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Tony Bennett: His Life in Art & Song

Roseanna Vitro interviews the legendary vocalist about the art and craft of jazz singing

Tony Bennett in performance on November 4, 2011 at Academy of Music in Philadelphia

“You can’t teach it [jazz singing]. There’s nobody who can teach you how to sing jazz. Either you know how to sing jazz, or you don’t.” – Tony Bennett

There are artists whose impact on the planet is incalculable. Tony Bennett is one of them.

Born Anthony Benedetto in 1928, a child of Astoria, Queens, Tony Bennett had his first number one song in 1951, “Because Of You” on the Columbia label. It signaled the beginning of a ten year run of hits, culminating with the iconic, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which will be forever linked to him.

After witnessing the arrival and sustained popularity of rock music’s modern era, Bennett staged a comeback in the early nineties, expanding his audience to include members of the so-called MTV generation. By then, he had become a pop-culture icon, a proponent and chief practitioner of the classic American Songbook, with record sales exceeding fifty million units worldwide, and a host of formal accolades: seventeen Grammys, a NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award, two Emmys, designation as both an NEA Jazz Master and a Kennedy Center Honoree.

A journey that began as an earnest interest in the Bel Canto style of singing and evolved in the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village in the period following WW II, ultimately arrives as a new recording project, “The Classics,” slated for release this month.

I was honored to spend time with Tony. He is a model and an inspiration.

Roseanna Vitro: What inspired you to become a singer? Did anyone in your family sing?

Tony Bennett: I grew up in a very poor time in America during the Great Depression. It was a struggle, and my mom had to work for ‘a penny a dress’ to put food on the table. My father became very sick when I was about nine years old. He had a great reputation because he used to sing in Patagonia, in Calabria, Italy. The family story was that he used to sing on the top of a mountain and the whole valley would hear him. My father’s talent inspired my older brother to study opera. My mom figured out some kind of an arrangement to have him take Italian singing lessons and at age fourteen he was singing solo spots at the Metropolitan Opera. They called him “The Little Caruso” back in the days before television. He was on the Eddie Cantor Radio Show and sang beautifully. I was always influenced by him. I felt that he was getting great training. Later on, he got tired of studying and started going down to the Village where he fell in love with all the jazz artists. I wanted to do whatever he did. I would imitate him. Right away I just fell in love with jazz. He was about four years older than me. His name was John Benedetto.

RV: So your talent came from your father and your mother was very supportive of you and your brother?

TB: Yes, It was my Italian-American family. When my father died I was ten years old and my mother had to raise three children and go to work. She was a magnificent lady. All of our relatives loved her so much. Every Sunday, all my aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews would invade our house. They would come and make a circle around us and we would entertain them. They all said, “We love the way you sing” and, “We love the way you paint flowers.” I remember very clearly saying to myself, “This is who I am. They’re telling me that I sing well and I paint well.” This created a tremendous passion in my life that has stayed with me my entire life, including this moment that I’m speaking to you now, at 87 years old. I always feel like I’m just starting out. I never want to stop learning. They influenced me with such a strong passion, that for the rest of my life, I’ve never stopped singing and painting. It’s the only thing I know.

RV: How beautiful. You are such an inspiration. In your early school years, did you have access to music programs?

TB: I went to a wonderful school in Manhattan, The High School of Industrial Arts. I was criticized there for doing a lot of painting. During assembly class we created a small vocal group that was wonderful. Mr. Sondberg was the music teacher who encouraged me. He said, “You know, you sing very well.” The arts teachers were angry with him for telling me to sing rather than to paint. He was my first true inspiration. He kept telling me that I had a very good voice and I should go for it.

RV: Mr. Sondberg gave you good advice. Did you have the opportunity to study music theory?

TB: I did, when I was in the Army in the second World War. I really got interested in studying while in the Army. Georgie Masso was a great arranger and orchestrator from Boston. I was in the Infantry and we had to wait for enough points to come home after the war was over. They made me the librarian for this huge Army orchestra that played all over Germany and Europe. I traveled with them and was allowed to sing a few songs.

RV: That must have been a good experience for you to front a big band. Did you have a chance to study piano?

