Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

Tony Bennett Keeps the Music Playing

Photo by Tom Beetz.  Creative Commons.
Photo by Tom Beetz. Creative Commons.

I’ve got the world on a string today, as I can finally tuck a rarefied, finely plumed feather into my cap – or, if you prefer a more current reference, scratch a prominent item off my bucket list.  Because last Friday, I saw Tony Bennett live.

Stop a moment and read that name again.  Tony Bennett.  The Tony Bennett.

You can’t write a piece on Tony Bennett or review his show without dropping the adjective “legendary” more than a thesaurus would like.  There may be other words with similar meaning, but none truly epitomize the man and the voice.  Dear gods, that voice, projected from an 87-year-old body with none of its power diminished by time.  My grandmother died when she was 86, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to feed herself.  A year her senior, Tony Bennett can stand on a bare stage with a quartet of backing musicians and blow a few thousand jaded audience members out of their padded seats.  From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it, he’d be far richer than he already is.  But what is physically impossible to package, instead he shares, and how lucky are we to be the recipients of his generosity.

Tony Bennett is our last nostalgic link to the era of Frank and Ella and Bing, when men and women took their natural talent, refined it through years of vocal training, hard living and humiliating gigs and polished it into a perfect instrument that could be applied to some of the most elegant pieces of musical poetry ever composed.  Songs that were universal because they weren’t about bling or the thug life or some fantasized notion of puppy love auto-tuned within an inch of sheer roboticness.  These were songs written by people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen – scribes who understood the purity and universality of feelings found in simple moments, like noticing the way your love looks tonight.  That beautiful perception in songwriting, which Tony Bennett’s ongoing career continues to celebrate, has seemingly become an archaic notion.  For heaven’s sake, it took 11 people to write “Jenny From the Block” and they couldn’t even make the lyrics rhyme.  A song can’t be simple anymore, it has to be big, broad, even histrionic to get anyone’s attention.  However, Tony Bennett understands the lasting value of these old songs.  He’s been singing them so long he knows them inside out, back to front, syllable to syllable, note to note.  He knows how they were meant to be performed – in fact, he’s defined how they’re meant to be performed – and as he’s said himself, he treats them as classical music.  And they’re still playing Mozart 400 years on, why shouldn’t Gershwin receive the same accord?  Bennett always acknowledges the writer of a song when he performs it.  As terrific as he obviously is, he never sees himself as better than the notes and the words he’s delivering, and recognizes that he’d be nothing without the hard work of others.  Genuine humility just endears him to us even more.  The greatest ones always see themselves as eternal apprentices – the man who believes he has nothing left to learn is the man who needs to learn the most.

Last Friday, for an hour and twenty minutes without a break, and accompanied only by piano, guitar, standup bass and drums, Bennett led the audience on a guided tour of his most famous songs – standards like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and more – tunes you’ve heard a thousand times on radio, record, tape, CD, iPod, but managed to sound brand new and at the same time, for lack of a better word, classical.  He is traditionally economical in his delivery – no unneeded notes, no elongated frills or scats or anything other than the sheet music asks for – just the ineffable meaning that an old, weathered soul can provide.  His stage patter was likewise minimal, the only real anecdote a touching story about a letter he received from the composer of “Smile,” thanking him for making the song popular again – signed, Charlie Chaplin.  While one would love to have dinner with the man and listen to his stories, when he’s on stage you just want him to sing.  And sing he does.  Bennett achieves the impossible feat of bringing so much of himself to the performance yet somehow staying out of the way of the music, letting it and not his impeccably tailored self take center stage.  He is keen to divert the spotlight away from himself to the ones who back him up – the appropriately-named Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and “Count Basie’s favorite drummer” Harold Jones.  And as much as his repertoire might be rooted in the past, he does not shy from the bright lights of the future, promising a forthcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga (though we can safely assume it will be firmly on his turf, not hers).

