Finding a Kindred Soul with Harold Arlen

For Tony Bennett, there was a lot to like about Harold Arlen.

First, Arlen's father was a cantor who understood bel canto singing and passed that on to his son. Bel canto is the bright, pure-toned kind of singing used in Italian opera and by cantors - including those with whom Bennett studied singing at the American Theater Wing.

"Plus, I sing jazz," says Bennett. "So it was a good combination to be with a composer who wrote music that would fit those two things - bel canto and jazz."

But there was more than that to like about Arlen, whose centennial arrives this year.

"He was the most consummate musician and talented person that I ever met. He was able to sing like any good performer. He played beautiful piano. He had a great knowledge of music theory. And then he also composed. He would sit down at the piano, when demonstrating a song, and sing it so damn well you'd say, `I can't sing it that good.'"

And Arlen was generous.

"Richard Rodgers told everybody, `Please sing the song the way I wrote it.' Which is really what you should do. You should do what the composer had in mind. But then Harold Arlen was so flexible. He'd say, `Look, my songs are just tools for performing. Change it any way you want. ... so it works for you on the stage.'"

Bennett says he feels a kind of obligation to keep alive the music of Arlen and Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

"Without getting up on a soapbox, I try to tell people, `This is American music, the best popular songs ever written.'"