“THE PIZZA MAN”!
Ray Pizzi’s harmonically sophisticated introspective saxophone (and woodwinds and bassoon) style is something that saxists cannot afford to disregard. His music, to me, is the highest level of communication on the marketplace today. It’s music music combined with openness, clarity seeming simplicity with demanding substance, lyricism with energy yet always reaches out to communicate with the listener.
The pizza man’s work is more than tasty. Through thoughtful repertoire, which should draw raves from anyone’s ears, Ray earns a warm reception no matter where he plays! Be it the intermission music for the Clippers vs. the Lakers game at the L.A. arena, or at the Hollywood Bowl with Henry Mancini or a sleazy L.A. club, or Germany. He’s the closest thing to a sonic safe bet in jazz! He’s got something to satisfy all tastes! Plus he’s a master at true-to-life instrumental timbres. His horns are the primo example of how real instruments sound in the flesh. He’s a wonderful exponent of accurate instrumental timbres, plus sonic realism!
Ray has had a long and fruitful career as a striking and original musician. He’s led his own groups on recordings and live, and has also worked with a diverse group of jazz, pop, rock, movie soundtrack and classical artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Zappa, Woody Herman, Ravi Shankar, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Barbra Streisand, Henry Mancini – to name a few of the more popular artists. You can hear him all over the new soundtrack to Dick Tracey or wailing behind Madonna, or as a composer on the films “ A Golden Opportunity”, “You and Me”, and “Kumann”. These kinds of events earned him N.A.R.A.’s most valuable player for 4 years in a row, plus Talent Deserving Wider Recognition in Downbeat magazine. He’s been featured at the Monterey jazz festival and Playboy jazz festival and the 84 Olympics Arts Festival. Whew -- **!
To top it all off, he’s even been an actor in the cable network film “End of the Rainbow” which earned him awards from the Chicago Film Festival, the Bilboa Film Festival and the Cracow Film Festival. Not bad for a saxophonist! Ray has been in contact with me since the mid 70’s (one of my original network connections). He’s helped me musically, personally and has been a true friend. In 1991 in January I took a short trip to L. A. Needless to say, it was a must to finally meet Ray in person and share his exceptional lucidity, warmth and musicality.
Ray Pizzi is not only a great musician and saxophonist … but most importantly he is a sterling example of a true human being. Enjoy this artiste, dear readers, because this man breathes musical wisdom!
Ray: I think this situation between you and I is great because I think the readers should know that you and I have never met each other and we’ve known each other over 15 years. You and I – it’s been a give-and-take, it’s been a friendship. We speak on the phone practically every week. It’s a great scene. It’s all through your networking, the networking is all about people helping each other.
Tim: I don’t even remember why I first contacted you over 15 years ago.
Ray: Because we both love what we do and we love music! And that’s what brought us together to begin with. It always gets back to that, Tim. Music is the #1 motivation. That’s why we’re both here this evening because we share music together and music was first. The friendship came later. To me, that’s why they call it the universal language. Because it ties people together that way. And it’s people like you that seek it out and you form your friendships because of that. That’s a very important thing that you must know if you want to learn anything about music. And we’ve both gained a lot from each other through it.
Tim: Describe our role in the L. A. music scene.
Ray: First off, I’ve been lucky! I am my own person, musically, personally. What you see is what you get. I don’t wear the Gitano jeans and the cute shirts; I’m me, period.
Versatility is my key motivator. I’ve played Dixieland to gospel to classical, rock and roll gigs. I’ve played with Madonna a lot, and I’ve gone from that to playing with the San Francisco symphony within a span of 2 weeks. Ya see what I’m saying? Versatility is very important. My function in this town is that I play saxophone, clarinet, flute and bassoon for a living. I call myself a woodwind player. On top of all that, I’ve studied a lot of music. One thing I can do is make it music! And I’ve done it my way – [laughter]. That’s why I’m leery of anything new that comes along ’cause I’ve made it on the old shit already.
Tim: When you first came to L. A. you didn’t come here to try to be a star or just get a hit record, did you?
Ray: No! That usually is reserved for people that are current. In other words, when I got here Wilton Felder and Jim Horn were the hot overdub sax cats. They were current. You don’t come here looking for that. You come here to earn a living and to get into the business.
The first thing I did when I got here was I played at a strip joint called the “Body Shop”. I played there for 6 months, just to earn a living. From there I went to Willie BoBos Latin band and then I met up with Hank Mancini. I worked with Hank on a John Phillip Sousa album in 1972. They needed a hundred clarinet players for this date so I got the call!! HA!
So we had 15 clarinet players on the first chair, which I played.
So through all this I was still playing with woodwind quartets and trios, just to play so I didn’t go crazy.
