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‘He wanted everyone in’: John Pizzarelli remembers arranger Don Sebesky

Don Sebesky
c/o the artist
Don Sebesky

Don Sebesky was game. He was on your side and always wanted to communicate your vision. He made great records with everyone from Wes Montgomery to Chet Baker, George Benson to Maynard Ferguson, arranged television commercials (anyone remember “The Wonder of It All” in the Northeast?) and orchestrated Broadway shows. I think that’s because he wrote “theatrically.” He was always thinking about the end result. Don wanted everyone in.

There is so much amazing work with so many people. Check out “Summation” and “Cakewalk” from the original cast recording of Parade and how he intertwines the inside of the courthouse and the outside at the verdict, or his "Take the A Train" for Maynard Ferguson, the arrangement of "Lazy Afternoon" for Jackie and Roy which interpolated Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, his soaring “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” for Michael Feinstein, the Grammy award-winning “Joyful Noise Suite” from his Duke Ellington recording or his tribute album to Bill Evans I Remember Bill (with no piano on the record). Such diverse work all written with the idea, in my mind, that “We’re gonna get new people to the party without compromise!”

Take The "A" Train

Don wrote a big band chart for me based on me singing what I thought could happen and me saying, “It’s a combination of ‘Bugle Call Rag’ and ‘One O’clock Jump.’” When I got to the number on the session he said, “Just play on the guitar what you sang to me on the cassette” and it was even better than I could have imagined.

John Pizzarelli - Say Hey Kid

To that end, my friend Jason Robert Brown wrote that, “Don Sebesky listened to my music and showed me colors and textures in it that I never knew were there.” He did that for so many of us. It was an honor to watch and work with this genius and he will be sorely missed.

Guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli has been hailed by the Boston Globe for “reinvigorating the Great American Songbook and re-popularizing jazz.” Established as one of the prime contemporary interpreters of the Great American Songbook, Pizzarelli has expanded that repertoire by including the music of Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Antônio Carlos Jobim and the Beatles. In addition to being a bandleader and solo performer, Pizzarelli has been a special guest on recordings for major pop names such as Natalie Cole, Kristin Chenoweth, Tom Wopat, Rickie Lee Jones and Dave Van Ronk, as well as leading jazz artists such as Rosemary Clooney, Ruby Braff, Johnny Frigo, Buddy DeFranco, Harry Allen and, of course, his father Bucky Pizzarelli. He won a Grammy Award in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category as co-producer of James Taylor’s American Standard in 2021. A radio personality who got his start in the medium in 1984, Pizzarelli is co-host, alongside wife Jessica Molaskey, of Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli. He has performed on America’s most popular national television shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Conan, and Great Performances, as well as the talk shows of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Regis Philbin and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.