Friday, April 20, 2012

Tony Bennett: “A Quality That Let’s You In”

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Jazz has always drawn on popular music for material, while at the same time influ­encing it. George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and many other composers for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley have reflected that influence, along with many of the singers of their songs, among them Lee Wiley and Frank Sinatra. None has been more deeply affected by jazz than Tony Bennett, whose reverence for Louis Armstrong is manifest even in his vibrato.

Tony doesn't consider himself a jazz art­ist. Many of the jazz musicians who have worked with him would disagree, and the way he phrases, the way he feels time, the passion, the intensity of his work all reflect his love of jazz and commitment to the music. …

Tony considers that his finishing school was the Count Basie band, with which he toured. He always works with jazz musi­cians, and he recorded two exceptional albums with the late Bill Evans.

The creative passion often manifests itself in more than one art, and a number of jazz musicians—Miles Davis, Mel Pow­ell, George Wettling, John Heard — have been capable and, in some cases, excellent painters. Tony's oils sell for large sums.”
- Gene Lees

It is always cause for celebration when we feature more of Whitney Balliett’s beautifully crafted Jazz writings on these pages.

On this occasion, Whitney gives us a look at the early career of Tony Bennett who is still going strong over fifty years after this essay was published in Alec Wilder & His Friends, The Words and Sounds of … [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974].

The other artists whose “words and sounds” are the subject of Whitney’s pen in this book are Marian McPartland, Mabel Mercer, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, [radio comedians] Bob and Ray, Blossom Dearie and Alec Wilder.

No one has ever written about Jazz more astutely and more eloquently than Mr. Balliett, nor has anyone written about it with more humility than Mr. Balliett who once said: “A critic is a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste, but intelligent readers soon discover how to allow for the windage of their own and a critic’s prejudices.”

© -  Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“As a child of radio and the Victrola, of the microphone and the recording, I have been listening most of my life to American popular singers, and their number and variety are astonishing and almost endless. Their names, which form an American mythology, come easily to mind: Russ Columbo, Whispering Jack Smith, Gene Austin, Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Sophie Tucker, Arthur Tracy, Al Jolson, Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, Bessie Smith, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Red McKenzie, Ivie Anderson, Ethel Waters, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Martin, Ethel Merman, Johnny Mercer, Jack Teagarden, Dick Haymes, Josh White, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing, Mabel Mercer, the Boswell Sisters, the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Golden Gate Quartette, Helen Humes, Mary Martin, Ray Nance, Paul Robeson, Maxine Sullivan, Lee Wiley, Bob Eberly, Ray Eberle, Helen O'Connell, Woody Guthrie, Gene Autry, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Noble Sissle, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Helen Ward, Morton Downey, Martha Tilton, Helen Forrest, Frank Sinatra, Georgia Gibbs, Nat King Cole, Hoagy Carmichael, Anita O'Day, Kenny Baker, June Christy, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Laine, Vaughn Monroe, Frances Lang-ford, Sylvia Syms, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Lead-belly, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, Billy Eckstine, Eartha Kitt, Buddy Greco, Peggy Lee, Harry Belafonte, Anita Ellis, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Lena Home, Doris Day, Pearl Bailey, Perry Como, Margaret Whiting, Mel Torme, Jo Stafford, Tony Bennett, Blossom Dearie, Teddi King, Kay Starr, Patti Page, Carmen McRae, Jackie Cain and Roy Krai, Teresa Brewer, Dean Martin, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Bobby Short, Helen Merrill, Stella Brooks, Dinah Washington, Chris Connor, Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Dionne Warwick, James Brown, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, Glen Campbell, and Roberta Flack. They have, in the past forty years, become ubiquitous — on the radio, on records, on jukeboxes, in the movies, on the stage, in night­clubs, on television, and in concert halls. Indeed, they have created, as a huge, ceaselessly moving and changing body of troubadours, the most pervasive and familiar sounds in Ameri­can life. Many are famous, and some are among the most famous people of this century. Few adults in the western world are unaware of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Judy Gar­land and Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett and of the anthem status they have, respectively, given such songs as "White Christmas," "I'll Never Smile Again," "Over the Rainbow," "Nature Boy," and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." One of the reasons for this unique, engulfing outpouring of song was the invention of the microphone, which, together with its handmaidens, radio and the recording, made two things pos­sible: omnipresent singing, and a successful singing career with­out a voice.   (Since then, a couple of generations of "micro­phone" singers have come along. 

