“I’ll Be Around” (1963) Tony Bennett with Bobby Hackett

“I’ll Be Around”

Composed by Alec Wilder; arranged by Dick Hyman.

Recorded by Tony Bennett for Columbia on November 6, 1963 in New York.

An orchestra consisting of a string quartet and perhaps three trumpets and three trombones, a guitar, plus Bobby Hackett on cornet and the Ralph Sharon Trio, (Ralph Sharon, piano; Hal Gaylord, bass; Billy Exiner, drums), was conducted by Dick Hyman.

The story:

Tony Bennett (born August 3, 1926), whose real name is Antonio Domenico Benedetto, has had an incredible life and career. I have enjoyed his music, made in many different musical settings and with a wide variety of musicians, including many great jazz musicians, over several decades. I think that the aesthetic orientation he has as a singer can aptly be described as artistic. He works from a point of inspiration, whenever that is possible. Of course, any performer who has had popular success on the scale Tony Bennett has will be pulled in various non-artistic directions by the demands of the marketplace. Very often, Bennett has, despite these commercial impedimenta, produced music of great sensitivity and beauty.

If I were to create a Venn diagram that would even remotely begin to include the musicians who have been creative collaborators with Tony Bennett over the last seventy years, it would have to have dozens of circles on it to include these names, and many more: Duke Ellington; Count Basie; Percy Faith; Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey; Ray Conniff; Benny Goodman; Kai Winding; Herbie Mann; Gene Krupa; Dave Brubeck; Bob Brookmeyer; Ralph Burns; Gary Burton; Dick Hyman; Johnny Mandel; Herbie Hancock; Stan Getz; Elvin Jones; Al Cohn; Zoot Sims; Buddy Rich; Louis Armstrong; Bobby Hackett; Bill Evans; and that fellow New Yorker, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Lady Gaga). Also on this Venn diagram would be someone who was not a famous performer, Alec Wilder.

Whenever I think of Alec Wilder (1907-1980), I associate him with the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, which is located at 59 West 44th Street. Wilder first stayed in that hotel as a child with his mother, then later maintained a small room there as his default base of operations for forty years. It was never his home. It appears that after his childhood, spent in part in Rochester, New York and Mahnattan, Wilder never had a home. He wandered, and was particularly fond of wandering by train. (At left: Alec Wilder in the early 1970s in Manhattan.)

In preparing this post, I pulled a couple of wonderful books off my library shelves, a biography of Alec Wilder entitled: Alec Wilder ..in Spite of Himself – A Life of the Composer (1996), by Desmond Stone; and Alec Wilder and His Friends (1974), by Whitney Balliett. Both of these books evoke Wilder beautifully, but Balliett’s description of Wilder includes some of his most trenchantly descriptive writing. Here it is: “Wilder is a tall man with a big head and small feet. (The day I met him) (H)e was wearing a sports jacket, gray slacks and loafers, and they had the resigned look of strictly functional clothes. He has a long, handsome face and receding gray hair that flows out from the back of his head, giving the impression that he is in constant, swift motion. His eyebrows are heavy and curved, and when he has finished making a point — often punctuated by his slamming his fist down on the nearest piece of furniture — they shoot up and the corners of his mouth shoot down. He has piercing, deep-set eyes cushioned by dark, doomsday pouches — diamonds resting on velvet. His face is heavily wrinkled — not with the soft, oh-I’m-growing-old lines but with strong heavy-weather ones. He has a loud baritone voice and he talks rapidly. When he is agitated, his words roll like cannonballs around the room. He laughs a lot and he swears a lot, in an old-fashioned Mark Twain manner, and when he is seated he leans forward, like a figurehead breasting a flood tide. A small, serene mustache marks the eye of the hurricane.” (1)

For people who care about the great songs that were composed in the Twentieth Century by Americans, and occasionally by a Brit or a continental European, and became the musical underscore of the swing era, the book Wilder wrote, American Popular Song …The Great Innovators – 1900–1950, which was published in 1972, is seminal and indispensable. Before that book was published, great singers, like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, among others, were well aware of that amorphous body of great songs that they usually referred to as “standards,” not only because they were made up of fine melodies and poetic lyrics, but because they remained popular with audiences decade in and decade out. But Wilder in this book, as a composer of songs himself and as a sensitive (though opinionated) musician, explained why these standards were great, or in some cases why they were not great. And he defined a category for those songs that has since become a part of the vernacular of the people who sing them and audiences who listened to them, American Popular Song.

Alec Wilder in a studio, listening to music being rehearsed.

To say that Wilder assiduously avoided the limelight during most of his life would be an understatement. Despite his musical talent, which was great, and his musical education, which like many things in his life, was unconventional but quite effective (2), Wilder lacked self-confidence. Nevertheless, he had, according to Whitney Balliett, “…the vitality and curiosity and strength of a child.” (3) Like almost all of the talented musicians I have ever known, Wilder did what he did musically because he had to, not simply to earn money. Consequently, he created a lot of music over his lifetime, including a dozen operas (some of which, according to his biographer, are akin to musical comedy), a handful of musicals, some film music, music for concert ensembles and choirs of various sizes, in addition to his numerous popular songs. Knowledgeable musicians and singers in both the jazz and pop music worlds have long championed his songs, though Wilder himself never thought they were very good. Here is what Mr. Balliett said about that: “He has repeatedly run away from opportunities to make sizeable sums of money, not because he dislikes money per se but because he refuses to blow his own horn or sully himself in the marketplace. And now (at the time his book appeared), he as written a book which, because it is probably definitive, threatens to send his popular songs into oblivion once and for all. An appendix dealing with Wilder’s (popular songs) would not have been unseemly. Wilder though would have roared incredulously at this notion.” (4)

The music:

This is a quiet, intimate recording. The mood of intimacy is established by the languid tempo set by Dick Hyman, who wrote the arrangement that is heard here, and conducted the small orchestra. That tempo is not only fitting for the song, but it allows ample room for the brilliant cornet accompaniment Bobby Hackett provided for Tony Bennett. Bennett’s voice, which in the 1950s and 1960s was a strong, metallic tenor, is warmer here, where he sings softly, and phrases with telling swing. Bennett was completely comfortable performing with jazz musicians, and they with him. His voice is complemented perfectly by Hackett’s utterly relaxed velvety cornet sound.