So through all this I met Gene Cipriano, who’s the #1 A class woodwind doubler in town. He’s a classic here. There ain’t no better than Gene. And I had played trios with Gene, and through Gene I got the call to do the “Mancini Generation” T.V. show. So this is how I got in with Hank Mancini. That was a big in for me, and it was through “Cip”, Gene Cipriano!
So that really got my studio stuff rolling. I do some trips now with Hank; I’m the #3 guy. I’m the #3 sub. I’ve been with Hank since, almost 20 years. He’s even written me a bassoon concerto!
But what I want to stress is that learning to survive in this business is versatility. All those strip gigs, those gigs in dumps, learning tunes and surviving. Not thinking of a star or wanting to become a star. I don’t care about that.
And the guys that become stars are the ones that don’t get to play too much anymore because they always got somebody telling them what the hell to do. They can’t go work a $30 or $40 jazz gig to have fun and really play and play some good music man. To me, stardom is not as important as earning a living and being able to provide my family with the things that they need. That’s what’s important to me. I’m doing everything, and that’s what I came here to do! Not to become a star but to earn a living as a musician.
Tim: Describe the soundtrack on Dick Tracy you did with Madonna. Didn’t something pretty crazy happen?
Ray: Well, they went through about 10 of the current L.A. happy sax players, and it came to that nobody could play a pretty ballad, soft and luscious and sensitive. And they went through all these guys and they got some good players here.
But it goes back to that strip lounge joint stuff! Having to play “Body and Soul” behind a stripper and make her horny so she’ll dance good. That’s the stuff right there. It’s not hi-tech playing.
Tim: What did Madonna do when she heard you?
Ray: She went nuts, totally berserk! She pressed the button on the studio wall and says, “Pizza Man, this is Madonna …”
So I looked up and said “Madonna WHO?” [ LAUGHTER]
She really dug it; the whole studio cracked up, the band engineers and all had to take a break after that one!
So I ended up doing the rest of the solos on the date ’cause she dug it so much. She freaked out!
Tim: You work really hard on the study aspect on your woodwinds. Describe your association with the legendary Simon Kovar, who played bassoon in the N.B.C. symphony under Toscanini. You studied with Simon. Share that aspect.
Ray: Actually that was one of the first reasons I came out here was to study with Simon. At that time I was a junior high teacher in Boston and I knew I could play and I wanted to play, but I was either going to go to New York or L.A. and someone hipped me to Simon Kovar and was telling me what a great teacher he was. And I figured to get into the studios, bassoon would be good to have. So I decided to come out to study with Simon. He really showed me the concept of making it music! He showed me this, and this concept carried through on all my other axes.
Up to Simon, I was proficient at my craft. I could play fast, I knew my horns, I cold play technically, I could do this, I could do that. But it was that subtle stuff, or making it bleed, or cry, or laugh -- Simon clicked that in for me.
It's really easy to play "the music", but you got to play
T-H-E M-U-S-I-C …
Ya know? Capital letters, but you must get part all that technical stuff to play, T-H-E M-U-S-I-C.
I've had many great teachers in my time. Joe Viola was another one who was fantastic.
Ya know Tim, someone ought to make a list of all the guys who studied with Joe Viola. I bet it would be awesome 'cause some of the major sax players throughout history. Joe Viola is a giant among giants.
Tim: You're right, Ray, and those of us who have studied with him know that!
Ray: That would be a good one to make list of cats who studied with Joe Viola. Another one who helped me was Jim Progris. He taught me a lot too at Berkeley. Everything from Stravinsky to strippers.
See I keep comin' back to the strip joints 'cause that's the trenches. You have time to learn on those gigs. It's on-the-job training and there's not much of that around anymore. It's a different attitude towards playing. They don't want that experience either; they all want to get a horn and become rich and be a star. But they don't want to go through the trenches where you learn about music. I'm not saying just learning the sax; that's a minor part of music. It's the subtleties that's important.
Tim: How would you describe your view of the state of the saxophone today?
Ray: I'm really sick of it. It sounds too much the same. It lacks personality today. It's lacking individuality, plus everyone is trying to sound alike.
Plus what has happened to the tenor saxophone. The tenor is the most incredible instrument in the universe. It's the most personal of all the instruments. It's the most emotional of all the instruments, but … all the guys sound alike. Nobody is exploring what the instrument can do. Like guys like Paul Gonsalves or Ben Webster or John Coltrane or Joe Henderson did. I would say the state of the saxophone is becoming very boring. There are a few people in L.A. that are really totally unique. John Gross on tenor is one. He explores the instrument his way. Justo Almario is another one who is amazing. He's totally himself. He does it his way and sounds great.
Tim: I feel Justo is one of the unsung titans of the tenor. His sound is so human and throaty.