TB: Not really, but when I returned from the war under the GI Bill of Rights, I could choose any school. So I made the good choice to join the American Theater Wing, where they taught all forms of the art of performing – everything that happens on stage. I learned the Stanislavsky method of acting and applied that to the way I phrase. I applied it to my singing then and now.

RV: I can hear in the way you phrase, you become the song. You tell the story like you mean it. I believe you.

TB: They gave me one good lesson that I love to this day. It’s to never try and get a hit song. Don’t ever imitate anybody. Learn how to phrase from musicians, not other singers. Because if you sound like someone else, like Sinatra (or Dick Haymes in those days), you’re just going to be one of the chorus. Be yourself. Luckily, Mimi Spear was a wonderful singing coach in a brownstone right on 52nd Street, the great jazz street. She would point to the marquees where Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald were playing – they were all there on this one street. She said, “Learn how to phrase by listening to these musicians. Learn how to phrase like a musician.” So I chose Art Tatum, who was the first to walk away from dance tempos and play rubato choruses on songs, which was very new in those days. I was criticized by other musicians, who would ask me why I was going out of tempo. I told them I got that from Art Tatum. Stan Getz had a beautiful, warm, melodic sound on the saxophone, so I imitated that. From the two of them I developed my own style.

RV: This is excellent advice for young students interested in jazz. Vocal jazz programs are growing around the country and the world.

TB: I love what’s happening with jazz now. Finally, it’s being accepted as a great art form that came out of America, that was invented by African Americans in New Orleans. The biggest influence of all was Louis Armstrong. He taught all the musicians how to play properly. Dizzy Gillespie said, “without Louis, there would be no me.”

RV: I’d love to ask you about your singing technique. I have heard you are a student of Bel Canto.

TB: At the Theater Wing, they gave me a voice teacher named Pietro de Andrea. He was a wonderful Bel Canto teacher who showed me how to place my voice. It’s a great way to warm up my voice. It’s not the volume an opera singer would use, but in a popular, intimate mode of singing. Using the vowel sounds, A, E, Ah, O, and U, singing scales up and down an octave and a half. If you spend 15-20 minutes a day doing that, each day’s a little different. I’ve been warming up that way all my life. It helps your voice stay in shape. People admire the way I sound. I’m 87 and they say, “You sound the way you did in 1950.”

RV: Yes, your longevity as a singer, your tone and strength is infamous. Many singers want to know the secrets you’re sharing. So you warm up every day and before every concert?

TB: Yes, I do. I keep my warm up’s soft, because I’m an intimate singer.

RV: Yes, but you have a big voice and you really open up with strength and power.

TB: Yes, I know how to open up, and I know how to do it at just the right time. I’ll tell you the real story. When it comes to my craft ‘the art of popular singing’ – when I fall in love with a song like, “Isn’t this a lovely day to get caught in the rain” – if I really love it- I’ll want to record a definitive version of the song. Like Nat Cole and “Lush Life.” That’s a great song, but nobody’s gonna do better than that. Or Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” No one else does that song like Sinatra does it. There are definitive versions of songs from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. It was a Renaissance period, and those songs never died. The best songs were written by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin’s and Cole Porter. The modern-day people say rock music is so much bigger and all that. I hear what they’re saying, but that period became a Renaissance period for the United States. Just like in France at the turn of the 20th century, the music was Debussy and Ravel, and the same with the painting of Monet, Degas, and the other Impressionists, it was criticized at first. They called them scribblers. But now we know it as Impressionism and we love it. The same thing happened here, and it’s misunderstood in America.

From the early era of movies, the Talkies, and the Broadway theater, you had the greatest composers and the greatest songs ever written. Those songs don’t die. No country in the world has ever given the rest of the world so many wonderful songs. I sing internationally, all over the world. If I go to Japan, or the Philippine Islands, or wherever I go, everybody knows those songs by heart, and they came from America. We have given the world the best popular songs. No other country has ever done that. There are German songs, but they stay in Germany. Swedish songs, etc. But our country gave the best songs to the rest of the world. If you go to Britain and you sing, “Night and Day, you are the one,” they love it. They know it and they’ll start singing along. A lot of times the audiences will sing with you.

RV: Yes, the U.S. proudly shares our jazz and theater music with the world. I have a few more questions regarding technique. Do you warm down after finishing a performance and do you use any throat or nasal solutions?

