As far as Tony Bennett is concerned, the problem with the music business is simple: People are more interested in short-term profit than in the value of tradition.
"It's almost like gold rush days," he says, over the phone. "Everybody's looking for what the next category's going to be that's going to sell a million copies, or 2 million copies. Whatever the fashion is. They've turned music into fashion. And music isn't fashion."
Maybe not, but that obsession with the latest and greatest has been a driving force in the music industry since the days of jitterbugging bobby-soxers. Bennett -- who will be in town for "Lifesongs," an AIDS benefit concert, this evening -- has himself been on the edge of fashionability, most recently when his appearances on MTV and at modern rock radio stations earned him fans young enough to pass as his grandchildren.
Yet no matter how the winds of fashion blow, Bennett's musical course remains unchanged. He believes in the standards, the work of songwriters like Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin.
"There's one expression I love, that's 'If something is good, it's always good,' " Bennett says. "When you watch Fred Astaire dance, or if you listen to Frank Sinatra's early records, they're so good. Nat King Cole -- he's been gone 25 years now, and he sounds like he just went in the studio yesterday. It doesn't sound dated. It sounds wonderful.
"But we're kind of anti-tradition. Anything that's new, even if it's bad, we'll go crazy about it. I saw Arthur Miller on Charlie Rose one day, and he said, 'It's funny about Americans. They don't realize that as young as we are, we have a tradition. They're turned off by tradition. They want to hear what the latest thing is.' "
You can almost hear Bennett shaking his head, wondering why a people so rich in music would take its treasures so lightly.
"That was a golden age of music," he says. "That would be like the equivalent of, in France, the French impressionists. They'll always be loved, those songs. I go to Asia, to Japan or Singapore; if I sing 'A Foggy Day in London Town,' they all cheer. Everybody knows 'Dancing in the Dark.' It's international. They're really our greatest ambassadors."
Bennett's ardor for these songs isn't simply the enthusiasm of an older man for the music of his youth. What he hears in these songs is a degree of craft that today's songwriters -- regardless of genre -- seem uninterested in pursuing.
"Those guys studied," he says. "George and Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg -- when they just wrote lyrics, they studied Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw and e.e. cummings and haiku poetry. They were clever enough to take the gigantic novels and put them into 32 bars and economically say the same thing.
"Look at 'Our Love Is Here To Stay': 'The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend/The world and all its capers, and where it soon will end/Nothing seems to be lasting, but that isn't our affair/We've got something permanent, I mean in the way we care.' "
On his new album, "Here's to the Ladies," Bennett pays tribute to some of the great ladies of song -- Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand -- but does so without resorting to imitation or stock devices. As a result, his performances seem wonderfully fresh, even when the songs in question are ones we've heard dozens of times.
"To me, that's the game of popular singing," he says. "Do it your own way. I tried to do the album so it's unpredictable. Sometimes we have a big swing band, other times we have a beautiful bed of symphonette, other times it's just a piano, and then another time it's just the trio. Because sometimes you'll have an album that sounds the same all the way through, and the first couple of sides are very nice, then all of a sudden it becomes very predictable. So I deliberately try to keep it interesting, and have changes of pace."
His "I Got Rhythm," for instance, is cut with his long-time accompanists, the Ralph Sharon Trio, with Bennett swinging hard over Doug Richeson's walking bass, while "People" boasts a big-band arrangement brassy and dramatic enough to keep the song from seeming overly saccharine. Then there's "Moonlight in Vermont," which seems wonderfully lush even though Bennett's only accompaniment is Sharon's piano.
Perhaps the album's most amazing reinterpretation, though, is Bennett's version of "God Bless the Child," which comes across less as blues than a sort of benediction. What prompted that approach? "I really stay away from very sad songs," answers Bennett. "Not that they're not great, but it's almost like crying in your beer, you know?
"I'm kind of like an interpreter like Oscar Hammerstein was a composer, which was very optimistic. I look for songs that are hopeful, like 'Who Can I Turn To,' and 'For Once In My Life.' So I try to uplift the audience and make them feel that there's some hope somewhere. That's what I liked about President Roosevelt, that's what I liked about Kennedy. They allowed us to have hope in America.
"It feels so good to know that we're all going somewhere, that it's not just hopeless," he concludes. "I like to make an audience feel inspired somehow, and spiritually walk out feeling a little better. So my repertoire is always one of hopeful songs, little philosophical songs, 'Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.' Anything that just makes you feel like something good is going to happen for you."
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Tickets: $35 to $250
Call: (410) 837-1818