Tony Bennett donated a watercolor he made of longtime friend Duke Ellington to a Smithsonian museum on Wednesday, the 110th anniversary of the jazz great’s birth.
The painting depicts Ellington with a bouquet of pink roses in the background. The jazz musician made a habit of sending Bennett a dozen roses when he wrote a new tune in hopes that Bennett would record the piece.
“Every time the roses came, I said, ‘Oh, Duke wrote another song,”’ Bennett said.
The 15-time Grammy Award-winning singer said Ellington told him years ago to maintain a second art form beyond music.
“It became a way of life for me because if I sang too much, I’d kind of get burnt out from traveling on the road. So I would go over to painting and there would be a lift — a nice, fresh start,” Bennett said. “That balance, it’s kept me in a creative zone my whole life.”
Bennett, 82, has been a lifelong painter and still takes up a brush every day. He gave the watercolor to the National Portrait Gallery, the third painting he has donated to the Smithsonian Institution, following a portrait of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and a painting of New York’s Central Park.
Bennett said he chose to focus on jazz icons in some of his paintings because they’re not appreciated enough for their contributions to American culture. Jazz was the “greatest art form that’s ever been created in the United States,” he said.
At the museum Wednesday, a jazz ensemble from Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts played some of Ellington’s famous songs, such as “Take the ’A’ Train.”
At the New Arrivals gallery, George Washington University President Steven Knapp remarked that Bennett was right on with his depiction of Ellington, a Washington native who is on the District of Columbia’s state quarter.
“It’s such a memorable expression,” Knapp told Bennett. “It just nails it.”