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Tony Bennett: The Good Life

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett (photo: Mark Seliger)
Bill Charlap with Tony Bennett (photo: John Abbott)

If any one artist has been to vocal jazz what Johnny Cash was to country music, it’s Tony Bennett. Like Cash, Bennett’s multigenerational appeal has something to do with marketing but everything to do with unshakable charisma. Unlike Cash, whose musical gifts failed him as his health did, the 80-year-old New Yorker still swings and croons with ageless verve. If you want proof, look no further than Duets: An American Classic, where the singer collaborates gorgeously with Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Sting, Paul McCartney and longtime foil k.d. lang, among many others.

We asked Bill Charlap, one of Bennett’s most trusted pianists this side of Bill Evans and Ralph Sharon, to chat with this American original for JazzTimes. Their dialogue is genuinely insightful, surpassing the typical musician-to-musician interview by a country mile.

Bill Charlap: What are your first musical memories?

Tony Bennett: My family; my relatives—my aunts, uncles and nephews and nieces and all that—they used to help my mother out because my father died when I was 10 and they helped my mother out because she had to raise three children: two boys and a daughter. They would come around—it was during the Depression—so the entertainment was to make a circle around the three of us. And they would take out the guitar and mandolin and have fun with us—this is when I was 6 or 7 years old and they would have us entertain the family on a Sunday. We’d do a different show every Sunday. So Al Jolson and Eddie Leonard, the guy who sang “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider,” a very famous record, and so you know, this was our influence.

My father came from Campania, Italy, in a little town called Pagani—which is on the top of the mountain—and he would sing there. This is what I heard, because I was so young when he died. He would sing on the top of a mountain, and everybody in the valley would hear him sing, and that did it for us. My brother ended up in the Metropolitan Opera and at 14 years old he was called the “Little Caruso” and did solo spots in the opera. We were very influenced by [early-20th-century opera star Enrico] Caruso, and in those days if we bought a record, we were told by mom that the whole family had to like it—not just that we liked it. We were influenced by opera, but then later on my brother fell into loving jazz, so I started imitating that. And then right into Louis Armstrong and jazz and Fats Waller.

What made you want to become a professional singer?

On a plane one time I ran into the late Joe Williams and he kinda said to me, “You know what about you? It’s not that you want to sing, you have to sing.”

“You just saved me a lot of money,” I said. “I don’t have to go to a psychiatrist now!” I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to do, which is, looking back at my life, a blessing. I just have a strong passion to sing and paint and that’s what I love to do.

And you are a superb painter. Do you feel the disciplines of painting and singing nurture each other?

Oh yes. Actually, Duke Ellington was a friend of the family and I went on tour with him and he told me that. I had this passion to always sing and paint anyway, but he nurtured it by saying, “Do two things, don’t do one.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “You’ll find out that it works out.” And soon enough, what it does is, when you sing a little too much, you feel burnt out, you feel spent after a while, you know? So you go to painting, and that’s a big lift. You start painting and you realize, “God I really missed this, it’s so nice, you know?” And then when you get burnt out from painting, you get back to singing. What happens is, I stay in the creative zone all the time and I found out that I really don’t need a vacation, because I always have these projects—both music and art, you know? And by doing that, it balances all the time and I’m in a perpetual creative zone at all times. I really love my life that way.

Who were your first musical influences? Were you influenced by instrumentalists as well as by vocalists?

I was in WWII in France and Germany, and when I came out I decided I wanted to go into show business. I went to the American Theater wing under the GI Bill of Rights, and there was a woman by the name of Mimi Spear who was right on 52nd Street, and she was a terrific coach. Mimi said, “Don’t imitate singers, because you’ll just be one of the chorus if you do that. Imitate musicians, find out what they like.” From her brownstone window you could look out on 52nd Street, and on the awnings it said Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Miles Davis. She said, “Look at these awnings, find out who you like, and then get influenced by listening to how they phrase and what they’re doing, and then you’ll find your style that way.” I liked Art Tatum, because he made a production out of a song, which wasn’t done in those days at all. He’d change the tempo, he’d go to the keys and make a song come alive and end up telling a story, rather than just singing a straight line for everyone to smoothly dance to. And then Stan Getz knocked me out because he had this honey sound, and so [I] put the two together and arrived at a style that way.

What makes a song attractive to you?

