Tony Bennett is an icon of popular culture. His ascendance in that pantheon began with his famous endorsement by Frank Sinatra as the nation's best male vocalist, and a string of hit recordings lifted him to the top. Culturally, Bennett and Sinatra came to represent the two sides of the American male of the 1940's through '60's: Sinatra, the roguish romantic individualist, and Bennett, the true gentleman leading the "good life of the Golden Mean. Believe me- I grew up with both types in Brooklyn, NY, not long after Sinatra emerged from Patterson, New Jersey, and then, a decade later, Bennett from Astoria, Queens to the big time and world-wide fame.
It so happens that, like the late great Sinatra, Bennett has desired very much to earn his stripes as a jazz artist. In reality, he has already earned them. Both he and Sinatra have contributed enormously to jazz. Musically, both of them early on demonstrated abilities and originality well above those of the average pop singer. Sinatra literally brought vocals out of the stone age of stilted, postured phrasing. He created the modern style of singing standards: the swinging rhythm, the held-back phrases, the relaxed, intimate persona. Bennett added elements of intuition, subtle, private emotion, and sincerity that have similarly exercised a profound influence on contemporary song stylings. In addition to being creative forces of their own, both have coveted performing with the best of jazz musicians. Both have recorded and performed live with the Basie band. For a while, Sinatra had a musical love affair with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Back further, during the 1950's, Sinatra went on tour with Red Norvo's quintet, and, if the recording (Frank Sinatra with The Red Norvo Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959
; Blue Note CDP 527513) of a concert date in Australia is any indication, he sang with superlative swing and nuanced phrasing well beyond his popular renditions. Bennett made two well-respected recordings with pianist Bill Evans, and a high-tech CD of "duets with Billie Holiday, using digitally modified versions of her recordings. The Billie Holiday influence comes through whenever Bennett sings ballads. He stays strictly, as Billie did, almost "religiously with the melody and the sentiment "as written. Understatement can be a powerful medium of expression.
This provides some of the historical context for Bennett's lustrous performance as the kick-off artist for the Kimmel Center's Mellon Jazz Festival concert season. Recently, Bennett has been consciously striving to bring his jazz interests into conjunction with his popular stylings, and is doing a tour of concerts with jazz "overtones, so to speak, at high level venues. In this particularly stunning performance at the Kimmel, with a possible nod to the famous Palladium concerts of Judy Garland and others, Bennett combined nostalgic performances of his hit tunes (such as "I Left My Heart in San Francisco and "Fly Me to the Moon ) with more delicate renditions of jazz standards (such as "I'll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places and Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone ) into a seamless, wide-ranging set of interpretations. His wonderful personality quickly put the audience at ease, and he added genuinely interesting and humorous anecdotes and quips, and a perhaps too-well-choreographed set of stage movements to weave a tapestry of moods and memories that has been a part of so many people's lives over five decades. And it was all held together by Bennett's superb sense of rhythm and dynamics. Musically and personally, he built such rapport with the audience that they kept calling him back with standing ovations for encore after encore. It was, I think, a combination of the excellent performances by him and his sidemen, the nostalgic significance of the occasion, and Bennett's manifest love of life and generosity of spirit that generated such energy.
But, given that this was billed unflinchingly as a jazz concert and despite Bennett's artistry and the sheer wonder of his performance, the question still posed itself: was it really "jazz ? On one level, this is a very academic question, for, after all, jazz and American popular music have always existed in a virtually inseparable relationship. (Think of Louis Armstrong, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Duke Ellington, for example.) Yet a genuine distinction remains. A popular song or a standard is one that has insinuated itself into the general culture. Jazz comes about when a melody or a motif (often but not always a popular one) is transformed in depth and meaning by a creative process and especially when linked to the blues and other jazz formats.