing to near sold-out crowds weekly.

“What a great personality, person, player, songwriter and pizza maker.”

“John originally began his regular and ongoing (over almost two decades) Guitar Night series as a way to keep his chops in good shape and to stay inspired via encounters with other guitarists,” said Anthony Wilson, a guitarist and composer who is known for a body of work that moves fluidly across genres and is a frequent guest at Guitar Night.

The steady gig quickly became a hub for the guitar community in L.A. and was eventually a required stop for the many noted players who traveled here from around the country as well as from points beyond. Pisano grew very naturally into his role as the dean of this large intergenerational group of guitarists, guitar designers and builders, and guitar enthusiasts, hosting the evenings with a warm, generous spirit, and playing with a wide-open sense of musical curiosity that invited diverse approaches to the instrument and always kept the music vital and absorbing, Wilson remembers.

Pisano was born on Staten Island, N.Y., on Feb. 6, 1931. His first influence musically was his father, Americo Pisano, who played guitar but never professionally, according to John’s online biography. He started learning piano at about the age of 10, but never really cared to practice. It was about 13 when he started playing guitar.


He developed quickly on the instrument, showing as much innate skill as musical understanding. Then he heard Charlie Christian, a pioneer of jazz guitar, and not long after Django Reinhardt, which deepened his love for the guitar. He was also introduced to the jazz radio station WOV in New York and heard Charlie Parker. “Birdland had a live broadcast about 3 or 3:30 in the morning. I remember recording people off the radio like Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro with an acetate disc recorder that I owned,” he wrote.

John Pisano in 2013
(Bob Barry / Jazzography)

In 1952, after being in the U.S. Air Force for about eight months, Pisano auditioned for the Air Force Band. It was the only authorization for a guitarist in the Air Force, and he got the gig, which included a lot of recruiting broadcasts.

Pisano said that he never considered himself to be a professional musician until he started playing with the U.S. Air Force band. He was also playing with the Crew Chiefs, an official Air Force group that did some touring, including a 1955 Bob Hope U.S.O. show in Greenland and a spot on “The Steve Allen Show” in Los Angeles.

When he left the service, Pisano was planning to attend the Manhattan School of Music. Shortly before he started his studies, saxophonist and friend Paul Horn, who was then working with the Chico Hamilton band, called to say that Jim Hall was about to leave the band. Horn persuaded Hamilton to audition Pisano, who joined the band and ended up staying in California. Hamilton’s band could be described as a chamber jazz quintet and produced several successful albums, including the music for the film “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

Pisano left the Hamilton band circa 1956 and did some session work while he studied music at Los Angeles City College. In 1958, Pisano recorded two albums of guitar duets with Billy Bean, “Makin’ It,” and “Take Your Pick,” which were both well-received.


Pisano met Pass in 1962, when he asked Pass to fill in for him with Pat Cavanaugh’s band while Pisano went on tour with Peggy Lee. Pass was still at Synanon but he was already something of a legend and very well known throughout guitar and jazz circles. Their first recording together, “For Django,” in 1964, has become a touchstone among jazz guitarists. They went on to record well over a dozen albums together including “Whitestone,” which Pisano co-produced; “Ira, George and Joe” in 1981, on which Pass played a 12-string guitar; and “Duets” in 1991, an album of rich interplay and complex harmonies.

John Pisano, Jim Fox and Dave Stone, 1999
John Pisano, Jim Fox and Dave Stone in 1999.
(Bob Barry / Jazzography)

Always keeping busy, in addition to his session work, Pisano joined Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass in 1967. He contributed tunes to the band’s repertoire and recorded with many artists who were on Alpert’s A&M record label. Pisano played on all the early Sergio Mendes hits, and some tunes with Burt Bacharach. During that period, he was always traveling and recording. He was with Alpert’s band for about four years before the band folded.

“John was certainly a father figure to me, both personally and musically, encouraging me and showing me astounding things on the instrument at a crucial point in my development as a musician,” said Wilson, “I relished the many opportunities I had to play with him and learn from him, from casual sessions at home that included his famous homemade pizzas, to many Guitar Nights, recording studios and concert halls.”

Apart from a great teacher, Wilson also describes John as a lifelong student. The two sometimes took lessons together — often joining “life-changing” tandem two-hour sessions with the legendary guitar teacher Ted Greene. Wilson added, “As a duo partner John was truly remarkable, always providing the exact kind of accompaniment needed — the right chord, the right rhythm, the right feel — with a sensitivity that seemed to be a musical reflection of his personality, which was empathetic, encouraging, and nurturing — like the best kind of friend, you always knew John had your back.”

Pisano is survived by his wife, Jeanne, a singer who performed with John as the Flying Pisanos, his son Christopher and daughter Alyssa. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Pisano’s honor to the Los Angeles Jazz Society.