TB: No. When I’m finished singing, I’m just a a citizen. I go back to being just a person. What do you mean by warming down?

RV: Many fine Broadway singers who perform with a large dynamic range will sing soft scales after a performance. It’s called warming down.

TB: I’ve never heard of that, but I imagine that could be good for you. I don’t use any sprays or Neti pots. No, all you need is a good night’s sleep and a good rest. And then you can sing well the next day.

RV: Many singers wanted me to ask you, how you can sing for two hours without a sip of water?

TB: I don’t have to drink water on stage. I know how to breathe properly. And I warm up properly – just about fifteen to twenty minutes before my performance. And I see where I’m at on that particular day. The main thing is to have as much rest as possible and sleep well at night. Then you wake up the next day and you’re in shape after the warm-up with the Bel Canto scales. You don’t try and hit these big notes. Just sing moderately.

RV: Regarding your breathing exercises: You have such great control and finish your phrases so beautifully. Is your breathing specifically from the Bel Canto lessons?

TB: Absolutely. Pietro de Andrea had a way of just showing, for instance, to never sing in your head; sing at the peak of your nose. If you sing a big note at the top of your head, you crack. But if you sing kind of between your eyes for the big note, you have control and you won’t crack. You will crack if you sing in your head.

RV: The great jazz vocalist Mark Murphy told me he breathes primarily through his nose when singing ballads. Have you ever heard of this technique?

TB: I usually breathe through my nose. I have a big nose, so it has a lot of control. [laughing]

RV: Let’s talk about your choices in material. What motivates you to sing “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” ?

TB: It’s a dramatic song. The lyrics are really well-written. It tells a great story, and it has a good philosophy. It really gets the audience. It kind of has a Bel Canto ending, it knocks the audience out, and they love that.

RV: You’ve recorded so many great songs. Which are the closest to your heart?

TB: My favorite song is “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” That’s the public’s favorite song. Internationally, when they hear Tony Bennett they say, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” And I love it. It’s such a great city and I love to be able to promote that great city. People from all over the world actually take vacations to San Francisco after they hear that song. And it’s a magnificent city. The people are great there, and the city is very charming and very beautiful. It’s something that I’ve been blessed with. That is my signature song. Most entertainers can’t stand the fact that there’s one song that they have to sing every night. But I can’t wait till I have to sing it, because it’s my favorite song.

RV: That’s a great attitude. Could you name a few more of your favorites?

TB: Duke Ellington wrote a song called, “In My Solitude.” I’ve been doing that ever since I first started singing, and I just love that song. Then there are so many others. You have to understand that at the American Theater Wing, the first thing they ever taught the artist was to never compromise, which is the opposite of the music world. When you get to the big record labels, they have authorities that will tell you, “Let’s try and get a hit here.” That’s not the way to do it. You should just sing songs that you love, and you should sing quality. I’ve never done anything else but quality in my whole life. My whole record collection – anything I’ve ever recorded – is based on very intelligent songs that are well-written. That shows respect for the audience. Don’t look at the audience like they’re dumb or ignorant. I think it’s really incorrect for anybody to think of the audience as a dumb audience. An audience is very astute and really ready to listen to anything that makes sense. You cannot find better music than the American song book. It’s really the Fred Astaire song book. Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin would not make a move without first having Fred Astaire introduce the songs. The songs that he introduced are the best songs you could ever sing.

RV: Where do you think the American song book is heading these days? Contemporary singers are singing from the pen of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon these days. Do you enjoy the more contemporary pop songs?

TB: James Taylor is terrific.

RV: I agree and would you think of him as a great American songwriter?

TB: Absolutely, but he is one of a kind. You have to understand that there was a Renaissance period when those guys were writing, and Johnny Mercer wrote so many great songs. And he was a jazz singer. The best singer I’ve ever heard to this day – in early, early records that she made – is Billie Holiday. She’s absolutely the best jazz singer I’ve ever heard. And Louis Armstrong influenced everybody. He taught every musician how to play the right tempos and the right spirit. When you listen to his records, some of the orchestra sounds dated and old-fashioned, but he doesn’t. When he plays that trumpet or sings, it still sounds like today.

RV: Do you feel Louis Armstrong’s spirit and passion when he played was as important as his musicianship? As a teacher and performer, I feel an audience responds to your spirit as much as your sound.

