"A Circle of Friends" --

Bucky Pizzarelli with the Moonmaids and the Palm Beach Pops

April 5-6, 2006

by Claire Schwartz

photographs by Claire Schwartz, Pops program and internet sources

With methodical precision, his fingers curved effortlessly into untold fretting positions across the neck of his seven-string electric guitar. He sat amiably on a low stool -- center stage-- riffing through a collection of memorable songs with seven of the most sought after jazz musicians in the world. A circle of friends. Indeed, a comfortable air of friendship, and of reunion, permeated the entire concert. This was not only the season closer for the Palm Beach Pops, but a celebration of another sort. Jazz guitar legend, Bucky Pizzarelli, turned 80 this year, and the party commenced on stage. It was also the first time in 60 years that Bucky shared the stage with a group of lovely songstresses from his days with the Vaughn Monroe Orchestra. "Happy birthday, dear Bucky . . ." the all-girl vocal group sang in their tightly-blended style. "Happy birthday to you!"

Bucky Pizzarelli

We sat front row, center, at the April 5, 2006 performance of the Palm Beach Pops. This was the first night of their two-night season finale at the Kravis Center, a regal performance hall located on breathtaking Okeechobee Boulevard with its colonnades of sky-high royal palms. The Pops had completed three prior concerts at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on April 1-3, and the Circle of Friends tour included an additional private engagement at the Loblolly Country Club in Hobe Sound on April 4.
It was all together pleasurable to be able to attend this event and to further be recognized for our association with the Vaughn Monroe Appreciation Society. My husband, Gary, and I met up with Lou Kohnen (co-founder), and Pat and Dick Longtin (tour arrangers for our Jan '05 gathering) for Wednesday's performance, and Fran Swensen, who attended Thursday's performance.

The 8:00 pm show began with conductor Bob Lappin and his Palm Beach Pops orchestra playing subscriber selections. Henry Mancinni, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern melodies were blended with generous portions of improv to fill an hour faster than a scale from Mancinni's "Strings on Fire!" We all agreed afterward that we were hearing in our minds Vaughn singing the words to Porter's "Begin the Beguine" as the orchestra played this selection. "It brings back the sound of music so tender. It brings back a night of tropical splendor. It brings back memories evergreen . . ."

Time goes too fast when you're doing something timeless. The second half of the concert expanded gloriously into a two-hour tribute to Mr. Pizzarrelli who took the stage early on and played throughout the song fest. At times he was happily strumming and pleased his audience doubly with liberal doses of his inviting smile. At times his head was lowered in mass concentration as the music from his guitar exploded in brilliant progression. Always, his eyes sparkled as he played or communicated mischievously with the other musicians on the stage.

Our seats allowed us a very special vantage point where we could see the inflections and the virtuosity of the performers as they played only feet in front of us, at eye level, on the Kravis Center stage. Lou got a wave and a grin from Bucky, and we all got a nod and a smile from Tinker when the Moonmaids took the floor.

Bob Lappin--maestro, piano virtuoso, singer and MC--had just explained that Bucky once played with Vaughn Monroe and his Orchestra, and asked if anybody remembered the name of his female vocal group. Four people in the front row shouted in unison, "The Moonmaids!" The MC then asked, "How did you know?" to which Lou replied quite robustly, "We know them!" With that, Maestro Lappin announced that Bucky Pizzarelli and the Moonmaids would be reunited on stage for the first time in 60 years. The wonderment of the audience was audible as June Bratone, Tinker Rautenberg, Mary Jo Grogan and Carol Piper (who had joined the group in the 1980s for the "Moonmaids Plus One" years) walked on stage as Vaughn Monroe's original Moonmaids. Adorned elegantly in black sequined tops, these four ladies proved that poise and charm never go out of style. Their harmonizing was bright and fresh. They performed with pizzazz. June took the microphone for some lead vocalizing as the girls reprised a medley of songs-- Ballerina, Red Roses for a Blue Lady, Ghost Riders, Tangerine, There, I Said it Again-- all invariably associated with Vaughn Monroe. "I love you, I will 'till the end. There, I said it again."

"Thanks for the memories . . ." June and the Moonmaids sang to Bucky in a specially arranged birthday tribute that ended with "Happy Birthday" done up Moonmaid style. The girls then motioned to the audience to sing along.

Sitting there, the concert hall seemed surprisingly small, and it was as if the live orchestra, the jazz soloists, Bucky and the Moonmaids were performing just for us. When the house lights went on and we remembered where we were, we were again surprised to see Tinker making her way down the aisle to invite us to the post-performance reception next door. Excitement.

It was lovely to meet June, Carol and Mary Jo and to wish Bucky a happy birthday in person. Lou was talking with Bucky and introduced me to the jazz great, at the same time enabling me to present him with our birthday card, created by Fran Swenson and signed by us, the Moonmaids and "your friends at the Vaughn Monroe Appreciation Society."

Bucky's son, John, couldn't be in attendance, but Bucky's wife and daughter were at his side, greeting the many well-wishers.

Wine and hot hors d'oeuvres were served as the director of the Palm Beach Pops began the formalities with the presentation of contributor plaques and the announcement of a surprise birthday celebration for Bucky. A cake was wheeled into the room and the Moonmaids gathered around to sing another chorus of "Happy Birthday." This was followed by impromptu speeches heartily given by family and friends to acknowledge the man of the hour.

It was soon well after midnight, and for us, the party was over.  But the concert, the night, was worth every mile traveled to experience live, a page from the great American Songbook--  "The stars will remember the night we said, 'good bye.' The stars will remember . . . so will I."

The Kravis Center for the Performing Arts