The last time I saw Tony Bennett was on the stage of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montreal a year ago. I missed his Costa Mesa concert by a couple of days when I was in San Diego in May, and now that he’s spending the summer playing concerts in Europe and has no East Coast appearances on his calendar through November, this will mark the first time in a couple of decades that I haven’t seen the great singer at least once a year. But I’d love to see him again soon, especially since I spent my down time at last week’s Montreal Jazz Fest reading David Evanier’s new biography of Bennett, All the Things You Are.
(Newport Jazz Festival 2009; photo by Steven Sussman)
Evanier’s account offers more than I ever needed to know about Bennett’s marriages and his mid-career problems with drugs, debt and taxes, and it's sorely lacking in citations and a comprehensive index. Here's one of numerous examples: Charlie Parker isn't listed, but he's in the narrative. Otherwise, Evanier's focus is wisely placed on the values and motifs that have been manifest throughout Bennett’s public life, namely his fierce commitment to quality songs, his resistance to the lowest common denominator values of the record industry, his dedication to his callings both as a singer and as a painter, and his outspokenness and actions on behalf of civil rights for blacks.
Bennett’s lifelong commitment to the latter intensified when he was demoted from corporal to private for bringing a black friend and fellow G.I., Frank Smith, to a Thanksgiving dinner for U.S. military at a German church in 1945. A sergeant upbraided him on the spot, cut off his stripes, and re-assigned him to the task of digging up dead soldiers who’d been buried in common graves. 20 years later, by which time Bennett had marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr., he was told by Barron Hilton to leave Cassius Clay off the bill of his new show in Las Vegas. Bennett complied, but did what he could to subvert the order by hiring the Count Basie Orchestra to back him. Of his performances with Basie, Harry Belafonte said, "No white man ever stood in front of a black crew and sang with more credentials and belonging" than Bennett.
When Bennett was interviewed by Jon Hendricks about the Kid from Red Bank in 1981, he said, "Basie knows all about the timing and the great explosion of happiness that uplifts the human spirit, which is the essence of art." Basie had high praise for the kid from Astoria too. “There are very, very few singers I asked the great musicians in my band to play behind, and Tony is one of them. But you know what? When we play with Tony, we’re not behind him at all. Tony puts us all up front with him! Someday I’m going to find a way to sit in the audience and watch Tony work with the Basie band, just like a fan. Because that’s what I am.”
(At Newport; photo by Steven Sussman)
In Music Is My Mistress, the memoir he published in 1973, Duke Ellington said that when he was hired by Bennett, “His respect for me told him to give me top billing. Well, to my knowledge, nobody ever gives away top billing, especially when they’re paying top salaries. But the same thing happened when he went on tour with Count Basie...Tony Bennett is the most unselfish performing artist working today." Indeed, his devotion to charitable causes earned him the sobriquet, "Tony Benefit."
Pheobe Jacobs, the jazz publicist who died this spring at age 93, reflected on Bennett's personal crises in saying that “Ellington was almost a healer for Tony because Ellington was such a regal, spiritual human being. Without being a Svengali, but with his attention and genuineness, he healed Tony. Ellington was Tony’s mirror…and that gave him a positive energy about himself.” One legendary “intervention” that Ellington extended to Bennett occurred around Christmas in the mid-'60's. The singer was estranged from his family and holed up alone in a Manhattan hotel when he heard voices singing, “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever).” Upon opening his door, he discovered that Duke had sent the chorus from that night's performance of the Second Sacred Concert to console him.
An overriding theme of Evanier’s bio is Bennett’s love of jazz and the musicians who play it. As one observer says, notwithstanding his famous show biz friends, “Tony’s claim to status would be that he went out and had a drink with Zoot Sims.” Ralph Sharon, the English-born pianist who joined him in 1956, advised, "Make sure you do some jazz...You can have six hits in a row, but if you keep doing the same thing over and over, the public will eventually stop buying your records." Bennett says, "I prefer the way jazz artists work...The way you feel it is the way it comes out, and it's never the same way twice. That's the way I like to sing, as if I just picked up the lead sheet for the first time and the tune struck me." Several years ago at a concert near New Haven, I was impressed with how Bennett seemed to discover something new in a tune he'd sung countless times. When I mentioned this to him afterward, he said, "That's what jazz taught me."
