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Larry Fuller: A Life Lived on the Side

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A career in parentheses even at home in Manhattan.

A woman with a white lacquered hairdo and a black lacquered handbag was pursuing Larry Fuller through a crowded theater lobby after a recent show in New Hampshire. The gig was billed as an evening of cool jazz with John Pizzarelli, and Mr. Pizzarelli, the guitarist and singer, served as the main attraction, signing CDs for a line of fans.

But the lady in pursuit appeared more interested in the shy sideman Mr. Piano Man! than the gregarious headliner and when she caught up to Mr. Fuller, who has played piano in the John Pizzarelli Quartet for three and a half years, she tapped him, insistently, on the shoulder.

Bravo! she said, lowering her voice to a gravelly whisper. Pizzarelli is great, but this year we came especially to hear you.

Mr. Fuller, a trim man with a shaved head whose stubby fingers fly deftly over the keyboard, smiled graciously. A needy ego is of no use to a sideman, who makes a living in another artists shadow and gets only parenthetical billing, usually with his instrument appended to his name (Larry Fuller on piano). But it is always nice to know that people are tuning in to him, Mr. Fuller said, as it reaffirms his core belief that you can never underestimate what people hear even if you are just backing somebody up.

The quiet history of jazz sidemen is long and storied, and Mr. Fuller, at 43, has already earned a place there. He started his career as a baby-faced accompanist for the veteran jazz singer Ernestine Anderson and reached a personal peak in the final trio of the great bassist Ray Brown. Like many a sideman with considerable talent, Mr. Fuller, who also composes and arranges, worries about maintaining his musical identity and aspires to lead his own trio someday. But for now, he said, especially after a difficult period in his personal life, it is enough to serve the music that he has revered since he was 13, when a colorful saxophonist named Candy Johnson took him under wing in Toledo, Ohio.

To make a steady living as a jazz musician is in itself no mean feat, and Mr. Fuller has done so his whole life. His experience offers some insight into the requirements for survival as a working artist, especially in a specialty like jazz where fame and fortune are not realistic goals. Talent most certainly helps, but single-mindedness, passion, humility and the ability to live modestly seem critical too. For Mr. Fuller his upbringing in a blue-collar neighborhood in Toledo, where his father supported five kids by toiling on the assembly line at a sweltering glass factory, provides the context to appreciate the musicians life as a reward unto itself.

I know it sounds corny, but if you look at what somebody like my father did for a living, Im really pretty blessed, he said. I mean, I live in Manhattan and travel to Europe, Brazil, Japan. Even if Im working sometimes in a situation where its not ideal artistically for me, Im still playing the piano.

With the John Pizzarelli Quartet, which is performing at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village from Tuesday through Sunday, Mr. Fuller gets a decent share of the spotlight long, bluesy solos that showcase his fleet touch, rich tone and keen timing. When he starts to play, his foot taps, his knee jiggles, his chin juts, and he is off and swinging. There are no fringes or bells and whistles, just beautiful music, said John Valenti, owner of Birdland, the Manhattan jazz club, where the Pizzarelli Quartet played this month.

At the piano Mr. Fuller is commanding, but away from it he is the epitome of unassuming. I always called Louie Bellson the nicest guy in the business, Jeff Hamilton, a well-known jazz drummer, said, referring to the musician who died in February at 84. But I think that title probably goes to Larry Fuller now that Louie has passed.

Mr. Fuller possesses a dry sense of humor and does affectionate impressions of the older black musicians who have been his mentors. But he also emits a low-level sadness, having weathered his fair share of loss, including the back-to-back deaths in July 2002 of Ray Brown and then of Mr. Fullers wife, Patricia, who committed suicide.

Now single, with a 23-year-old son in the Navy, Mr. Fuller lives alone in a tidy, dimly lighted and neutrally decorated studio on the ground floor of an apartment building in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan. An upright piano fits snugly into a nook across from a double bed, a two-seat couch, a computer cart and a cafe table. On the beige walls hang photographs of Mr. Fuller with his jazz idols, including Oscar Peterson and Brown, who inspired his philosophy: play every note with conviction, honor the bandstand and treat the music as sacred.

Larry has a reverence for the music that I find refreshing, Mr. Pizzarelli said. Hes incredibly respectful of the gig.

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