Tony Bennett on His 1962 Collaboration With Dave Brubeck

A magical time in Washington, recently unearthed and reissued

Tony Bennett and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the White House 1962
Tony Bennett and members of the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the White House 1962

1 of 2      Next

Aug. 28, 1962-the date various jazz artists gathered in Washington at the behest of President Kennedy to entertain an assemblage of journalism graduates from across America-may have been the high point of JFK’s halcyon days. Within 48 hours, the bright optimism of Kennedy’s Camelot would begin to darken when an American spy plane confirmed the presence of a Soviet missile base in Cuba, igniting the Cold War’s most chilling standoff. But on that hot August night, all was right with the world as those budding reporters filled the outdoor Sylvan Theater at the foot of the Washington Monument to hear, among others, Dave Brubeck, then 41, and Tony Bennett, 36. “It was a magical time in Washington,” Bennett recalls today. “There was an air of real hope. We all felt that, at last, our troubles were going to be straightened out.”

Brubeck and Bennett delivered back-to-back sets, Brubeck fronting his most celebrated quartet configuration, with Paul Desmond on alto, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass, and, four years into their four-decade partnership, Bennett joined by pianist Ralph Sharon with his trio. Then Bennett proffered an impromptu invitation for Brubeck, Morello and Wright-Desmond is pointedly absent-to join him for four more tunes.

A decade or so later, one of those Brubeck/Bennett numbers, “That Old Black Magic,” surfaced on a Brubeck compilation. But according to Will Friedwald, a vocal-jazz expert and the co-author of Bennett’s 2007 autobiography, “[the track] had been messed with by Columbia in such a way that the sonics were all screwed up. It actually sounded like an electric bass was being used.” Still, it alerted fans of both artists that the D.C. concert had been recorded. The original tapes remained elusive until late last year when, after Brubeck’s death, archivists began combing through the Columbia vaults. Now the entire hour-long date has been released as The White House Sessions, Live 1962 (Sony Legacy).

Brubeck’s monster hit, the Desmond-penned “Take Five,” was less than a year old, and he opens his portion of the gig with an oddly accelerated version. Then Brubeck speaks briefly about jazz as a universal language, spending 10 minutes exploring the Middle Eastern rhythms of “Nomad” to prove his point. The world tour continues with “Thank You (Dziekuje)” and “Castilian Blues.” The crowd erupts, begging for an encore, but Brubeck cedes the stage to Bennett.

Bennett’s is a more conservative set, beginning with a trio of recent Broadway hits-“Just in Time,” “Small World” and “Make Someone Happy”-followed by a subdued “Rags to Riches” and an incongruently upbeat “One for My Baby.” He closes with a gorgeously slowed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which had entered the Billboard pop chart just two weeks prior. It was, he recalls, “still new to me; that was maybe the third time I’d performed it live.”

“We haven’t rehearsed this, so lots of luck, folks,” Bennett announces prior to the set with Brubeck, though their combined magic is instantly palpable. Brubeck rarely worked with vocalists, yet settles into a simpatico groove. Bennett, meanwhile, is utterly transformed: free and loose across “Lullaby of Birdland,” “Chicago,” “Black Magic” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” Of their captivating 10-minute pairing, Bennett says, “That’s what jazz is all about, that spontaneity that makes everything wonderful. We didn’t know how it was going to work or if it was going to work.”

Adds Friedwald, “In 2013 speak, it is the coming together of two ‘brands’ that suit each other superbly. Brubeck was already known for his experiments in nutso time signatures, in spite of which-or perhaps because of which-he continued to swing mightily. Most of Tony’s signature hits, like ‘San Francisco,’ were more of a romantic nature than a rhythmic one, but he too could swing mightily. Together they’re a formidable team.”

Though Brubeck and Bennett wouldn’t perform together again for nearly half a century, united at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival for what Bennett remembers as “a beautiful reunion,” the singer and the late pianist remained friends. “He was a tremendously nice person,” says Bennett, “very gregarious. We just understood one another.”