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The Artistic Evolution of The Legendary Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett has been at this for a while. But he is still as enthusiastic—or maybe even more enthusiastic—about jazz, jazz musicians and singing than when I first met him in 1970. I was but a wee lad back then, playing drums in Philadelphia with sax great Charlie Ventura. One evening, the great jazz pianist—John Bunch—newly-appointed Musical Director for Tony Bennett and former Ventura cohort in the Gene Krupa jazz quartet, walked in after his Bennett gig and wanted to sit in. I’ll never forget it.

All Bunch wanted to talk about was how much he loved and respected his new boss, and how much patience and trust Bennett had with him, given that John Bunch never “musically directed for anyone.” Bunch got Ventura and me in to see Bennett later that week, and I met him after the show at the late and lamented Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

The second time I got to “hang with the master,” as it were, was during a Tony Bennett appearance in southwest Florida. After his marvelous, sold-out show, we caught up on matters about his current rhythm section, how much he missed John Bunch, who had recently passed away, and just how important drummers were to his music and his own personal heartbeat. He could not say enough about Harold Jones, his drummer then and now. “You know,” he said, “I’ll never forget what my good friend Count Basie said to me years ago. Count said that no matter how many cats may be in the band, it’s the drummer that’s the leader, and I’ve had the luck to work with the best of them, just like my man, Harold Jones.”

With the advent of The Beatles, the music business changed. Bennett, along with other quality singers, was asked by his record company to do covers of juvenile pap. Though he tried valiantly, Bennett just could not and would not sell out, and he departed Columbia Records in 1972. He recorded with a number of other labels, including an imprint of his own—where he recorded two now-legendary albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans—but by the end of the 1970s, it was clear that his career had seen better days.
Around 1979, his son, Danny, took over Bennett’s management. Although it took some doing, the younger Bennett turned his father’s career around, introduced him to what is called “The MTV generation,” and helped solidify the legend we now know as Tony Bennett, an artist idolized all over the world by an entirely new generation of fans and fellow contemporary artists like K.D. Lang and Lady Gaga.

At the age of 87, Tony Bennett remains warm, engaging, curious and appreciative of having the career he’s had, of still being at it, and still being recognized as a groundbreaker and contemporary force in the industry. I’d be fibbing if I said that he remembered me, but by the end of our interview for ICON, it seemed obvious to him that I was a musician, “one of the cats,” and he insisted that we get together after his July 26 gig at the Sands in Bethlehem, PA. I sensed that he wanted to talk, and wanted to talk about Pops, Bird, Tatum, Duke, Count, and all those whom he believes contributed to his art. Indeed, as we reached what was the “imposed” time limit of our conversation and I wanted to cut things short—a time limit I intended to respect—he said strongly, “No, that’s all right, man. I’m still goin’.” And he is. You’ve got to love him.

Bruce Klauber: As an artist, you’re your own toughest critic. Let’s just take the past ten years—what do you think is different about your singing?

Tony Bennett: You know, it’s funny. This album that I did with Dave Brubeck from 1962 [Bennett & Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962] that was just released, everybody’s raving about it and I forgot that I actually did it. Columbia found this thing that we recorded, when President Kennedy asked us to perform on the White House Lawn. What Dave and I did together was completely spontaneous. It’s getting great reviews. It’s number one on Amazon.com and with Barnes and Noble. It’s a complete surprise. They’re calling it a great jazz album. So I listened to it and the way I was singing and, to me, I don’t think I sound better, but I think I sound the same now as I did 50 years ago, which is unusual. I was able to sustain my voice and still keep it on good shape.

