Singers whose careers flourish well into their 80s are rare, and those whose instruments still function at a high level rarer still.
Among them, Tony Bennett stands out, for he turned 87 earlier this month and has shown no vocal slippage. Yes, his voice has changed through the decades – deepening, darkening, gathering texture and grain – but it remains an uncommonly expressive tool. Interpretively, he still stands at the pinnacle of his art, bringing more meaning to ballads, in particular, than virtually any male singer working in the classic pop-jazz idiom. Technically, he shows as much control as ever.
Or at least he did when he was still a youthful 86 and performing at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park last summer. When he returns to Ravinia on Aug. 18 – his 32nd appearance there – he'll have a rather high standard to try to meet: his own.
"I'm just shocked and fortunate to still be in top shape," says Bennett.
"I could have retired really 17 years ago, but I love entertaining people, and I try to make them feel good. It makes me feel good when I can make them feel good."
Judging by the capacity audiences that crowd Ravinia – and practically everywhere else Bennett performs – he's making many people feel quite good whenever he steps onto a stage. Like a painter, which Bennett also happens to be, he carefully moves the microphone back and forth and around, catching certain vocal colors that suit the tone of the song he's singing.
It takes a lifetime to achieve this kind of mastery, but Bennett insists there's no mystery as to why he still can do it.
"After the second World War, under the G.I. Bill, they gave us the opportunity to choose any college or any school that we wanted to go to," says Bennett, who served in the Army during World War II, fighting on the front lines in Europe.
"And it was so fortunate that I chose the American Theatre Wing. … They really gave us the finest teachers and (taught) every aspect of theater, from legitimate theater to films. For acting, they taught us the Stanislavsky Method – the Method acting spirit."
It was then, says Bennett, that he learned not only how to comport himself on stage but how to maintain his instrument and, more than that, how to find his own voice.
"Mimi Speer was right on 52nd Street, which was the great jazz street in those days," recalls Bennett. "All the greatest artists, like Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, they all played on that great jazz street.
"And she would insist with her students: 'Please don't imitate another singer, because you'll just be one of the chorus if you do that.' So if you're going to figure out a style, listen to (instrumentalists), and find how they are coming up with the attitude of performances.
"And I chose Art Tatum," adds Bennett, referring to the towering jazz-piano virtuoso, "because he changed tempos. In those days, everybody placed dance tempos, and he was the first one to kind of tell a story with a song.
"I was criticized in those days by the jazz musicians. They said: 'What are you doing? You're not keeping the dance tempo going.'
"I said, 'I'm just doing what Art Tatum does.'"
But there were other profound influences on Bennett's work, as well. The Italian operatic tradition radiated from his singing then and still does now, the long-spun lines and epic scale of his performances born in the pages of Verdi and Puccini but re-cast in the swing rhythms and improvisational freedom of all-American jazz.
Bennett says that he considers saxophonist Stan Getz a particular influence, Getz's free-flowing, irrepressibly melodic manner having served as a model for the way Bennett unfolds a phrase.
Yet even as Bennett has evolved stylistically and changed vocally through the decades, there's a remarkable consistency to his work. The latest evidence comes in the form of "Bennett/Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962," a recently released album of music that had been languishing in the Sony/Columbia archives and was discovered late last year, around the time of Brubeck's death last December at age 91.
Bennett and Brubeck were collaborating for the first time on Aug. 28, 1962 in a performance organized by the White House and staged at the base of the Washington Monument, each artist noteworthy for bringing new popularity to the art of jazz. Bennett's recording of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" had emerged on the Billboard charts 17 days earlier, according to Ted Gioia's liner notes, and Brubeck had become something of a pop star, having graced the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and sold more than a million copies of his album "Take Five" in 1960.
The "Bennett/Brubeck" performance opens with the singer performing alongside his longtime accompanist, Ralph Sharon, then switching to Brubeck's quartet. Because Bennett and Brubeck never had shared a stage, Bennett candidly tells the audience – as if he's hoping for the best – "We haven't rehearsed this, so lots of luck, folks!"