Funny enough it’s the music first. As much as I love great lyricists like Ira Gershwin or Johnny Mercer, I like the changes. Songs like “My Foolish Heart”…beautiful changes and well-written and it’s the music that drives me. My game with popular singing is to try and do a definitive version of a song that I fall in love with. I just hold onto it and think about it for quite a while: the tempo, the changes, the proper key and then the production of a song. A good example is Nat Cole with “Lush Life.” As much as Johnny Hartman sings a beautiful record of it, Nat’s [version] was so perfect that I just said, “That’s it, that’s ‘Lush Life.'” I still can’t touch that song as much as I love it. It’s just the way Nat did it. There’s finality about doing it right.

You don’t sing “Lush Life”?

I love to listen to it—I could hear Nat all day long. I just loved the way he sang and played; he was such a great musician. I just love him personally. He didn’t have an ounce of envy in him; he was just a beautiful man. I like the singers who you just hold onto, because they made such great records—the great interpreters.

How do you approach the pacing of a concert?

That’s a very good question, because there’s a method to my madness. I learned from Count Basie years ago when I was a young kid. I was so ambitious about going over [with the audience] that I did a real flag-waver as an opener, real fast tempo. And I went to Basie and said, “How come I don’t get the reaction I’m supposed to get?” He said, “Well, you can’t open with a closer.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, the people are just filing in, and they’re sitting down. You have to meet them where they’re at. Start out with a nice slow walk.” [Starts snapping]

I heard you did “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

And when you do that, you meet them just where they are. And then, you do a couple of rhythm tunes, so they get comfortable, and then the third song is a ballad: a dramatic ballad, it tells a story and all that, and [they] realize, “Boy, this guy is singing.” Then, you grab a medley, then the next song you raise the tempo a little, and then hopefully you find a little comedy song like Cy Coleman’s “Baby, Dream Your Dream” that the public identifies with about their life. And then you start going into the fast tempo, like Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Maurice Chevalier saw my act and he’d say, “You have a way of being like a semi-conductor. Why don’t you bring out other artists on the stage when you perform?” That started a thing where I surround myself with wonderful jazz artists that really know how to play very, very well and I bring them out. It’s pockets of relief. Instead of just me singing for a whole hour with a microphone in my mouth, I give it over to the piano or to the guitar: Grey Sargent or Al Jones or Bruce Barth. The audience loves that. All of a sudden everybody’s surprised that we’re highlighting artists onstage other than just myself.

What makes live performance so important?

What happens is that the audience teaches me on a nightly basis—I learn so much from audience reaction. The audience will tell you how much they like it, or maybe I shouldn’t do that one, or I might have to put a song that’s at the beginning of the show and move it to the end of a show, and it’s amazing that sometimes just by putting it at another section of the show, it becomes a showstopper. But in other places, it’s just another song. It’s a matter of always trying to arrive at a show that’s just enough for the audience, knowing what to leave out so you don’t stay on the stage too long. You try to do the unexpected so that the audience is never bored with what’s happening. By the time the show is finished, they’re very satisified. Them feeling that way, then I feel good. It makes me hit the pillow at night very comfortably.

Of all the recordings you’ve made, do you have any personal favorites?

Usually there’s the art songs. I just love that. “Lazy Afternoon” or “Sleeping Bee” or “Lost in the Stars”—they’re songs that are so well-written, it just goes on and on. I love the tradition of the American Songbook. I know how powerful it is. It’s much more powerful than we think. I have a dream that some day, some record company will be wise enough to promote the catalog as much as the contemporary. Same budget for the contemporaries as the quality music, and they’ll find out that the quality music outsells anything that they are trying to push right away.

On your 1957 recording The Beat of My Heart, you worked with a host of great drummers, such as Art Blakey, Jo Jones and Chico Hamilton, among others. How did the concept for that album come about?

Mitch Miller was great at classical music, but he saw popular artists making a fortune, so he became really the first big producer of records. He had a great respect for classical music, but the only jazz artist he really liked was Erroll Garner. So they created ballads with me and the first hits I had were ballads. They said, “Just keep singing ballads.” Ralph Sharon, my music director at the time, was smart enough to say on the side, “Tony, you know how to improvise very well, you gotta change your pace. If you keep singing ballads, they’re gonna shoot you down, the people will stop buying your records, it’ll be the same thing all the time. Change the pace and make some jazz records.” And we had to fight like all hell, but we made a record, and it was forgotten. Now, many years later, people play it and say, “My God, that was such a perfect record.”

