Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tony Bennett, and Youth

Recently I read, with admiration, that the 84-year-old Tony Bennett was giving a concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Tony Bennett is the epitome of bravery. And he is living proof of the sophistication of our youth -- and perhaps, if you'll permit me to say, the unsophistication of their parents.

"Brave"? That's a strange adjective for a mere musician. Isn't "brave" when you pull a kid from the train tracks? I suggest, however, that to do something that's not "in", even after everyone advises you not to, and then to do it with such sincerity and faith that it actually becomes "in", takes a bravery that is rarely seen. Kids are pulled from train tracks more often than musicians stay true to themselves.

I scarcely need to describe Mr. Bennett's success in the 1950s and '60s -- an era which, I hasten to mention, boasted many great singers of all types. Then in 1970 something happened. Under incredible pressure to be "more modern," to "get with the times," to "do what everyone else is doing," Bennett recorded Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today! The results were an artistic disaster. Bennett's fans didn't like the album. Folks who like those songs didn't like the album. Bennett himself didn't like the album. No one liked it.

The '70s were a hard decade for Bennett, culminating in a cocaine overdose in 1979. An Episcopal priest once said to me, "You have to have a death before you can have a resurrection," and indeed this near-death experience set in motion an almost unparalleled comeback that continues to this day.

Bennett hired a new manager (his son Danny) and rehired an old music director (Ralph Sharon). No more trying to be "modern." He sang only good songs, in good arrangements, and in good taste -- his own, which he had been cultivating for decades.

Now, here's the amazing part -- amazing, that is, to the aforementioned parents. The youth like Tony Bennett.

Now, how is this possible? How is it possible that today's youth like Tony Bennett? How is it possible to please youth without "meeting them halfway"? How is it possible that youth could possibly appreciate something from another generation? Because they are curious about things that might be good. Someday they will become parents themselves, and curiosity will be replaced by prejudice. (Face it, it happens to all of us.) But for the moment, give the youth something good -- music done in the right way and for the right reasons.

It is dangerous for a church musician to say all I have said above. Such talk makes most clergy very, very nervous.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A Catholic church at which I once played had a magnificent organ, in a space that was every bit as magnificent (the stained glass, the carvings, and so forth). I certainly was not aiming to please one age group over another. But by far, the age group that most often paid me compliments and asked me questions about the organ were the young adults in their 20s. I'm simply stating a statistical, mathematical fact.

I mentioned this factually accurate feedback to the pastor. He got angry at me. He was actually angry.

This, I should mention, was the same pastor who tried to introduce rock music at a Mass. No one of any age group was interested. The young musicians themselves weren't even interested in playing. But Father was adamant that this was the way to boost attendance at this particular Mass.

This same pastor -- who went through seminary during the height of the Post Vatican II folk era -- once wrote in one of his messages about a concert at Symphony Hall that his sister took him to. He wrote about the audience's enthusiastic reaction to the music, adding (and I quote), "Not being a musician or one who spends much time appreciating fine music, the collective response it evoked was unexpected and surprising to me."

A youth would never make a prejudicial comment like that. A youth would say, "Man, that Strauss piece rocked!"

I appreciate the concern of clergy in all denominations, Catholic and Protestant, about church attendance. How do we attract the youth? The problem lies in the question itself. If Tony Bennett addressed that question, he would fail himself, the audience, and the music itself. Instead, he respects them by giving them something good. That's brave.

2011 marks twenty-five years that I have been Director of Music in churches of all different denominations and demographics. Then, as now, clergy and music directors were concerned about attracting youth. The willingness to dumb down, however, is an infection that has spread noticeably during this quarter century. As far as I have been able to tell in 25 years of observation, the genre of music has little to do with church attendance. I've been to well-attended churches with good music and poorly-attended churches with bad music -- thus, I'm quite certain that good music doesn't scare people away! I do notice, however, that youth continue to sense what is good, what is genuine, what is sincere. If we present the best liturgy possible, on some level they sense it, and it feels right to them. If instead we are like Groucho Marx, who once said, "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others," the youth can sense that, too.

Very few music directors, and even fewer clerics, would agree with everything I've written here. However, no one would disagree that Tony Bennett has achieved popularity with youth, and did so without dumbing down. Hats off to you, Mr. Bennett. You are an inspiration!