In recent years, Bennett's been accompanied by a quartet that includes bassist Marshall Wood and guitarist Gray Sargent, two Boston-area veterans who'd worked with one of Tony's favorites, the late Dave McKenna. Lee Musiker succeeded Ralph Sharon several years ago, and Bennett proudly hails Harold Jones every night as "Count Basie's favorite drummer!" But no one excites him more than Louis Armstrong, whose legacy he celebrates at every turn. When Bennett spoke with James Isaacs in 1986, he said, "Louis Armstrong was the genius of us all; he gave us all a job, everybody, including Charlie Parker, Coltrane, everybody. He's like Delacroix of the painters, you know, he was the painter's painter." In the documentary, Satchmo, Bennett says, “The bottom line of any country is what [it contributes] to the world. And we contributed Louis Armstrong.”
(With his sidemen from the Bay State, bassist Marshall Wood and guitarist Gray Sargent)
Bennett had scored several hits in the early ‘50’s before Columbia Records gave him the go-ahead to make his first album. The LP was still a relatively new format when Bennett made Cloud 7 in 1954; Ellington and Miles Davis were among the first jazz artists to take advantage of the extended play medium, and concept albums by Armstrong (Plays W.C Handy), Frank Sinatra (Swing Easy), Peggy Lee (Black Coffee) and Ella Fitzgerald (Songs in a Mellow Mood) established a prototype for singers in the mid-‘50’s.
For Cloud 7, Bennett “pleaded” with his producer (and frequent nemesis) Mitch Miller to let him pursue something jazz-oriented. He told Nat Hentoff in Downbeat, “I want to make an album where I just blow…a very relaxed album of standards away from the commercially stylized records we’ve been making. I want to make it with the right musicians the way the jazz sides are made.” Bennett had Billie Holiday's classic small group sides in mind, and it was guitarist Chuck Wayne around whom Cloud 7 was built. Wayne, who’d played with George Shearing and Woody Herman in the '40's, had been working with Bennett for a couple of years at that point because the singer preferred an in-tune guitar over the terrible pianos that were a commonplace in the venues where he was being booked.
Speaking of Chuck Wayne, the blogosphere's been sizzling this month over what appears to be definitive proof that Miles Davis's copyrighted tune "Solar" was lifted from Wayne's mid-'40's original, "Sonny." Larry Appelbaum of the Library of Congress made the discovery, and it's been reported on at Rifftides and JazzWax. In the small world department, it's worth noting that David Schildkraut, the alto saxophonist whom Wayne recruited for Cloud 7, is also on Davis's only recording of "Solar," which was made on April 3, 1954, several months before the Bennett session.
As for Cloud 7, Bennett told James Isaacs, Mitch Miller “allowed me to make [it even though] he didn’t go for it. Chuck Wayne kind of put that whole thing together…I was nervous…But you know, years later, Miles Davis told me that ‘While the Music Plays On’ from that album was his favorite song of mine.” Saxophonists Al Cohn and Schildkraut and drummer Ed Shaughnessy were sidemen on the date, the first of many small combo jazz recordings he's made since then. Tony Bennett Jazz anthologizes highlights from his work with Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Bobby Hackett, Art Blakey, and other jazz greats. Two other Bennett gems were made in the spare, sublime setting of voice and piano, the first with Ralph Sharon in 1959 on Tony Sings for Two, then a pair of dates with Bill Evans in the mid-'70's. Bennett's 2001 release, Playin' With My Friends, features B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, the late Ray Charles and other guests on a blues outing that doubles as an unannounced elegy to Basie and Kansas City swing.
We’ll hear a handful of titles from Cloud 7 tonight, and a couple of sets from the Basie-Bennett sessions in Wednesday's Jazz a la Mode. Tony turns 86 on August 3 and we'll celebrate with his music then too. Meanwhile, I’ll keep hoping that Bennett and his remarkably undiminished voice will be back in town before long.