- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

“So many smart people graduate from college and don’t know what they want to do in life,” says Tony Bennett, who never had that problem. “I’ve always known what I wanted to do: sing and paint.”

His talents in both media will be on display this week, as Mr. Bennett performs at Wolf Trap Monday night and an exhibition of his paintings opens at the P&C; Art Gallery in Georgetown Wednesday.

Mr. Bennett has been coming to Wolf Trap every summer for years, singing the great American songbook: the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and other masters. It all seems so natural and so easy. But even though fame came early in his career, he had to struggle for the right to sing the music he loves.

“No one has fought the philistines longer, harder, or more successfully than Tony Bennett,” critic Will Friedwald once wrote.

“I’ve achieved total freedom,” Mr. Bennett says.

Once upon a time, the record companies did their best to tell Mr. Bennett what to sing, and their choices were rarely inspired. Mr. Bennett, of course, wasn’t the only victim: It wasn’t until Frank Sinatra escaped Columbia Records and producer Mitch Miller that he was able to flower into the mature artist of the “hat years” at Capitol.

Mr. Bennett, however, was stuck at Columbia, laboring under the aesthetic guidance of the man who would later bring us “Sing Along With Mitch.” He had to fight all the way for the right to do the sort of jazz-oriented records he longed to record. (One of the records he fought to make, “Cloud 7,” a superb small-group jazz outing from 1955, is finally available on CD.)

Huge hit records like “Because of You,” “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” may have given Mr. Bennett leverage, but they also made Columbia less willing to experiment. It wasn’t until the pop hits dried up, late in the 1960s, that Mr. Bennett was fully liberated.

“I’m allowed to not compromise,” Mr. Bennett says. “When I started following my own instincts, that’s when I earned 12 Grammies.”

Mr. Bennett earned those awards singing “traditional pop vocals,” a category the industry labels “adult music.” But don’t tell Mr. Bennett that what he’s doing is “adult” music. “I’m singing to the whole family, not just one demographic,” he says. “I wish some of these producers would realize that selling records to everyone in the family can be more profitable than just selling to one narrow age group.”

Record execs are also prone to short-term thinking, another trade specialty Mr. Bennett has spent a career bucking. “Once I was doing a rehearsal for a show in Las Vegas, and after the rehearsal, Donald O’Connor came up to me,” Mr. Bennett recalls. “He told me, ‘If you do something good, wait five years.’ ”

What Mr. O’Connor meant — and Mr. Bennett took to heart — was that quality work will be appreciated over the long haul, even if it doesn’t yield immediate commercial returns. Mr. Bennett’s career is a testament to the value of long-horizon thinking. As he likes to say, a hit catalog is better than a hit record.

Even if he has long since tuned out record company executives, Mr. Bennett has remained highly attuned to his audience. The singer is famously gracious with autograph hounds and folks who come up to him at restaurants wanting a picture.

But it is onstage that Mr. Bennett’s affection and respect for his audience is most striking. He gives them music of the highest artistic merit, and he gives it to them with the verve of a great entertainer.

Mr. Bennett doesn’t think you have to be flashy to put on a good show: “All you need is a black curtain,” he says. “I had the good fortune to get started on the tail end of vaudeville. The audience would tell you what they liked and what they didn’t like.”

We live in an age of musical polarization. The purveyors of kiddie pop mount extravagantly empty stage shows full of explosions, lip-syncing, Jumbo- trons, dance troupes and costume malfunctions.

At the same time, serious young jazz musicians tend to ape Miles Davis, turning their backs on the audience, copping the pose that says, “My art is too pure to be sullied with show business.”

Mr. Bennett has always embodied the golden mean between the two extremes, offering both real music and real entertainment.

It was from another one-time vaudevillian, Judy Garland, that Mr. Bennett learned how to deliver the big ending to a song. Like her, he throws his arms up and out, his head back, and belts it out. (Just listen to him do it on his recording of Miss Garland’s signature song, “The Man [Gal] That Got Away”). Like Miss Garland at her best, Mr. Bennett uses the big ending not as a cheap bit of showiness, but as an unrestrained outpouring of big emotions.

The great American songbook has always been about those large emotions — love lost and found and often lost again — and no one puts those emotions across with more honesty and heart than Mr. Bennett. (The singer’s next album, “The Art of Romance,” due out in the fall, should be a fine demonstration of his heart-on-his-sleeve take on love.)

You can hear other essential singers in Mr. Bennett’s voice as well. There is the bel canto crooning of Frank Sinatra and the easy romanticism of Bing Crosby. Of course, that signature husky rasp brings to mind the man whom Mr. Bennett rightly credits with inventing jazz singing, Louis Armstrong.

Given the astonishing durability of his pipes and the unflagging commitment he has made to the road, we may still be able to hear Mr. Bennett at Wolf Trap 10 years from now. Let’s hope so. But don’t take it for granted.

Mr. Bennett is one of the last of the important musicians from the golden age of American jazz and popular singing. Don’t miss the chance to hear him while you can — you’ll be lavishly rewarded for the effort.

Eric Felten is a jazz singer and trombonist. He will appear with his big band at Blues Alley Aug. 26.

WHAT: Tony Bennett in concert

WHERE: Wolf Trap, Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna.

WHEN: Monday, 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $42, lawn $25

INFORMATION: 703/255-1868

E-MAIL: [email protected]

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