TB: Absolutely. You could tell that he had the passion to do it. You have to understand that classical trumpet players would suck at what Louis Armstrong was playing. And they actually applied his technique to their playing, as classical trumpet players. He did things with a trumpet that no one else ever did.

RV: What are you looking for when you hear a new singer?

TB: I’m not looking at all. If I hear it and it sounds good, I say, “That’s right.”

RV: When you’re looking for a pianist, what are you looking for?

TB: You just need a freedom. I have a new piano player, Mike Renzi. He plays different every night and I happen to love that because I sing different every night. It might be the same repertoire, but every night I look at the acoustics of where I am, and it’s different every night. So I make every note believable. If you have a piano player that supports that, that plays different every night, you have a freedom. I deliberately sense where the audience is at, and I’ll change just to fit the situation. If I have a piano player who can do that, like Ralph Sharon did for many years for me, we just play where we are at on that particular day. It was always good with Ralph.

RV: In today’s conservatories, singers are studying improvisation along with the instrumentalists What do you think about scat singing?

TB: If you want to learn scat singing, I suggest you listen to Ella Fitzgerald. No one sings better than that. Nobody. She was the best jazz singer in the world. As far as scat singing, no one ever understood what’s really going on like Ella did. When you hear “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing,” you’ll hear the definitive example of someone phrasing correctly with scat singing. The best way to learn scat singing is to study Ella Fitzgerald.

RV: It’s always good advice to study Ella Fitzgerald. I’d like to move on to your recordings with the iconic pianist, Bill Evans. What do remember the most from your experience singing and recording with the late great Bill Evans?

TB: Plenty! Annie Ross suggested that I do an album with Bill Evans, and she organized it. She was the one. And it was the smartest move I’ve ever made, because it’s now known as the best thing that I’ve ever done. That’s because of Bill. Lots of musicians – and every piano player I’ve ever met – they’re still studying Bill Evans. They’re all influenced by Bill Evans, and rightfully so. He was just magnificent. His music will live forever. Piano players just shake their heads; they can’t believe how good he is. They want to learn from him. He just knew how to do it better than anybody. Every piano player I know of any worth is impressed and inspired by Bill Evans. I loved all of the songs and the way he played them was just wonderful.

RV: I understand you started The Frank Sinatra School, in New York City and you’re supportive of music and jazz education for singers. What advice would you give to young aspiring singers?

TB: Just listen to every jazz player and see where it’s at and go for it! You know, the funny thing about jazz is that you can’t learn it. It seems like you can understand it and you automatically know how to improvise. But you can’t go to school and say, “This is how to sing jazz.” There are no rules. It’s all spontaneous, and it’s what you feel at the moment. Real great jazz artists give one hundred and fifty percent of themselves to everything that they’re doing. And that’s where it’s misunderstood by the regular commercial world. They don’t understand that at all. And you can’t teach it. Either you’ve got it, or you haven’t got it. It’s a wonderful gift if you’re able to understand how to improvise. Like Johnny Mercer – he didn’t plan it. When he started writing songs, he automatically knew. He improvised. Improvising is something like a gift. If you don’t have it, and you’re trying to improvise, you’re probably doing it wrong. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t got it.

RV: [ Laughing] You’re probably doing it wrong. Okay!

TB: You can’t teach it. There’s nobody who can teach you how to sing jazz. Either you know how to sing jazz, or you don’t.

RV: I was drafted into teaching vocal jazz about fifteen years and these days there are many excellent vocal jazz teachers. Currently you must have a Master’s degree to teach. Ella and Billie could not be teachers in today’s system.

TB: You can’t teach the feeling. Either a singer is gonna know how to do it, or not. But you can’t teach somebody how to do it. Bing Crosby was a great jazz singer. It’s a gift.

RV: Yep, Bing was great. I understand when you received your NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) award, you thanked Count Basie for teaching you how to perform. What did you learn from Count Basie?

TB: When the Beatles came around, they were very big, but I went to Basie. That was fifty years ago now. I said, “Basie, maybe I should change my style.” And he was sitting there and looked up at me with those big eyes and said, “You don’t change an apple.” I took his advice. He told me not to change, to just go straight ahead. He said, “Don’t worry about it.”