To hear Tony Bennett sing in person is to be transported; to be connected with a golden era of music that dances ever further from reach with each passing year.  They don’t write songs like that anymore, and they don’t make folks like Tony Bennett to sing them, either.  We shall not see his like again, but, given the energy and vitality obviously still coursing through those 87-year-old veins, Bennett is determined to sing, you sinners, until they pry the microphone from his cold, dead fingers.  Ironically, my wife and I had talked a mere handful of weeks ago about ensuring that no matter what it took or what the cost, we would make it out to see him one day – and soon.  Serendipity delivered us Bennett tickets shortly thereafter.  And we sat together in the darkened auditorium, hands clasped, listening to the man whose music accompanied our wedding six years ago and makes us to this day reach for each other and share a slow dance in the kitchen whenever he comes on.  To hear that stuff is to be reminded of the depth of love two people can share, to strive to say it and show it to each other much more often.  And so we thank Tony Bennett and say, that’s how you keep the music playing.

UPDATE:  I posted this to The Huffington Post yesterday and received this response:

tonytweet2

That thud you heard was me fainting.  Tony Bennett!!!!

Zen and the art of snowman construction

After an unseasonably warm and extended fall, the first snow of the season tumbled to earth yesterday.  It didn’t last long, but for half an hour at least November looked like it’s supposed to.  With the mercury plunging below freezing last night I’ll go out on a limb and say we even stand a better than average chance of a white Christmas – call me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem right exchanging gifts and eating turkey when outside is a sea of dead leaves and asphalt.  If global warming reaches its zenith that’s one Bing Crosby song future generations will find inexplicable.  “What are you talking about, there’s never been snow on Christmas.”  (The duet with David Bowie on “Little Drummer Boy” is the other – still don’t know what was up with that pairing.)

Something else we’ll miss too is building snowmen.  Even when it does snow nowadays it’s difficult to find that perfect, temperature-teetering balance that proves ideal for snowman construction.  Too warm and your raw materials are slippery slush; too cold and the snow won’t pack together.  Ironic too, that the temperature best suited to build a snowman is also least suited to keep it around for long.  In a few short hours your masterpiece becomes a lump on the lawn with only the corncob pipe and button nose to remind anyone of the gentleman who once stood there greeting the passersby.  As illustrated in the lyrics to Frosty, the snowman by his nature is a transitory creature.  He is emblematic of the need to seize the moment, and to appreciate that moment to the fullest while it lasts.

The best snowman I have ever built, bar none, was an ambitious creation assembled on a snowy December day in 2007.  A healthy blanket had fallen during the night and the temperature was hovering around zero – prime conditions to start rolling.  It started out with the usual approach – roll a big ball for the body and a smaller one for the head.  Luckily there was plenty of snow in the driveway to use without having to spoil too much of the area around where the snowman was to stand.  We had the basic structure in place and were pondering how to finish it off when my better half suggested a twist – why not make a snow bunny?

That set the imagination afire.  We remolded his head, adding a snout and carefully shaping it to ensure it didn’t look too much like a pig.  Ears were next, followed by shoes, some stubby arms and a puffball of a tail.  A bow from an old Christmas decoration was repurposed as a necktie.  Unfolded paper clips became whiskers.  The master stroke, however, was cutting up pieces of a charcoal air pre-filter to use as buttons, nose, mouth and the all-important eyes, taking a little design inspiration from Looney Tunes along the way.  Now all he needed was a name.  The proximity of the holidays provided le mot juste, and Hoppy the Snow Rabbit was born.

Not the kind of snow bunny you'd see on the slopes...

Much like his famous brethren, Hoppy was not long for this world.  The air got progressively warmer and snow became rain.  The first to go was an ear, and by the time the sun fell, after providing smiles to pedestrians and the drivers of many passing cars, Hoppy was no more, living on only in scores of photographs taken of our accomplishment.  Perhaps we knew we wouldn’t top ourselves, because we haven’t tried to build a single snowman since.  Life – or, more to the point, the desire to stay warm on snowy days – has gotten in the way.  But that December day we brought Hoppy to life is one we remember with clarion detail, unlike so many others that have ebbed away into the stream of lost thoughts.  Was it the sheer joy of working together to build something special, or the surprise at the wonderful creation that resulted?  I suppose it’s a bit like the day I wrote about a few posts ago; the one thing they share is the act of creation itself.  Making something, even if it isn’t lasting.  Building becomes building memories.  Good ones.

If you have the chance, if the temperature is just right, get off your computer, bundle up, step outside and build a snowman.  It doesn’t have to be a work of art.  It just has to be.  Then step back and let yourself smile.  I think you’ll be glad you did.