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Tony Bennett: Loving Jazz

New England radio host Tom Reney blogs about the legendary singer

The last time I saw Tony Bennett was here on the stage of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier a year ago at the Montreal Jazz Festival. 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. I’m jonesing for him now, and all the more so since I spent my down time at last week’s Montreal fest reading David Evanier’s biography of Bennett, All the Things You Are.

Evanier’s account offers more than I ever needed to know about Bennett’s marriages and his problems with drugs, debt and taxes, but his primary 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 in Germany 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 subverted the order by hiring the Count Basie Orchestra to back him.

Basie, in turn, paid Bennett an extraordinary compliment. “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.”

In his memoir, Music Is My Mistress, 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.” Bennett’s devotion to charitable causes earned him the sobriquet, “Tony Benefit.”

Phoebe Jacobs, the jazz publicist who died this spring at age 93, said 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 offered Bennett occurred around Christmas in 1965. 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 Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert to console his friend.

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.” When he 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, “Every musician that I know of worth in popular music or jazz music is stung by Louis Armstrong…The bottom line of any country is what [it contributes] to the world. And we contributed Louis Armstrong.

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 new 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 occasional nemesis Mitch Miller to let him pursue a jazz-oriented direction. He told Nat Hentoff in Downbeat that year, “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.” It was guitarist Chuck Wayne around whom Cloud 7 was built. Wayne, who’d played with George Shearing and Woody Herman, had been working with Bennett for a couple of years at that point, in part because of the terrible condition of pianos in many of the venues where the singer was booked, he preferred being accompanied by an in-tune guitarist.

Speaking of Chuck Wayne, the blogosphere’s been sizzling with news of what appears to be definitive proof that Miles Davis’s 1954 recording “Solar” is actually Wayne’s mid-’40’s original, “Sonny.” Read about it at Rifftides, and at JazzWax. In the small world department, it should be noted that David Schildkraut, the alto saxophonist whom Wayne recruited for Cloud 7, is also on Davis’s recording of “Solar,” which was made about six months before the Bennett session.

Bennett told James Isaacs, Mitch Miller “allowed me to make Cloud 7. 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 Schildkraut and Al Cohn and drummer Ed Shaughnessy were sidemen on the date which served as a model for the many small combo recordings he’s made over the course of his career. Tony Bennett Jazz anthologizes his work with Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Bobby Hackett, Count Basie, and Art Blakey. Bennett recorded the acclaimed voice and piano album Tony Sings for Two with Ralph Sharon, his longtime music director, in 1959, and he made two dates with Bill Evans in the mid-’70’s.

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.

Originally Published