Remembering the Musicians Felled by COVID-19

This continuing feature honors the musicians taken from us by COVID-19.

by
Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne performs in New York City in 2012. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

This continuing feature honors the musicians taken from us by the coronavirus. Artists are organized by the date of their passing. – Ed.

Bucky Pizzarelli
1.9.1926 – 4.1.2020

The legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, whose career spanned seven decades in jazz, pop and TV, died in New Jersey at 94. Pizzarelli coupled virtuosic ability with impeccable taste, imbuing timeless melodies with embracing emotion and exquisite simplicity. His tone beamed with an avuncular warmth, making him an ideal accompanist for the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman and his musician sons, bassist Martin and guitarist/vocalist John, a star of mainstream jazz and traditional pop.

Born in Paterson, N.J., in 1926, Pizzarelli began his career in the 1940s with singer Vaughn Monroe’s dance band. For the next few decades he was as prolific as he was anonymous, recording on countless studio sessions and working as a staff musician for NBC, where he was a member of the Tonight Show band under both Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen. The modesty impressed upon his playing by those journeyman years comes across in the heartfelt intimacy of his own work, which insists on shining the spotlight on the song rather than the player.

That approach was undoubtedly a core reason for his long association with Benny Goodman, with whom he toured often from the mid-’60s until the bandleader’s death in 1986. An adaptable performer, Pizzarelli dabbled in the pop world throughout his career, beginning with a stint with the Three Suns and continuing with numerous recording sessions, including dates with Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney. His own music always delighted in an older style, rooted in Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and Freddie Green — though never with the dogmatic insistence of many a traditionalist. Instead, his interpretations of classics always felt like a familiar story, captivatingly told with tender passion, sweet humor and well-polished timing.

Ellis Marsalis Jr.
11.14.1934 – 4.1.2020

Pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., an NEA Jazz Master and patriarch of the renowned jazz dynasty, died in New Orleans at 85. A foundational figure in his native New Orleans, Marsalis’ influence was based more on his work as a guiding force than as a performer. His imprint on the modern jazz landscape would be profound if only for the generation-defining work of his two oldest sons, saxophonist Branford and trumpeter Wynton, who ushered in a bold revival of straightahead jazz at the vanguard of the Young Lions movement in the 1980s. But his work as an educator, at institutions including the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Xavier University of Louisiana and the University of New Orleans, extended his impact well beyond his own family, through the work of star pupils like Nicholas Payton, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison.

Though he had worked with such jazz giants as Nat and Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman in the ’50s and ’60s, Marsalis’ name would not become well known outside of the Crescent City until the rise to fame of his children. Four of his six sons became musicians; after Branford and Wynton came trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibraphonist Jason. In 2011, the entire family was (not without some controversy) honored as NEA Jazz Masters, the music’s most prestigious honor.

Marsalis held down a weekly Friday night spot at the New Orleans club Snug Harbor for more than three decades before retiring early this year, becoming a tourist attraction in his own right. He represented the city’s jazz legacy with erudite sophistication but always a slight twinkle in the eye, allowing his playful spirit to shine through the elegance and occasionally erupt in a burst of raucous swing. Upon the news of his passing, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell wrote, “Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.”

Adam Schlesinger
10.31.1967 – 4.1.2020

Adam Schlesinger, who died at 52 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was a power-pop renaissance man, a jack-of-all-trades who never turned down an opportunity to craft a soaring chorus. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, best known as a founding member of the hook-savvy indie act Fountains of Wayne, chased an unusually diverse career beyond the parameters of a rock band — including a variety of songwriting contributions for TV and film. His breakout work as a writer was the sugar-coated 1996 cut “That Thing You Do!,” the Oscar-nominated title tune to the Tom Hanks-directed comedy of the same name. The song was technically credited to the film’s stars, fictional ’60s band the Wonders — and that anonymity set a precedent for a rock star comfortable operating in the shadows. Schlesinger did quietly earn recognition at award shows over the decades, including — among others — earning a 2008 Tony nod for his work on the musical Cry-Baby, winning a Best Comedy Album Grammy in 2010 for cowriting a Stephen Colbert Christmas project and stacking up multiple Primetime Emmys.