Ray: You're right! I also think the alto is in worse shape than the tenor 'cause of everyone is going for that L.A. happy sax stuff and that's business sax. It's got nothing to do with music. To me, not just the sax but music is getting so hung up.
Tim: Talk and describe what's missing today. It's a concept thing; talk about a saxist who has to play in a sax section. Right, that style "business sax" does not fit into a sax section.
Ray: Sure, absolutely right! First of all, outside of schools, where can these kids get experience? Where can they go play in a big band? So they are getting everything just from a teacher, and that's not always the best! You got to hit the trenches, play dives, play big bands. You know when you sit in front of a teacher, it’s almost like a hospital; it’s too clean. Everything is so sterile. Plus, business sax is all solo. Today, everyone wants to be a solo player! It just don’t work in a big band to even think like that. You got to accompany the lead alto player. It got nothing to do with the ego; it’s your function. Young guys today have no idea how to do this, they all got this rocket killing mouthpieces that you could shoot down Scud missiles with, yet they can’t accompany a lead alto saxist. This is being lost. It’s a lost art, it’s the subtleties of the instrument. It’s the art of music, it’s what the instrument should do! Nobody does this anymore, they just want to blow out your windows--period! If they can do that and knock a couple of birds out of a tree, they’re fine. That’s all they care about.
The best sax section I ever played in was in the Louie Bellson band. It had a great sax section. It was me, Joe Romano, Don Menza, Pete Christlieb, and Allan Beitler. We even farted in unison; it was all done with a brotherhood thing of 'hey, we’re all in this together.' It was a team effort. It was exciting; you stood up to play a solo with these guys and you hung on for dear life. It was a 100% effort. It’s a team job. If there’s one ego in there with this rocket killer mouthpiece, it’s gonna stick out and it’s going to sound like shit.
Tim: Let’s center for a bit on John Gross, I’ve heard him recently on a beautiful CD on the Nine Winds label but also with Toshiko’s Big Band, and years before on L.P.s with Shelly Manne. What makes him hit you and me like that? Aside from the fact that he’s just being John Gross?
Ray: That’s probably the most important part, that he is being John Gross every time he plays. I feel I should mention his name here 'cause he’s sort of unknown and I respect him 'cause he can make it music and make it personal. He is an improviser; he sounds like himself. I have never copied Bird or Trane licks, so it took me a little longer, but I came into something that’s mine. And I respect anyone who moves along those same lines.
To hear someone play the same solo on different tunes drives me nuts. That’s not my idea of enjoyment. But I could listen to Justo or Gross all night!
Tim: Let’s describe that little woodwind trio you have… That’s more of a concert thing, yet very original.
Ray: It’s called the Wind Syndicate. We’ve got Miriam Sosewitz on the flute. Miriam has studied with James Galway for many years - a real kick ass flute player, unbelievable. Morton Lewis plays clarinet and I play the bassoon. In this particular group I’ve written all the music, it’s all original.
It’s a project I undertook after coming home from Germany on a tour with my own band. I was so popping with creativity, so I just started writing out the music. And let me tell you, Tim, as you know - but for the readers of Sax Journal - all through my life as jazz player, I’ve always been involved in playing with the woodwind quintets playing Mozart and Beethoven, so this new trio has been a major part of my span.
Tim: I know when I get together and do trio playing on my woodwinds or playing quartets, I really feel good; its another kind of energy and I feel like my playing is getting more crystallized.
Ray: Yes! It makes you feel good. I call it focusing. I get more focused, though, you call it crystallizing, it’s the same result.
We played and opened for the American orchestra with the trio. Plus we play clubs too! That’s my thing, if anyone comes to L.A. to hear me, I’m always in some club or joint gigging. I’m always somewhere!
This trio is another expression, as I say I came here to work, so if I make $50 on a club date, I’m cool-the dogs have food! [LAUGHTER] The best way to get even is to survive!
Tim: How did you get hooked up into playing in Europe? I bet the readers will have to know!
Ray: Here we go again! I was playing at a club in Venice, California called the “Come Back Inn” and Milcho was on piano. We gig together a lot and have played together for years. It’s always thrilling. It’s an adventure to play with Milcho! So only one person showed up, and he was the guy who booked me for Germany!
So when I tell you guys to get out in those clubs and play, you get out in those clubs and play. That’s it! If you’re not doing your thing, you ain’t doing it!
You got to get out there and do, and that gig with Milcho was a door gig, we played for the door.
The tour of Germany was through Southern Germany, Bavaria, etc. I was there two times so far! The rhythm section was totally beautiful, I had:
Christian Stock on bass and he puts together the tour.
Heimo L –drums.