One of the cuts from that album is primarily a duet with Art Blakey and yourself. Is there anything specific you remember about that?

The enthusiasm was unbelievable. That day was fantastic. He was really swinging one day and he just sat down on the drum chair and fell over and all the cymbals went ba-boom! And everything crashed. The record is just phenomenal. The only regret I have was that Buddy Rich was a friend of mine and he heard I did this drum album. He didn’t come right out and say, “Why didn’t you have me on it, too?” but he listened to the whole album and got a big kick out of it.

Can you tell me about your relationship with Count Basie?

What happened with Count Basie and myself was a little ahead of time, because the record companies, generally, were very hesitant about having black artists. The record companies didn’t consider them commercial—they wouldn’t sell down south. I realized personally that it was very wrong, and they were really creating the best music I ever heard. I came up with this idea that I wanted to sing with Count Basie, and we broke a lot of rules in those days. For instance, the Copacabana—I always played there–they never had black artists. I was able to get Count Basie into the Copa, and it went over magnificently. Then we went into the Casino in Philadelphia, and we recorded there, and it was the beginning of stereo. We did a record in mono, and it was wonderful, but then some foolish producer who was in charge of it—I forget his name at this point—said we had to rerecord it in a studio because we have stereo now and we’ll put the applause in. It was a disaster. But then I made a record with Count Basie later on Roulette. And that came out perfect. Ralph Sharon did the charts, but Basie played piano on it. We started at 12 o’clock at night and we went to six in the morning, and did the whole album. And they just got on the bus and went 350 miles to play a gig the next day. Can you imagine? Someday someone’s gonna do a documentary on the history of bands and what hardship they had to go through to just play, and what great souls they were to just carry on and play great music and what they went through. Woody Herman or Stan Kenton or Ellington or Basie—all the great bands. They were fantastic musicians—every one of them—and great souls, and they knocked the audience right out of their seats every night.

I know you did a beautiful portrait of Duke Ellington, who was a close friend of yours. Anything you could tell us about Duke?

He was absolutely mystic. He had a beautiful life and I love the fact that no one could embarrass him. His mother told him right from the beginning that he was different than everybody, and he just kept his dignity. There was a time when they finally said, “We have to drop you from the label.” And he asked, “Why?” They said, “Well, you’re not selling records.” And his answer immediately was “I make the music. You’re supposed to sell the records.” He had an answer for anybody who tried to put a thumb in his eye.

The two albums you made with Bill Evans represent the highest standard of excellence in terms of vocal interpretation and instrumental accompaniment. With Bill Evans it was a true partnership, and both recordings are regarded as all-time classics. Can you reflect on the process of creating those two masterpieces?

It was all up to Bill. Because I’m a popular artist, the first thing he said to me was, “Send all your cronies home. I don’t want anybody hanging around here.” And it was really beautiful because it was just Helen [Keane], his manager, and the engineer, and Bill and myself. I can remember this so clearly I can hear it as I’m speaking to you right now. We didn’t plan anything. We just said, “What would you like to sing?” “What about this?” And he said, “Okay.” It would take about three quarters of an hour, and he’d work out a production, and what he would want to do. But the music was so intense that I came running into the engineer and I said, “Keep taping this, tape everything he’s doing right now.” Because I never heard anybody play like that. It reminded me of ocean waves in a hurricane, the waves are just comin’ in bada-boom, bada-boom, bada-boom, bada-boom, bada-boom-like that, and I said you gotta record everything he’s playing. They said they were running out of tape—in those days it was on tape—and [the engineer] said, “We won’t have any tape left.” And that was about the best music I’ve ever heard. And finally, after three quarters of an hour, he said, “Okay, let’s try it.” And that’s how the process went down. It was a beautiful experience for me.

Those records made a huge imprint on me, listening to you sing with the depth that you did and the intimacy and the lyrics, was so profound, and Bill’s accompaniments were perfect. I remember being a 13-year-old kid listening to them intensely.

