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Q&A: Tony Bennett

6/4/2014

Tony Bennett has been hailed as the best interpreter of the Great American Songbook after the legendary Frank Sinatra. Following a rough period in the 1960s and ’70s, Bennett has surged back to become a popular and artistic success. He’ll be appearing on June 7 at the Des Moines Civic Center.

Last week, in an email interview with Cityview Center Stage columnist John Domini, the singer reflected on his humble background, his musical style and his career ups and downs.

CV: As an Italian-American New Yorker myself, I find that heritage is more and more important to me as I grow older. But you seem an international figure. You seem freed from those roots. How does young Antonio Benedetto of Queens still play a part in the way you perform and present yourself?

Bennett: I definitely still feel like an Italian-American and am proud to be of this heritage, but I have always been a humanist as well.  Ella Fitzgerald, who was a great friend, would say to me, “Tony, we are all here.”  And as simple as that is, it is equally profound, as before religion, race, ethnic background, age, demographics, we are all first human and we share this planet together so we need to work together and help one another.  I love the fact that the United States is one of the most unique places on earth. It’s a great experiment where in one country we have such a diverse mix of people from who have come here from so many other countries.  That to me is an incredible achievement.

CV: In 1944-45, as an infantryman, you saw house-to-house combat and helped liberate a concentration camp. You’ve described that time as “a nightmare,” yet now it’s another piece of your past that seems far removed from the joy of your performances. Do you still need to revisit such dark places, in song?

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Bennett: When it comes to art, I like to communicate truth and beauty, and I do tend to be positive about things and not dwell too much on any negativity.  I want the audience to enjoy themselves, hear the best popular music I can find to perform for them, and to walk away having, for a little while at least, forgotten their own problems and concerns.  That to me is very satisfying, so as a performer I think more about what I want to give and communicate to the audience, and not so much about myself.

CV: Early in your career, following a teacher’s suggestion, you based your singing on great instrumentalists of the time, like the pianist Art Tatum, rather than on other vocalists. How does that long-ago advice affect your performance now, when you work with someone so gifted as Gray Sergeant on guitar?

Bennett: Well, Gray is a master guitarist, and I feel so fortunate to have an incredible quartet of jazz musicians on the road with me.  It was great advice I received from my teacher Mimi Speer, who told me if you imitate another singer, you will just end up being one of the chorus. And by emulating jazz musicians and performing with them, I find it keeps the spontaneity going in a live performance, and we have the ability to change direction right on stage.  You can only have that kind of flexibility with jazz musicians since they thrive on improvisation and have such proficient musicianship. 

CV: Your 1957 album “The Beat of My Heart” was pretty radical in its emphasis on percussion, including the great drummer Art Blakely. Nowadays, too, your drummer Harold Jones is integral to your music. By what magic can you combine your flexible, high-flying voice with the down-to-earth wallop of drumming?

Bennett: I loved doing the “The Beat of My Heart” and as I was saying before, working with jazz musicians, they have an innate ability to work with a vocalist and anticipate and respond to a singer in a way that I think is unique. So whether is Harold Jones — who is a master drummer — or the genius piano player Bill Evans, as a singer you have an exceptional support when you surround yourself with jazz artists.

CV: In many people’s minds, your songs and style still suggest Frank Sinatra. You never ran with the Rat Pack, but you’ve acknowledged the connection, especially in the ’92 album “Perfectly Frank.” How do you balance honoring a figure like that, so complex and charismatic, with establishing your own persona?

Bennett: Well that’s very true, as Frank was always very good to me through the years, but he lived on the West Coast and I was here in New York and never was part of the Rat Pack. But we always had a close connection. Frank was 10 years my senior, so I started out as a bobby soxer like everyone else, completely enthralled with his talent. He gave me one of my biggest career boosts when he said in Life magazine that I was his favorite singer. That just sent me way up to the top, and it inspired me to live up to his comments about me, so his influence was so positive and important to me….so much so that I founded a school in his name, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which is a public arts high school in my hometown of Astoria, Queens in New York City. 

CV: The common line about your career is that rock ’n ’roll nearly killed it. But “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was a smash in ’62-’63, you had follow-up ’60s hits, and you’ve expressed nothing but admiration for the Beatles and Motown. How do you recall those days now? What do they teach you?

Bennett: I think what was most troubling to me at that time was it was the beginning of demographics where kids were being told “this is your music, and your parents listen to something else,” so the idea of family entertainment began to disintegrate.  And when I recorded with Paul McCartney, he spoke about how Cole Porter was a huge influence in his songwriting, and Stevie Wonder plays jazz piano as good as Oscar Peterson, so this concept was really a marketing idea and was never authentic. It has been very healthy in the last few decades, with the advent of the Internet and iPod, that people can go out an explore all kinds of music, and they can have an iPod filled with pop, jazz, classical, country — whatever appeals to them — and not be dictated to only hearing music that is played on radio stations.  

CV: Along the same lines, what do you think of the marvelous performance on “MTV Unplugged,” in ’94, which introduced you to a new generation of fans? Were there new technical challenges, or special worries? Come to think — do you ever suffer butterflies before a show any more?

Bennett: I remember performing on “MTV Unplugged” and it was a real thrill, but I have been “unplugged” all my life as a performer, so it really was a matter of doing what we had always been doing on tour. I often go completely acoustic when I am in a beautiful concert hall, and for one song I turn off all the microphones!  Regarding butterflies, that takes me back to the first time I met Frank Sinatra, as I had just been given my first TV series, which was a summer replacement show for “The Perry Como Show,” which was a very big production. However, when I got to the studio I learned there was no budget, zero sets and a skeleton crew, so I was completely shook up about it. I decided to talk to Frank Sinatra about it and went backstage after his show at the Paramount Theatre.

He was so nice to me, and he gave me excellent advice that I still remember today. He told me it was good to be nervous because that showed that you cared, and as a result the audience would sense that and they would root for you. So I knew that it was ok to get “butterflies,” and that they are a good thing, and I still have a flutter every time I go on stage.

CV: These days you have young artists clamoring to perform with you, and you yourself, in early days, picked up all you could from heroes like Duke Ellington. You describe your learning process —with tongue in cheek — as “sweet thievery.” What do you hope, after so many Duets, your partners are “thieving” from you?

Bennett: I think the one thing that most of the artists I worked with on the “Duets” albums — and by the way they were all extremely prepared and professional — learned most about was recording live, which is not something that the majority of performers do these days. I love a live performance, so when I record I set it up as if I was on stage with my musicians all around me in the same room.

It keeps things spontaneous and in the moment, which I like to hear on a recording. With all the work they do on albums now, they take out a lot of the little sounds that used to be kept on a record, and I think these gave recordings a very warm and communicative feel.  So many of the artists that came into the studio would leave saying they wanted to record their next album the same way. CV

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