BK: I think your technique, range and breath control is better now than it was in 1970, when I first heard you in person.
TB: Thank you, that’s wonderful to hear. I think one of the things you learn from being a seasoned performer is what to leave out, not “how much do you put in?” You want to simplify it.
BK: Like Count Basie.
TB: Right. Exactly.
BK: I’ve listened to the new Bennett/Brubeck CD again and again. You cats are swingin.’ What’s a drag is that Dave didn’t get to back up more cats like you. Is there anyone through the years that you worked with—or didn’t work with—that you wanted to record with? Is there another recorded discovery out there waiting to happen?
TB: Well, I’m sure there’s going to be. In fact, next week I’m going into the recording studio to do a big jazz album with Lady Gaga. She’s more than good—she’s actually a terrific singer—and the songs we’ve chosen are really beautiful examples that show how good she really sings. Marion Evans, the great arranger, is doing the swingin’ charts. I think it’s going to surprise everybody that she’s just that good. She works hard and is so professional. She walks in and has everything memorized. She’s really a very educated artist. She’s knows what she’s doing.
BK: You’ve done quite a bit for jazz in your books and your interviews. You’ve let a wider audience know about the importance of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Basie. If it were not for you, there would probably be millions of people who never heard of Bill Evans. What was it about Bill Evans that got to you and made you say, “I’ve got to record with this guy?”
TB: He was behind Miles Davis and became very famous that way. I remember going into clubs so many times and hearing Bill Evans and Erroll Garner. There was just a handful of people there and they were playing beautifully. It takes a long time for that kind of thing to catch on, because it’s really the most honest and most intelligent music you can hear. Ralph Sharon, my accompanist of 40 years, said on a radio interview, “I’m trying to learn how to play like Bill Evans.” Not only him, but every other piano player that I know of says they’re trying to learn how to play like Bill Evans. Years ago, it was all about Art Tatum. Everybody wanted to play like Art Tatum. Bill Evans represents another concept and everybody wants to learn to play like Bill Evans. There’s an album he made where he played J.S. Bach with a symphony orchestra. I listened to it a lot, and all of a sudden I realized that he sounded better than the whole symphony. You could hear that. He was just a genius and a wonderful person. He regretted his habit—he couldn’t stand the fact that he got hooked on narcotics.
BK: You’ve spoken eloquently and extensively about Duke Ellington and how important he was to you personally and professionally. But I get the sense, even after reading many of the books written about him, that not a lot of us really knew the guy. I think you did.
TB: He was a complete genius. He never stopped writing. Every night he composed, and the next day the band would play it at a rehearsal. The band was his sketch pad. An artist uses a sketch pad to plan a painting. That orchestra was his sketch pad. He was so different from anyone and so creative. For instance, any other bandleader would hire saxopohones, trumpets and trombones and a rhythm section. He would search for individual artists like Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges. Everyone in the orchestra was an artist in his own right. They were completely different. Johnny Hodges just wasn’t another saxophone player. He was Johnny Hodges. And the same thing with Paul Gonsalves. Everyone in the band was special. He chose artists that were individuals who knew how to make things work. And that’s how Duke worked. He didn’t write for a saxophone player. He wrote for Johnny Hodges. He respected all his musicians very much. He taught me to do two things. He said, “Don’t do one thing, do two.” I had a passion for painting and Duke turned me on to painting every day, and I’ve been doing that for many years. And that came from Duke Ellington, and that was important to me, because music and art share the same premise and they feed one another. What you learn when you paint, you learn about music, and what you learn from music, you learn about painting. It’s funny how it worked for me. I’m very content with what I do. There’s a continuity going with the two mediums that I work with, and it’s a pleasure to keep learning that way. My ambition is to keep getting better as I get older, to swing it, and to prove that you don’t have to give up on life just because you’re getting old.
BK: If a young person studying music today wanted to be a part of your rhythm section, what would you tell them? What do you look for in your accompanists?
TB: I look for a jazz artist. One of the things that interviewers often ask is whether or not I get tired of singing “San Francisco” over and over again, and ask if I get tired of doing the same songs every night. With jazz artists, you never get tired of it. I have Gray Sargeant on guitar and he’s phenomenal. He’s a complete jazz artist, and there isn’t a night that he plays the same solo. It’s always completely different, and inventive. This is what I need in support. I need jazz artists. I don’t like working big stadiums. I like nice acoustical halls where it’s intimate. And the acoustics change from night to night and that also makes things different for all of us. It becomes a show unto itself, even though it’s the same repertoire. It’s different every night.
BK: Because they’re inspiring you, and that makes you sing differently every night?
TB: Right. It makes everything like the first time you’re doing it. And that’s good for the audience. They feel that it’s the first time something’s happening and they know that the same thing isn’t happening every night.
BK: You’ve said Louis Armstrong was a tremendous influence on you.
TB: Not only me, but everybody. Dizzy Gillespie said, “Without Louis, there would be no me.” Everybody was inspired by him. He invented bop. He invented scat singing. The new thing is rap. You’ll find out he did that, too. Whenever anything else catches on, you’ll find it’s something that Louis did a long time ago. He was so humorous. They asked him, “Who’s your favorite vocalist?” His answer was, “You mean after Ella?” He had a wonderful sense of humor, and a great spirit about doing the right thing all the time. Classical trumpet players learned from him. They couldn’t believe what he was doing and they actually changed their method of playing in terms of tonality and attack. He influenced everybody. With him, it was always the right beat and the right feeling. He makes you happy.
BK: Like Armstrong, you’ll still be talked about in the distant future. Will people also be talking about Frank Sinatra then?
TB: Absolutely. He was my idol. He was ten years older than I was. He was a beautiful, beautiful singer. His work is very impressive to me and will always be. I always loved him so much, personally. He changed my life in many ways by just being a great friend of mine throughout my life. When he called me his favorite singer, it changed my whole career. All of his fans checked me out and I’ve been sold out ever since. He was a big influence on my life.

BK: With the state of jazz today, do you think it has a future?
TB: Yeah—but jazz has taken a back seat. For example, CBS just did four specials on country music. They’re raving about the ratings, and they’re saying that 65 percent of Americans love country music. And they said contemporary music is about 50 percent. And when they got to jazz, they gave it like 13 percent. You know, there’s still a lot of bigotry about jazz because jazz was invented by African Americans. There still are a lot of people—especially corporate people—who think that people just don’t like jazz. I think it’s a silly and bigoted attitude. Because when you think of it, Fred Astaire spent his whole life singing jazz. He introduced all of the greatest songs that they call the Great American Songbook. I call it the Fred Astaire Songbook. Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin would not make a move unless Fred Astaire introduced their songs. You could hear him syncopating and improvising throughout his whole life. All his performances had a beat to it with unexpected moves. And different each time. It was really a jazz attitude.

This article is from the July, 2013 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.