RV: Do you need to scat sing to be a jazz singer?

TB: Billie Holiday, her whole career, never improvised. She never scat-sang.

RV: Do you think Billie Holiday would do well in today’s world of contemporary clubs?

TB: In the old days, she was the best jazz singer that ever lived. These days, if you want to learn how to sing jazz, listen to the young Billie Holiday – not the old Billie when she was all drugged out. When she was young, she was a rave. She made Artie Shaw’s band so famous that he became bigger than Benny Goodman while she was on the band.

RV: You’ve had an amazing life. Your duet recordings brought the American Songbook to a new generation of listeners who were unaware of some of our greatest composers – Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins – whom we’ve been talking about. Did you choose the singers you sang with or did you rely on your producers?

TB: I listened to certain new artists, and my son Danny came up with the whole premise of this album. He’s my manager, and he gave me some good suggestions of different artists. I also knew a lot of the artists. I said, “Let’s do it!” It was a wonderful experience. In fact, it was so successful that when we did a television show with those artists, in one night we received seven Emmys. It was very well-done.

RV: That’s amazing. What a great experience for the artists to feel your essence and what you bring to the table. What was you favorite of the duets? Were there a couple that you really gave you a kick?

TB: I liked all of them. Every one of the singers showed up, and every one of them was professional. Years ago, it would take several years to learn how to perform properly on a stage. These new artists are so clever today. They’ve connected. They are ready to go. I realized, boy there’s a whole new generation of very good performers that are gonna be around for a long time.

RV: Did you ever consider recording a country album like Ray Charles did? In my family, we’re half Italian and half southern country.

TB: I was thinking of doing an album called “Tony Bennett’s Country Album” in big letters on the front. Then in small print have “The Music of Johnny Mercer,” because he was from the South and he was so intelligent.

RV: Does the Frank Sinatra School teach jazz and the Great American Songbook?

TB: Yes. They’re doing all of that. My wife and I support seventeen schools in America now. We give to creative arts programs. They just love it. The work they are doing – you can’t believe how good it is. You can’t believe how wonderful they are. There’s a great high school in Staten Island that we went to the other day. That band is as good as anything you are ever gonna hear. They are learning the right way.

RV: Vocal jazz education is one of my things. I taught at the Jazz for Teens Program at The New Jersey Performing Arts Center for the past fifteen years. I loved passing on the history of jazz singing and the instrumentalists who influenced the vocalists. It’s very important for students to hear the roots of our music.

TB: Wonderful!

RV: You are respected as a serious painter. How does your painting relate to your music?

TB: Once again, my Italian-American family told me that they liked the way I sang and the way I painted. It has created a passion for my whole life to study music and study painting. And I will continue for the rest of my life. I just love it. I’m still painting every day and studying music every day. I don’t really do anything else. I really don’t study anything else except those two things. So my whole world comes down to art and music.

RV: Are your paintings ever inspired by one of your songs?

TB: Well, it’s two different things. It’s all about line, form and color, balance, and learning what to leave out. Less is more. These things are important. That’s what makes a good composition in a painting, and also in the music – knowing when to stop when you have something that has a good feeling. You don’t have to do anything more. It’s there – the feeling is there. Don’t try and fix it. Leave it!

RV: Knowing when to stop is big, isn’t it?

TB: It’s the biggest one. It is! And on that note, now I have to go.

RV: I appreciate all your time. Thank you for such a wonderful conversation.

TB: Thank you very much. It’s been a wonderful interview! Thank you.

My sincerest thanks to Tony Bennett for his time, talent, spirit and the inspiration he gives freely to all artists. He really makes the planet a better place. I want to see vocal jazz programs implemented in all of our schools. If we pass on our history, a percent of today’s fine singers will continue to move creative music forward.

Special thank you’s to Michael Bourne, WBGO’s host of Singers Unlimited, for connecting me with Sylvia Weiner (RPM Productions). Sylvia set up our interview and sent the new compilations by Tony, which I will treasure. Thank you to Elizabeth Tomboulian for your excellent transcriptions. Special thank you to Jeff Levenson, who continues to correct and teach me about writing. And of course my brilliant editor at home, Paul Wickliffe, your opinions are invaluable.

Originally Published