I get beautiful reactions about it. For instance, I was commissioned to sing for Hallmark Greeting cards, and it was a Christmas album with the London Symphony. We started rehearsing with beautiful Robert Farnon orchestrations, and on the first break they gave [the musicians about] twenty minutes. Out of the symphony, five musicians came up to me and said, “Will you sign my album?” I looked and it was that Bill Evans album, and I was so impressed. These real great musicians from the symphony, they were holding onto that album.

It was an honor to record “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” with you for your new CD, Duets: An American Classic.

What a magnificent version you gave it—a fresh approach.

I’m sure it was a very special project for you—the whole album. Can you tell me about working with so many artists who, like yourself, are icons in the pop music field?

Well, they’re a lot younger! My master was 10 years older than I was, and that was Sinatra. And Nat Cole and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and Woody Herman. Those were my masters that I listened to and studied. And it was so incongruous to come in and find all these artists—Sting, Bono, Billy Joel—saying, “You’re the master.” I’m the master? I couldn’t get over it. It just hit me funny.

I wanted to ask you about two artists that were major figures in American popular music as we know it: Louis Armstrong, in terms of singing, and Bing Crosby. How did they influence you?

Bing taught all the popular singers how to make a living. It was the beginning of the art of intimate singing. Before that, no one used microphones. And when the microphones came along, he was intelligent enough to walk in very prepared when he did anything, whether it was learning lines for movies or singing songs. He had a beautiful repertoire of Rodgers and Hart songs and Gershwin, and he sang in an intimate fashion, just like we’re speaking right now and being recorded as we speak. It’s like what you’re thinking at the moment.

And Bing was smart enough to realize that Louis Armstrong was the source of all great music in American popular music. I remember one time I was painting and I was listening to Louis Armstrong on some early record he made in 1935, and I said, “Wait a minute,” and I went back—that’s when we used to have needles on the records—and played it over and over again. Sure enough it was bebop and I could hear how that was influencing Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Whether it’s grunge or rap or you name it, you’ll find that Louis did it. He did all of it. He was the first one to put that beat behind it. If you listen really close to Billie Holiday you’ll find out she’s singing at Louis’ tempo. He really created swing and influenced masters.

What’s different about coming up today as opposed to when you were making your breakthroughs as a young artist?

The only thing I regret about what’s going on with the young potential performers is that the corporations don’t give them enough chance to grow. Years ago, Rosemary Clooney and I, we were the first “American Idols,” so when we got started, they gave us five years and they allowed us to grow. They allowed us to record with Duke Ellington and with Woody Herman, and because it was the end of vaudeville, so that if we had a semi-hit record when we first started, we were able to play Boston or Cleveland or Buffalo…

But with would-be artists today, they make the record go to number one, but the artist has to put out a lot of money; they have to get clothes, get an accountant, a manager, an agent, and money is just flying like crazy. It goes up to the top and they start telling the young kid, “This is as big as the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or Elvis Presley. It’s selling like crazy.” Then the second record doesn’t make it, and they just drop the artist, and they go with the next. Everybody in the business makes money from all these artists that don’t make it. I don’t like that way. I started this school, the [Frank] Sinatra School of the Arts—all of the arts: music, film, dancing, acting—and it’s doing really well. And there are great schools all over the country; in Boston and Miami, and Los Angeles. I would suggest that any young performer check into those schools, and get as much education as possible. But it’s regretful that they don’t have places where they can break in on the road. Because the best teachers in the world are the audiences. They’ll show you how to play. They’ll show you what to do, and what not to do, what to leave out and what to put in.

Where do you like to listen to music in New York City?

I like the Village Vanguard. You just feel like something’s really happening every time you go there. Whenever I hear someone [like you, Bill, I just love listening to you. I’ve gone to see you in the club, you always play beautiful and you get better and better every time].

Do you have a favorite songwriter?

I love Harold Arlen. He dramatized all the songs but he still swung like crazy when you wanted to do a rhythm tune. I like the whole American Songbook, because that’s going to be our tradition down the line. I know it very clearly. Even though we have a Stephen Sondheim or a Johnny Mandel composing today, it’s not like that one period of time when they were all writing great, great music—Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer—that whole period of time was just stuck in history as a renaissance in American music, which will become America’s classical music. No one has ever had better popular songs than that period, nobody. Fifty years from now we’ll be bowing to Gershwin and Ellington and we’ll say look what they did.

I got one more thing to say. Why can’t all the interviews be like this? You asked the right questions! Originally Published