- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

WASHINGTON

Tony Bennett donated a watercolor he made of longtime friend Duke Ellington to a Smithsonian museum on Wednesday, the 110th anniversary of the jazz great’s birth.

The painting depicts Mr. Ellington - who died in 1974 - with a bouquet of pink roses in the background. The jazz icon made a habit of sending Mr. Bennett a dozen roses when he wrote a new tune in hopes that Mr. Bennett would record the piece.

“Every time the roses came, I said, ‘Oh, Duke wrote another song,’ ” Mr. Bennett said.

The 15-time Grammy Award-winning singer said Mr. Ellington told him years ago to maintain a second art form beyond music.

“It became a way of life for me because if I sang too much, I’d kind of get burnt out from traveling on the road. So I would go over to painting and there would be a lift - a nice, fresh start,” Mr. Bennett said. “That balance, it’s kept me in a creative zone my whole life.”

Mr. Bennett, 82, has been a lifelong painter and still takes up a brush every day. He gave the watercolor to the National Portrait Gallery, the third painting he has donated to the Smithsonian Institution, following a portrait of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and a painting of New York’s Central Park.

He said he chose to focus on jazz icons in some of his paintings because they’re not appreciated enough for their contributions to American culture. Jazz is the “greatest art form that’s ever been created in the United States,” Mr. Bennett said.

At the museum Wednesday, a jazz ensemble from the District’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest played some of Mr. Ellington’s famous songs, such as his signature tune “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The song was written in 1939 by his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn.

At the New Arrivals gallery, George Washington University President Steven Knapp remarked that Mr. Bennett was right on with his depiction of Mr. Ellington, a District native who is depicted on the city’s state quarter.

“It’s such a memorable expression,” Mr. Knapp told Mr. Bennett. “It just nails it.”

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