April 29, 2009
Today is the 110th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth here in Washington, D.C., and to commemorate it, Tony Bennett presented the National Portrait Gallery this morning with his painting of the jazz great. Ellington, who Bennett says was “so gregarious” when they first met at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center, was a mentor to him.
Bennett recalled how the Duke once advised him to, “Do two things. Don’t do one.” For Bennett, the one thing, which the vast majority of people know him for, is his singing; the second, which may come as a surprise, is painting.
“I describe myself as a perpetual student of learning how to paint,” said Bennett. Once he started doing it on a daily basis, it changed his whole life for the better. When he was burnt out from singing, he would start to paint. “It would be a big lift,” he said. And when he was tired of painting, he’d sing. “It created a state of perpetual creativity,” said Bennett. “There is no need for vacation or to retire.”
He’s quite an accomplished painter too. This will be his third painting accepted by the Smithsonian. The first, a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, is in the National Museum of American History collections, though not currently on display. The second, a landscape of Central Park, is on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And, as of today, Duke Ellington is hanging in the New Arrivals hall of the National Portrait Gallery.
The watercolor portrays Ellington with what Bennett has described as a “look of divine serenity on his face.” In the background is a bunch of pink roses. “Every time he wrote a song that he thought I might like to record, he sent a dozen roses,” said Bennett.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.