December 2008 By Lee Mergner
Checking His List Twice
JT's editor talks with Tony Bennett about his annual Christmas card painting
I suppose you’ve noticed that this issue’s cover looks very much like a holiday card. Like many people, I find that as each year goes by, the holidays seem to contain more crass than Christ, but I have learned to embrace certain aspects of the commercial ritual. For example, I’ve become an expert on Christmas music projects, having a collection of nearly a thousand Xmas albums. Last year, I started a tradition of making a mix CD of some of my favorite holiday music and sending it out to friends and family, instead of a corny card or one of those obnoxious newsletters filled with barely concealed gloating. Among the artists on last year’s CD were John Scofield, NRBQ, James Brown and The Three Stooges. Connecting those dots sure was a lot of fun and helped to re-introduce the glee that I used to associate with the holiday season back when I was a kid. That visceral connection to the past is one of the holiday’s underrated pleasures.
Our cover artist knows all about Christmas and its connection to the past. I always feel like a big shot because I get a Christmas card from Mr. Tony Bennett, the vocal as well as visual artist. It turns out that I’m not so special. This is the 15th year that he has provided a painting to be used by the American Cancer Society for a holiday card that’s used as a fundraiser. Apparently, of the 25 or so cards they market, the card with Bennett’s artwork is perennially the top seller. Bennett says that his paintings for the cards do in fact come from the holiday season, albeit the year before. “My wife’s mother and father live in this tiny little town—there’s maybe 89 people in the town—called Clio in the Sierra Mountains. Every Christmas we go there and visit her folks and it’s beautiful. It definitely snows and it’s so scenic, it’s unbelievable, with thousands of pine trees and all that. So I paint there all week.”
Sounds like the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He laughs, “It is, it is.” It seems that the painting is often a landscape but not necessarily. “You never know. This year I did the Bloomingdale’s shopping bag because they’re promoting my new album with the Basie band—A Swinging Christmas. The bag shows the store with the different international flags and there’s a yellow cab going through the snowstorm and Santa Claus is waving at everybody and I have my little Maltese dog in the front with the cabdriver.” Cute trumps pastoral.
I asked Bennett whom he was excited to get a card from, but he had a hard time being specific. I do think his list is just a bit more glittery than mine, as he cited Carol Burnett, who he says always sends a special note or card. Perhaps Ms. Burnett lost my address along the way. For Bennett the Christmas season is about more than cards and notes. “I love the holiday season. Everybody reminds one another that we’re thinking of you and you’re thinking of them. In fact, some of the best Christmas songs say `Why can’t it be like this all year round?’” And Bennett, naturally, relishes the connection with the past. “What I’ve learned, as a student of life, is that when you go back, you learn more than you do going forward. Everybody thinks you have to do something contemporary. Instead, when you go back to Louis Armstrong or to Rembrandt, you learn more from the masters than you do from whatever’s going on now.” I use the same logic for my holiday CD. I hope Ms. Burnett digs it.
Originally published in December 2008