Take away their mikes, and by and large their voices vanish.   Some notable examples: Blossom Dearie, Mel Torme, Mildred Bailey, and Chris Con­nor.)  

Another was the appearance in the tens and twenties and thirties of the first great American songwriters, such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin; the lives of their countless marvelous songs were wholly dependent on being performed, and so a new and insatiable demand for more and better singers arose. Still another reason was our old habit of letting off excess emotional and romantic steam through singing.   (Never has there been more singing in this country than during the De­pression and the Second World War.)   Consider the minstrel singers, the cowboys,  the slaves who first sang blues  and spirituals, the young women who got off the latest Stephen Foster in the parlor of an evening, the hillbilly singers, the Irish and Neapolitan tenors, and the light classical singers such as John McCormack and Lawrence Tibbett. The first microphone singers were the crooners, who, with their patent-leather bari­tones and oily vibratos, evolved from the basically European singing of the McCormacks and Tibbetts in the twenties. And out of the crooners came Bing Crosby, who, cutting the silver cord to Europe, almost by himself invented American popular singing.

American popular singers range from the consummate to the regrettable.   Ella Fitzgerald can do anything with her voice, while Vaughn Monroe was bathetic. Most of them, though, share certain characteristics. Their voices tend to be home­made and friendly — the kind you feel like squeezing or shaking hands with. Their intonation is often weak and their breathing uncertain. Their phrases sometimes dangle. Their voices, which rarely have much coloration, are a complex mixture of cheerful intent, emotion, electronics, and bravado. But the popular singer's lack of technical aplomb is his great virtue, for it allows him to sing Kern and Porter and Gershwin as no highly trained singer can. Ezio Pinza oversang Richard Rodgers, while Tony Bennett undersings him in such a way that Rodgers' superb melodies seem to come to life on their own. Pinza inflated Rodgers' songs, but Bennett illuminates and aerates them.

Bing Crosby was the first popular singer to learn this trick, and he did it in large part by listening to jazz musicians. He listened to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (he recorded "St. Louis Blues" with Ellington in 1932), and he was tutored by Mildred Bailey when he was one of Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys. He hung out in Chicago with Bix Beiderbecke and Jimmy McPartland. He learned to sing legato, to phrase in a "lazy" fashion. He learned rubato and the orna­mental, open-glottal notes — the "aaums" and "oowoos" — that made every phrase he sang sound as if it started with a vowel. The great instrumentalists like Beiderbecke "sing" on their horns, and through them he was taught to flow melodically. He learned to make his comfortable, front-porch baritone appear capacious and important. In turn, he taught a generation of popular singers.

The best of them was Frank Sinatra. Sinatra had also listened to Armstrong and Mildred Bailey, but he had, as well, grown up on Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer. (Popular singers such as Billie Holiday are in effect jazz singers, and are more like instrumentalists than vocalists. They use their materials not as harmonic and melodic maps but as departure points for elaborate, hornlike improvisations.) Sinatra was a more serious singer than Crosby, whose offhandedness some­times gave him an absentminded quality. At the outset of his career, Sinatra sang with Tommy Dorsey's band, and Dorsey, a lyrical player of the first order, taught him — in Dorsey's words — how to "drive a ballad." Sinatra's ballads, freed of Crosby's ornamentation and reverberative effects, took on an almost hymnlike dimension. He believed the lyrics he sang, and he delivered them with an intense, clean articulation. His voice was smaller and lighter than Crosby's, but his phrasing and immaculate sense of timing gave it a poise and stature Crosby's lacked.

Sinatra, in his turn, brought along another generation of popular singers, and the best of them is Tony Bennett. In­deed, Bennett has become the most widely admired American popular singer. Alec Wilder, who has known Bennett for twenty-five years, recently wrote, "The list of 'believers' isn't very long. But those who are on it are very special people. Among them, certainly, is Tony Bennett. But first I should say what I mean by a believer. He is one whose sights stay high, who makes as few concessions as he can, whose ideals will not permit him to follow false trails or fashions for notoriety's or security's sake, who takes chances, who seeks to convey, by whatever means, his affections and convictions, and who has faith in the power of beauty to survive, no matter how much squalor and ugliness seek to suppress it. I am close enough to him to know that his insistence on maintaining his musical con­victions has been far from easy. His effervescent delight in bringing to his audiences the best songs, the best musicians, the best of his singing and showmanship is apparent to anyone who has the good sense to listen to him in person or on records."