Try saying those names real fast after three German beers! But it’s a great situation!
Tim: The reviews you got from Germany were incredible and it mentioned your soprano playing a lot. I think you’re an innovator on soprano; you got your own sound on that old straight conn. But what is it that you do to get such a great concept on soprano? I mean it’s not Bechet stuff, it’s not Lucky Thompson stuff nor is it Trane based, yet it’s in that circle of greatness! And I know you use a redone Selmer round bore rubber soprano mouthpiece by Glen Johnston, the mouthpiece man in L.A., and John Winslow’s amazing ligature. But let’s talk soprano!
Ray: You’re right about my equipment, I love that Glen Johnston revised Selmer mouthpiece. You got to approach the soprano as a soprano; it’s not a tenor or guitar. You got to approach it for what it is! Think about it, guys, do not do that.
Tim: I think you have your own voice on it; it’s an amazing conception on soprano.
Ray: Thank you! But I think I have my own voice on all my horns. The soprano is an incredible horn. I think what helps is that I got a Masters degree in the clarinet and I’ve played a lot of clarinet in my life. So had that straight horn concept, its got a voice of its own. You got to play different licks on soprano, different phrases.
Tim: A tenor lick, or a line that’s going to sound hip on tenor or alto is going to be odd on soprano, the shape of the phrasing and the sound of the construction.
Ray: It’s a higher instrument. A lot of things guys don’t explore is lower register of the instrument! It’s a beautiful area. It’s clear and pretty. Screaming and playing real high on it is a means to an end. I did that myself too, till I learned of that beautiful, rich, low register. Then you use the high register as a place to get to, not be all the time!
Tim: What about the movie you acted in?
Ray: The flick was based on the old over the rainbow joke. It’s about a sax player who practiced his whole life to play “Over the Rainbow” for the Queen and he plays the bridge and forgets the bridge and gets booed and jumps out the window because he’s so depressed. And in his last breath he hears the ambulance come by, and the ambulance is playing the bridge to “Over the Rainbow”. Robin Williams was to be the actor, so Robin cancelled out of the project! Now I already did the soundtrack so I was there. So the producer comes up to me and says, “Can you act, Pizza Man?”
I said, “Yeah, I’ve been acting all my life!” So I wound up acting to my own playing. And it won ten movie festivals first place. And Chicago Film Festival.
It's about a tenor player who can’t remember a bridge to “Over the Rainbow.”
Tim: I know this is something this magazine never talked about, but you and I have talked about it a lot.
Ray: Yes!! Your teeth and your gums. You must have a good dentist and take care of your mouth, or you won’t be able to play your sax. I had an infection in my gums called gingivitis, which will eventually lead to tooth loss, so it’s important to get your gums and teeth checked as much as possible.
Okay, let’s talk realistic. Without health there ain’t no music. When you can’t use your mouth properly it’s too late. You must keep an eye on this area. It’s important to have your front teeth to play. Water Pick is very good to use; I floss, and I like to use Arm and Hammer Baking Soda toothpaste, which is very good. What you also got to do is get your teeth cleaned by your dentist. Cats don’t like to shell out the money, but look-ya gotta do it, 'cause if you don’t, you’re taking it away from the end! Later on it will catch up to you. Forget that new expensive mouthpiece and get your teeth checked!
Tim: My dentist does P.C. and restorative dentistry too, and has x-rays of my mouth on file. You can check with your local dental association.
Ray: Teeth are an obvious thing, but your gums give you no sign. What I had was gingivitis, which eats the bone away.
Tim: Who did you study clarinet with in Boston? And who are your inspirations jazz wise?
Ray: I studied clarinet with Attilio Poto at Boston Conservatory. When I went to Berklee from '60 through 64, they weren’t accredited yet; they were doing jazz education at Berklee, and all the classical courses and other courses were out of the Boston Conservatory. I had the benefit of both of those schools!
There were people going to Berklee then, like Gary Burton, Tony Williams, Steve Marcus…It was a great education. It was incredible. I also learned a lot from Charlie Mariano in my Boston days; he’s an influence to me, yes. In my early years, yes, Charlie just made me say “Wow” when I heard him. Though apart from that, I tried to do it my own way; I knew I had my way of playing and it worked for me.
Tim: Any final things you’d like to leave the readers with as an ending thought?
Ray: The thrilling moments are always there, the phone ring and you never know what’s going to be on the other end of it. It’s a wonderful business. You always get that thrill. And as old as you get, no matter what age you are, that thrill or the possibility for that thrill is there. You gotta hang in there with it. You’re gonna be thrilled. Somewhere along the line over and over. Music is really an incredible thing!
This Article Was Done January, 1991
By Tim Price
Location Los Angeles, California
Click Here To Return To Articles