He also found success writing for other artists, including tracks for pop-rock idols the Monkees, soft-rock duo America and stadium-packing pop superstars the Jonas Brothers. In between these eclectic projects, Schlesinger managed to fuel three indie/power-pop bands of his own: the short-lived supergroup Tinted Windows (which, during its run from 2009 to 2011, featured members of Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick and Hanson), Ivy and Fountains of Wayne. The lattermost group, defined by his songwriting collaboration with singer-guitarist Chris Collingwood, cemented Schlesinger’s sound for the mainstream. Their commercial peak came with 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, particularly the Grammy-nominated single “Stacy’s Mom,” a blissfully catchy anthem that seemed to update the Cars’ “Just What I Needed” for a millennial audience — wrapping Collingwood’s plainspoken voice around palm-muted riffs, handclaps, snaking synth leads and a roll-down-the-windows guitar solo.

Wallace Roney
5.25.1960 – 3.31.2020

Powerhouse trumpeter Wallace Roney, a protégé of Miles Davis who was a prolific voice in jazz over the last three decades, died in New Jersey at 59. Originally hailing from Philadelphia before studying at D.C.’s Howard University and the Berklee College of Music, Roney’s most enduring education came under the tutelage of Davis, who took the young trumpeter under his wing from 1985 until the jazz icon’s death in 1991. A year after meeting Davis, Roney entered the ranks of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; following that he was soon enlisted by Davis’ former drummer Tony Williams, with whom he worked closely for the next several years, beginning with the recording of the drummer’s 1986 album Civilization. Roney wielded his mentor’s horn for the recording of A Tribute to Miles (1994) with the members of Davis’ Second Great Quintet — Williams, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter — which earned a Grammy Award.

In 1995 Roney married the pianist Geri Allen, and their musical collaboration continued after they divorced. The couple and their young children appear on the cover of 1997’s Village, a buoyant date that features Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Michael Brecker, Lenny White and Roney’s saxophonist brother, Antoine. While he struggled for a number of years to escape the shadow of Davis, Roney remained restlessly experimental, incorporating influences from hip-hop and neo-soul on early 2000s albums like No Room for Argument and Prototype. In more recent years he’d taken on the mentorship mantle from Blakey, leading next-generation bands up to his most recent album, Blue Dawn – Blue Nights, with a lineup including his 15-year-old nephew, drummer Kojo Odu Roney.

Joe Diffie
12.28.1958 – 3.29.2020

Country music splintered into distinctly competing veins in the 1990s: While artists like Garth Brooks infused their twang with the flavors of pop and stadium rock, the mustache-sporting Joe Diffie, who died in Nashville at 61, tipped his cap to decades past. The Oklahoma native quickly discovered his songwriting voice in a fickle industry. In 1986 he relocated to Music City and found work writing and singing on demos. One of those songs, Holly Dunn’s “There Goes My Heart Again,” peaked at No. 4. on Billboard’s Hot Country chart in 1989 — and within months, after signing as a solo artist with Epic Records, Diffie was singing his own hits. The singer-strummer’s debut LP, 1990’s A Thousand Winding Roads, spawned a handful of popular tunes — including the mellow chart-topper “Home” — that established his signature blend of heart-tugging sentimentality and playful storytelling.

Diffie cruised through the early decade with a string of huge singles, taking another commercial leap after he embraced a more rock-friendly side on 1993’s Honky Tonk Attitude. The album embraced the good-ol’-boy warmth that came to define his career on singles like his biggest hit, “Pickup Man,” “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” “In My Own Backyard” and “John Deere Green,” which traced the blooming romance of a couple named Billy Bob and Charlene. That approachability was an essential part of Diffie’s affable charm, but so was his voice — a versatile instrument equally capable of a butter-smooth croon and a gritty, bluesy holler. Though Diffie continued to write and record over the decades, even winning a 1998 Grammy for the all-star collaboration “Same Old Train,” he left his biggest thumbprint on the fertile ’90s — a time when honky-tonk attitudes felt both traditional and boldly new.

Manu Dibango
12.12.1933 – 3.24.2020

Pioneering Afro-funk saxophonist Manu Dibango, who played a key role in fusing African music with Western pop, died in Paris at 86. Born in Cameroon, Dibango inventively combined the traditional music of his home country with jazz and funk, leading to infectious hits like the seminal “Soul Makossa.” Released in 1972, the song became an international hit, heavily influenced the sound of disco and went on to be sampled and adapted countless times by artists from Michael Jackson to A Tribe Called Quest.