Wilder went on to ponder Bennett's singing: "There is a quality about it that lets you in. Frank Sinatra's singing mesmerizes you. In fact, it gets so symbolic sometimes that you can't make the relationship with him as a man, even though you may know him. Bennett's professionalism doesn't block you off. It even suggests that maybe you'll see him later at the beer parlor." For all that, Bennett, a ceaseless experimenter, is an elusive singer. He can be a belter who reaches rocking fortissimos. He drives a ballad as intensely and intimately as Sinatra. He can be a lilting, glancing jazz singer. He can be a low-key, searching supper-club performer. (He has gone through visual changes as well. He for a while affected a short haircut and was wont to come onstage with his shirt collar open and his jacket slung carefully over one shoulder. Now, with the disappearance of most of his hair — an occupational hazard that has likewise afflicted Crosby and Sinatra — he wears a variety of stunningly accomplished transformations. He also keeps his jacket on, and is often seen onstage in a necktie.)

But Bennett's voice binds all his vocal selves together. It is pitched slightly higher than Sinatra's (it was once a tenor, but it has deepened over the years), and it has a rich, expanding quality that is immediately identifiable. It has a joyous, jubilant quality, a pleased, shouting-within quality. It has, in a modest way, something of the hallelujah strain of Mahalia Jackson….

… Bennett is at the back table of the ground floor of the Amalfi, on East Forty-eight `Street. He has been eating at the Amalfi since the days, twenty and more years ago, when it was a one-room place on West Forty-seventh. Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee sportscaster and former Yankee shortstop, is a couple of tables away, and Bennett greets him and sends a drink to his table. Bennett is to sing a couple of songs at ten o'clock at a benefit, and he has ordered a light supper of macaroni shells stuffed with ricotta and a bottle of Chianti classico. Bennett has the sort of face that is easily sculptured by light.

In broad daytime, he tends to look jagged and awkwardly composed: his generous Roman nose booms and his pale green eyes become slits. But the subdued lighting in the Amalfi makes him handsome and compact. His eyes be­come melancholy and shine darkly, the deep lines that run past his mouth are stoical, and his nose is regal. His voice, though, never changes. It is a singer's voice — soft, slightly hoarse, and always on the verge of sliding into melody. Rizzuto calls over and thanks Bennett for the drink, and Bennett nods and raises his wineglass in Rizzuto's direction. "I'm not that crazy about singing at big benefits," Bennett says, "but Ed Sullivan, who's running this one, has been good to me and I like him. I like concert halls, and what I do now is pick the best halls here and abroad, and give just one concert on Friday night and one on Saturday. I do that about thirty weekends a year. It's much nicer working concert halls than nightclubs. The audience holds on to every inch of intonation and inflection. But night­clubs teach performers like me. They teach you spontaneity. They teach you to keep your sense of humor. They teach you to keep your cool. All of which I needed not long ago when I gave a concert in Buffalo and decided to experiment by not using a microphone. The hall isn't that big and they could hear me, but I guess without the microphone I just didn't sound like me. So people started shouting. But I remembered what Ben Webster —the great, late Ben Webster —once told me: ‘If I had it to do all over again, I'd leave my anger offstage.’ And I did. I went backstage and got a mike, and everything was all right. In addition to my concerts, I do television specials, like the one Lena Home and I did — just the two of us, no one else — a while back. It got very nice notices, which proves you just don't need all those trappings. I also work in Vegas, and at Bill Harrah's places in Lake Tahoe and Reno, for six weeks a year. Vegas is great, with all the performers on one strip, like a kind of super-Fifty-second Street. They can afford anything, and they treat performers marvelously. But Bill Harrah is fabulous. I think he started out with bingo parlors in Reno thirty-five years ago, and now he owns these big places in Tahoe and Reno and has a huge collection of classic cars. He meets you at the airport with a Rolls-Royce and gives you the keys to the car and a beautiful home with a pool. At the end of the engagement, he throws a party for you in his own home. It's like some kind of fantastic vacation."

Bennett takes a forkful of shells and a sip of wine. "It's beautiful not to compromise in what you sing, and yet I've done business since I had my first record hit for Columbia, in nine­teen fifty-one. I've always tried to do the cream of the popular repertoire and yet remain commercial. Hanging out with good songs is the secret. Songs like 'All the Things You Are' and 'East of the Sun' are just the opposite of singing down. And so are these lyrics, which Alec Wilder wrote and sent me a few days ago. He said if I liked them he'd set them to music. I think they're beautiful." Bennett pulled a sheet of onionskin letter paper out of his pocket. The lyrics read:


Give me that warm feeling
That makes me believe again,
Give me that soft answer,
The kind you gave me way back when.
Give me some true kindness
That brightens the sky again.
Give me the best that's in you
And encouragement now and then.
Dust off those long-lost manners!
Bury ambition and guile!
Unfurl those lovely banners
Of virtue and laughter and style!
Give me that warm feeling,
Take off that impersonal glove.
Remember, remember, we're dealing
With that fair and that rare thing called love!

