Sunday, December 06, 2009

Old Jazzmen Live Forever

As a teenager, I was not very involved in extracurricular activities in high school. This was in the days before the I-275 was finished, and Milford was some distance from the uptown suburb of Mount Washington where I was bussed every day. Besides, I had activities closer to home, like Scouting, playing the guitar, and (oh, yes!) a very brief stint with canoe racing. But I lived for one thing each year, and that was the annual musical in the spring. If ever there would be a moment there, where I had any chance to shine, it would be on that stage, where I could be someone other than a geek from a hick town in the next county.

The choreographer was an English teacher named Lyn Ruf. I never had her for a class, but she taught me to believe in myself, at a time when others were not so convincing. Once, I went backstage to wait for the rest of the cast to arrive. I came across Miss Ruf looking at a photo album of jazz musicians. There they were, in black and white, men both black and white, posing for the ages. "These men will never die, Dave, so long as their music is still with us." Or words to that effect.

As a graphic design intern based out of UC, I worked for the late George Tassian, one of Cincinnati's legendary art directors, a man who wore three-piece Brooks Brothers suits at a time when other men dressed like John Travolta, if not in white. The senior designer was a graduate of my college named David Bukvic. He had the most eclectic music collection you could imagine, and opened my ears to a whole new world. Whether it was Doc Watson or Duke Ellington, bluesmen from Chicago or Billie Holiday, if it was any good, in any genre, it was in his collection.

It didn't help that he was also an arrogant sonofab****. I probably learned that from him too.

No one could accuse me of being an aficionado of jazz, but it's something which has started to grow on me in recent years. I suppose that was why, when a colleague at work had two tickets that she could not use, to see Tony Bennett at the Mayerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore last night, I took her up on the offer. You see, Sal loves jazz, and she cleans up real nice for a night on the town. And because she more than deserved one ...

I will dispense with the pain in the neck that was involved relying on Google maps to navigate uptown Baltimore. Suffice it to say that we allowed for plenty of time, and had pretty good seats. I expected a huge orchestra with backup singers, and a lot of glamor and glitz. But style isn't always overdone, and people with real class don't need to. The band was what you see in the first video; a quartet with a grand piano, an electric archtop cutaway guitar, a stand-up bass, and a full set of drums. The opening act was the headliner's daughter, Antonia Bennett, an aspiring young jazz singer in her own right. But it was the star of the evening that brought the audience to its feet, an eighty-three-year-old crooner from Astoria, Queens, who never forgot where he came from.

It was an intimate setting, as Bennett devoted the first half of the two-hour performance to lesser-known numbers for the true devotees in the audience. Occasionally he would share a spotlight with the pianist or the guitarist. The latter was particularly touching to this guitarist, as the musician went up and down the fingerboard with such dexterity, while Bennett's smooth voice, a voice that has won over a new generation of fans, crooned in a symbiotic interplay with the strings.

There was a segment where daughter Antonia came out to join her father, as they both hammed it up with a soft-shoe number that brought down the house. There were also moments when an old street kid spoke from the heart. "Rosemary Clooney and I, we were the original American Idols ... oh, yes, it's true." He told of his first big break from Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village, and how Bob Hope gave a young kid named Anthony Dominick Benedetto his stage name. He spoke of the great era of American songwriters, as if to overlook the lean years when pop music took a different turn. He had the audience clapping to the beat of "Sing You Sinners." And a sentimental guy like me could barely keep his composure, when Bennett sang "Smile when you're heart is aching, smile, even though it's breaking ..." Then there was that other tear-jerker, the one in the second video where he appears with Elvis Costello.

The big surprise came toward the end, at least for those who didn't expect it. Sal had turned to me and asked if he was ever going to sing "Fly Me To The Moon." Just then, as if on cue, Bennett introduced his sound engineer from a distance, and asked him to turn off the microphones. It was then that he belted out the tune penned by Bart Howard in 1954, first sung by Kaye Ballard, and later recorded by so many artists, including the kid from Astoria, Queens, who usually sings it without amplification, to demonstrate the power of vocal projection.

It didn't hurt that Sal looked like a million bucks, wearing a black velvet mid-calf length evening dress from a custom-designer in Manila, with black pebble-grain suede pumps by Ferragamo, a South Sea pearl pendant on a silver chain with matching drop earrings, and a handbag by Chanel.

I just threw something on so I'd look as if I belonged with her. On the whole, not a bad night, and the snow managed to clear up by the time we got there.

"The best is yet to come, and babe, won't it be fine ..."

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