The string quartet figure Hyman uses at the beginning of this performance, and then at strategic places throughout, provides another sonority to contrast with Bennett’s voice, and a gently recurring motive. Pianist Ralph Sharon, a longtime Bennett collaborator, also furnishes gentle accompaniment to set-off Bennett’s voice.

What Bobby Hackett plays, meaning his selection of notes, is something he was always renowned for. He had an unerring ability to choose the right notes. But beyond that, is when he chose to play those notes. In this performance, he plays a few notes between the eight-bar segments of the first chorus, and especially during the eight-bar bridge, when he momentarily alters his cornet sound with a plunger, and then in the last eight bars. Then he remains silent until the tag ending. Hackett’s accompaniment of Bennett on this recording is the aural equivalent of spreading a few multi-colored jewels on white velvet. Economy, efficiency and inspiration, in perfect balance. (Above: Bobby Hackett and Tony Bennett.)

A bit more story: 

After publication and critical praise for Wilder’s book, his eccentric persona became more public. One of his great advocates was Whitney Balliett, whose writing about jazz musicians graced the pages of The New Yorker for several decades at the end of the last century. Balliett wrote not only about Wilder, he also wrote about performers who respected Wilder’s music. A collection of his New Yorker pieces about Wilder and his musical admirers appeared in 1974 as a book. It was entitled Alec Wilder and His Friends. The portraits that appear in that book are anecdotal and entertaining. They stimulated more public interest in Wilder and his music. Consequently, he was featured in a radio series based on his book, broadcast in the middle to late 1970s with lyricist with Loonis McGlohon. Wilder died of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker) on December 24, 1980.

Wilder himself was not above embellishing, indeed creating from whole cloth, stories about his interactions with other human beings, including famous musicians. He also tended to bite various hands that were feeding or attempting to feed him at any given time. (5) One of these stories, which Wilder relished telling and retelling, involved an interaction he supposedly had with Benny Goodman. The Wilder version of this story has him writing an arrangement for the Goodman band during the brief period at the end of 1939 when Mildred Bailey was working with Benny. Pianist Jess Stacy, who worked with BG from mid-1935 to mid-1939, appears in Wilder’s story as a clown. Goodman is portrayed as criticizing the harmony in a part of Wilder’s arrangement at a rehearsal, and Wilder is portrayed as truculently telling Goodman that he didn’t know very much about harmony. At some point in this story, Wilder is supposed to have told Goodman to take off his glasses and step outside. (Above right: non-pugilist Alec Wilder in 1953.)

From the standpoint of historical fact this story is hilariously improbable. Jess Stacy had been out of the Goodman band for several months before Mildred Bailey started working with Benny in late 1939. What is also undisputed is that Wilder himself eschewed violence of any sort. James T. Maher, who worked with Wilder on his book, knew him well. He also knew Benny Goodman well. He clarified the confusion created by Wilder with this tale after Wilder’s and Goodman’s deaths: The last thing Benny would do would be to come within an inch of someone taking a swing. The two of them were great walk-away artists. Alec was always extremely brave as an anecdotalist.” (6)

The rest of the historically verified story as it relates to Benny is that BG continued playing Wilder’s music after 1939. He recorded Wilder’s “Soft as Spring” (with a vocal by Helen Forrest) in June of 1941, and played it on a number of radio broadcasts in the summer of that year. He also broadcast Wilder’s “It’s So Peaceful in the Country” (with a vocal by Peggy Lee), and “Moon and Sand” throughout the autumn of 1941. Why this is so is that Wilder had signed a contract for Regent Music, Inc., the music publishing business run by Benny’s brothers Harry and Eugene, (Benny himself also may have had an interest in this business), to publish his songs.(7) Whatever Benny Goodman thought of Alec Wilder, he played Wilder’s songs because they were quite good, and by doing so on radio and record, he was able to assist his brothers in their business. As usual, Benny was taking care of the music and the business of his band, and helping his brothers in the process. Wilder, as so often was the case, was tilting at windmills.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links: 

(1) Alec Wilder and His Friends (1974), by Whitney Balliett (193-194). Hereafter Balliett.

(2) Wilder was a black sheep member of an affluent family. He grew up in Rochester, New York, home of the Eastman School of Music, and was inevitably drawn there, but not as a student. He studied music privately with composers Herman Inch and Edward Royce, who taught at Eastman.

(3) Balliett, 180.

(4) Balliett, ibid.

(5) Wilder received money throughout his life from either a trust fund or some other sort of financial source established and funded by his father. Wilder disliked his father nevertheless. What makes his dislike even more strange is that Wilder’s father died when Alec was two years old. He was improvident with this money, often to the point of recklessness, and had to turn to friends, some quite wealthy, who indulged him and in a real sense acted as his patrons.

(5) Alec Wilder in Spite of Himself …A Life of the Composer (1996), by Desmond Stone (68). Hereafter Stone.

(6) Stone, 67. A bit more information about the Goodman brothers’ music publishing venture can be found here: https://www.songhall.org/awards/winner/Gene_Goodman

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