"I love singing too much to cheat the public. And I can't ever lose that spirit by listening to the money boys, the Broad­way wise guys who used to tell me, If you don't sing such-and-such, you'll end up with a classy reputation and no bread in the bank.' But if I lost that spirit, my feeling for music would run right out the window. It's this obsolescence thing in America, where cars are made to break down and songs written to last two weeks. But good songs last forever, and I've come to learn
that there's a whole group out there in the audience who's studying that with me. There's a greatness in an audience when it gets perfectly still. It becomes a beautiful tribal contact, a delicate, poetic thing. A great song does that. It also works two ways: the performer makes the song work, and the song inspires the performer.

"All kinds of things go through my head when I'm singing. I think of Joanna [his young daughter] a lot. I think of things from my past; I even see them. If I'm working in a beautiful place like Festival Hall, in London, I think of the great lighting, the great clusters of light, and they inspire me. If a song is truly believable, it be­comes a self-hypnosis thing. And when that happens I auto­matically start thinking a line ahead, like when I serve at tennis and am already thinking of the next shot. My concentration becomes heavy, so that if I forget the words I can do what Harold Arlen told me: 'Just make up new words in the right spirit and don't let anybody know, and you'll be all right.'

"I've always liked the Billie Holiday tradition of allowing the musicians you're working with to take charge and to solo, and my arrangements are always written that way. Jazz musicians create great warmth and feeling. When they play well, they make you sing, too. I've worked with Bobby Hackett and Woody Herman and Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton and Count Basie. And I've worked with Harry Edison and Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan and Zoot Sims and John Bunch and Billy Exiner. You can't beat the perfection of Basie. He even talks the way he plays: one or two words take care of conversation for the month. Like when he saw the distance he'd have to go to reach his piano on this tiny, miserable stage we were working on somewhere out West.  'Man, that's a long walk,' he said."

Bennett laughs, and tells the waiter, a diminutive carry-over from the old Amalfi, that he doesn't have time for espresso but that he will see him soon. He waves to Rizzuto. …

Bennett is due at three o'clock at a studio on Christopher Street, where he will rehearse with the Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet. The quartet is to ac­company him at Alice Tully Hall. Edith sets the table in the studio and brings in a chicken salad and a large glass of boysen-berry juice. "Man, tennis has nothing on that kiteflying," Ben­nett says. "But all that running around will make me sing better this afternoon. Maybe if I'd known about it a long time ago, it would have gotten my career going a lot faster. The way it was, I didn't become any sort of authoritative singer until I was twenty-seven. For seven years before that, I scuffled. After the war, I used the GI Bill to study at the American Theater Wing, where I worked on bel canto with Peter D'Andrea. And I studied voice with Miriam Speir. It was at her place I first met Alec Wilder. I never passed any auditions, and I worked as an elevator man at the Park Sheraton, in an uncle's grocery store, as a runner for the AP, and as a singing waiter out in Astoria, where I was born.

I was born in August of nineteen twenty-six, as Anthony Dominick Benedetto. I'm using Benedetto again to sign my paintings. We lived in a little two-story house in Astoria which is still there. My father came over from Italy in nineteen twenty-two, but I don't know much about him, because he died when I was nine. He had a grocery store on Fifty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, where the CBS Building is now. I remember he was a beautiful man, who was much loved by his family and friends. He had an open, warm voice, full of love and melody, and he sang beauti­fully. He'd always get the family out on Sundays to sing and dance. My mother, whose maiden name was Surace, was born down on Mott and Hester Streets, and she lives out in River Edge, New Jersey.

After my father died, she went to work in the garment district and put my brother and sister and me through school. She has spirit and that great gift of common sense. Judy Garland went crazy over her when she met her. I went to P.S. Seven and Junior High School One-forty-one, out in Astoria, and then I went to the High School of Industrial Arts, which used to be near the Waldorf-Astoria. It was way ahead of its time. I studied music and painting, and they'd work it so that you didn't have to be there every day, so long as you did your work. You could go over to the park and sketch trees. I had a music teacher named Sonberg, and he'd bring a Victrola into class and play Art Tatum records. Imagine that! It was around then I decided to be a singer.