Dibango moved to Paris at the age of 15 to study classical piano but found himself drawn to jazz, much to his family’s displeasure. He began playing saxophone in the clubs of Paris during the early 1950s, and while in Brussels linked up with the foundational Congolese rumba band African Jazz. Returning with them to the Congo (modern Zaire), he stayed to open a nightclub. After two years Dibango returned to Paris to lead his own jazz bands, until the chance discovery of “Soul Makossa” (the B-side to an anthem honoring Cameroon’s national football team) by American DJ David Mancuso led to worldwide fame. The track’s overwhelming success opened the door to collaborations with superstars from around the world, including Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Sly and Robbie, Peter Gabriel, Serge Gainsbourg and others.

Dibango continued to absorb different styles and collaborators throughout his career. In 1994 he convened many of Africa’s most popular artists — Youssou N’Dour, King Sunny Adé, Angélique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Salif Keita — for his album Wakafrika. Twenty-eleven’s Past Present Future featured “Soul Makossa 2.0,” an update of his most popular song featuring vocals by Wayne Beckford, while his most recent recording, 2017’s M&M, found him updating jazz classics alongside his Mozambican counterpart Moreira Chonguica. In a 1991 interview, Dibango called music “the most spontaneous, natural form of contact between one person and another.”

Mike Longo
3.19.1937 – 3.22.2020

Pianist, educator and label owner Mike Longo, best known for his enduring tenure as musical director for Dizzy Gillespie, died in Manhattan, three days after his 83rd birthday. A native of Cincinnati, Longo was born to musical parents and was mentored by saxophone giant Cannonball Adderley after the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In pursuit of his jazz career he relocated to New York in 1960, where he kept busy playing with the likes of Henry “Red” Allen and Roy Eldridge. After spending a year in Toronto to study with his idol, Oscar Peterson, he was discovered by Gillespie, forming the relationship that would define the pianist’s career.

Their association began in 1966 and continued in various forms for the remainder of Gillespie’s life, including a nine-year stint documented on albums like the live Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac. With the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the trumpet icon performed Longo’s 1980 work “A World of Gillespie.” At the same time Longo maintained an active solo career, ranging from the straightahead bop sound of his mentors to the contemporary electric funk of the 1970s that he explored on sessions like 1972’s Matrix and The Awakening. Along with his long-running trio, Longo led his 18-piece big band, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, which performed at the New York City Baha’i Center less than two weeks before Longo’s death. He’d led weekly concerts there for more than a decade in honor of the faith he shared with Gillespie.

Aurlus Mabélé
10.26.1953 – 3.19.2020

Congolese vocalist Aurlus Mabélé (pictured at bottom right), who died in Paris at 66, was a leading practitioner of soukous, a whirlwind dance-music confection that blended Caribbean and African grooves, complex webs of electric guitar melody and elements of folk and pop. Born Aurélien Miatsonama, Mabele began his career in the 1970s in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo's capital city; there, he formed and found early success with his group Les Ndimbola Lokole, a platform for the robust singing that remained a hallmark throughout his career.

In the following decade, he moved to France and cofounded a crucial new band, Loketo, renowned for the fluid guitar of Diblo Dibala, along with Mabélé's melismatic vocal style and jovial stage showmanship. Soukous had exploded in Paris, and Loketo became a central part of that scene with their run of addictively danceable LPs and singles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The centerpiece of their studio catalog is 1991’s Extra Ball, a blast of kaleidoscopic soukous that varies slightly in tempo but never in the richness of its colors or the giddiness of its enthusiasm. Dibala’s dense guitar lines command most of the material, including his spidery, palm-muted textures on “Tcheke Linha” and liquid glide on “Extra Ball.” But Mabélé's spirited vocals offer a soulfulness that carries the tunes beyond the dance floor, from his rich vibrato on “Pardon” to his tender tone on “Cyndi.” Fans often describe Mabélé as “the king of soukous.” To discover why, start with Extra Ball.

Marcelo Peralta
3.5.1961 – 3.10.2020

Argentine saxophonist Marcelo Peralta died in Madrid, the first jazz musician lost to COVID-19. The 59-year-old had lived in the Spanish capital since 1996, where he taught music at a number of schools while exploring innovative combinations of Argentinian and Latin music with avant-garde jazz. Born in 1961 in Buenos Aires, Peralta initially studied classical piano at the city’s Antiguo Conservatorio Beethoven before picking up the baritone sax. He would later concentrate on the tenor, performing with the Cuatro Vientos saxophone quartet and cofounding the Grupo de Improvisación Tercer Mundo. While playing with pianist-composer Eduardo Lagos, Peralta began to discover the interest in fusing Latin-American folk music with jazz that would become the primary focus of his career.

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