Of course, I'd been singing all my life and in the shadow of show business. I had an uncle in Astoria who was a hoofer in vaudeville and worked for the Shuberts. He'd tell me about Harry Lauder and James Barton and how they were humble people who had their feet on the ground. He'd tell me about Bill Robinson and how he had to follow him once and it almost killed him. He'd tell me how the acts in those days honed their shows all the way across the country and back, so that when they finally got to the Palace in New York they were sharp and ready. I had my first professional job when I was thirteen, at one of those Saturday-night get-togethers at a Democratic club in Astoria, and later I sang at little clubs by myself when they'd let me."

(Harry Celentano, a bellman at the Algonquin, who went to school with Bennett, remembers those days: "He used to sing 'God Bless America' and The Star-Spangled Banner' in assemblies, and when he was a little older he'd go into places out there like the Horseshoe Bar and the Queen of Hearts — this quiet, shy little kid — and get up and sing all by himself. Some of us would go with him, and he'd stand there and sing 'Cottage for Sale' like a soft Billy Eckstine. We didn't take him seriously, and we'd shout and throw peanuts at him, but he never batted an eye. But he was also into art then. He would play hooky and draw these huge, beautiful murals right on the street, with chalk. Mothers and children would stop and watch, and they were amazed. Then we'd come along and play football over the mural, and that was that.")

The concert at Alice Tully the next evening is billed as "An Evening with Rodgers and Hart," and it is a smooth and en­gaging success. The hall is sold out, and the audience is hip. Bennett sings the verses of most of the songs, and by the time he gets a note or two into the chorus there is the applause of recognition. He is in a dinner jacket, and his stage manner is startlingly old-fashioned: he uses a hand mike, and he whips the cord around as though it were a lariat; he half-dances, half-falls across the stage during rhythm numbers; he salutes the audience and points at it. He is clumsy and at the same time delightful. He sings twenty-one Rodgers and Hart tunes, and many are memorable. He sings a soft, husky "Blue Moon," and then comes a marvelous, muted Ruby Braff solo. "There's a Small Hotel" is even softer, and Braff and George Barnes react with pianissimo statements. The group, indeed, is impeccable. The solos are beautiful, and the dynamics all anticipate Ben­nett's.

During Braff’s solo in "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," Bennett sits on a stool to the musicians' right, and near the end of "I Wish I Were in Love Again" he forgets his lyrics and soars over the wreckage with some good mumbo-jumbo and a fine crescendo. "Lover" is ingenious. Bennett sings it softly, at a medium tempo (it is usually done at top speed), then briefly takes the tempo up, and goes out sotto voce. He does "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" as an encore. The ovation is long and standing.

After a small backstage party, Bennett gets into his limousine and is driven home. He settles deep into a corner of the car. "It's what I used to dream of — a concert in a big hall like Alice Tully. But it hasn't all been smoothness since I started doing business. When I had my first record hits, in the early fifties, I suddenly found myself with an entourage, most of them takers. And I didn't like it. Maurice Chevalier was doing a one-man show here around then, and all he had was a piano and a hat, and that made me realize I was off on the wrong

foot. Then I've been through a divorce and done a little time on the psychiatrist's couch. But I don't think I need that. Most of the people who go to psychiatrists, their hearts and minds have never caught on to any one desire. I never had that problem. But I had a different one when Frank Sinatra came out in Life and said I was the greatest singer around. Sophie Tucker once told me, 'Make sure that helium doesn't hit your brain,' but it did, and for several years, to match up to his praise, I overblew, I oversang. But I've found my groove now. I'm solidifying everything, and working toward my own com­pany. You learn how to hang on to money after a while. I like to live well, but I'm not interested in yachts and fancy cars. There are things I'm searching for, but they won't take a day. I'd like to attain a good, keen intellect.

Alec Wilder set one of William Blake's poems to music for me, and I was reading Blake last night. Imagine being that talented and feeling so much at the same time! I'd like to make more movies. I played a press agent in The Oscar, and I loved the whole make-believe about it. I'd like my own regular TV show, which would be devoted to good music. None of that stuff with the musicians off camera and the shots full of dancers.

I like the funny things in this life that could only happen to me now. Once, when I was singing Kurt Weill's 'Lost in the Stars' in the Hollywood Bowl with Basic's band and Buddy Rich on drums, a shooting star went falling through the sky right over my head, and every­one was talking about it, and the next morning the phone rang and it was Ray Charles, who I'd never met, calling from New York. He said 'Hey, Tony, how'd you do that, man?' and hung up."”