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The New Kid

He may be the undisputed master of the great American songbook, but Tony Bennett still thinks like an upstart

"Look, look,” says Tony Bennett, sweeping his hand over an open art textbook. “Look at the hands!” He turns the page. Muscles and sinews wrap around the skinless arms, legs, and heads that Bennett points out with amazement, each anatomical feature beautifully layered against the rest. It’s impossible to tell whether the singer is more in awe of the sketcher’s technique or of the beauty of Creation itself. “I believe in God,” he says, “but for me, God is nature. I mean, look at this.”

Sitting in his window-wrapped painting studio overlooking New York City’s Central Park, Bennett is dapper in a hunter-green suit, his tie, as ever, snug under his chin. (After a photo session, he’ll change into shirtsleeves to paint, a lifelong passion.) At 81 he has finally grown into his strong features: the Roman nose imported from his parents’ native Italy; the granite slab of a chin that rests, monumentally, beneath a Gipperesque half-smile. And yet, for all his gravitas, Bennett is as rapt as a kid when he talks about art.

Maybe more so. Age, he finds, breeds enthusiasm. “When you get older, you count your blessings a lot more,” he says. “It’s a glorious day to take a walk in the park. When you’re younger, you say, ‘Oh, another day.’ I prefer this age much better.”

Bennett’s success as a singer is well-known: over the past 60 years the emotive, classically trained belter has introduced such standards as “Rags to Riches,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But just as important to him is his success as a painter. Trained at an industrial arts high school, Bennett has studied art throughout his life, and his energetic and color-drenched canvases—signed with his given name, Anthony Benedetto—populate important collections, including that of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Music and painting are his life’s dual passions. “It’s not that I want to paint or I want to sing,” he says. “I have to.”

‘When you get older, you count your blessings a lot more…I prefer this age much better.’

Now, having famously scrambled back from a 1980s career slump to add a clutch of Grammys to his collection (which now totals 14) and release his top-selling album ever—last year’s Duets: An American Classic—Bennett can afford to relax. Instead, he keeps working: this month he’ll raise funds for arts education by hosting a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and his AARP-sponsored concert tour runs through December 6. Along with working, Bennett keeps on learning.

“He’s receptive and eager and a very intense student,” says Everett Raymond Kinstler, the portrait painter to whom Bennett apprenticed himself 20 years ago. “Tony loves skill—he loves craftsmanship; he appreciates it,” says Kinstler. “He has grown tremendously artistically. But he’s still a student. He’s still hungry.”

 

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From the start of his music career in Queens, New York, Bennett was an apt pupil, frequenting Manhattan’s jazz clubs to soak up the music and learn stagecraft from early supporters such as Pearl Bailey and Bob Hope. Ten years younger than Frank Sinatra, Bennett still considers Ol’ Blue Eyes his “master” and best friend. Tales of other beloved mentors come easily to his mind—the time Count Basie advised him not to bow to record-company pressure to add rock music to his act (“Why change an apple?”), the time Duke Ellington sent a group of singers to serenade him in his hotel room one lonely Christmas Day.

In the early 1990s Bennett’s manager—his older son, Danny—revived the singer’s flagging career by exposing him to new, younger audiences on such cred-building outlets as MTV, The Simpsons, and the old, edgy Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. (“It wasn’t like everybody did that show,” Danny recalls. “He asked me, ‘Would Frank do this?’ Nope, and that’s the point.”)

Now, Bennett is the one to whom others look for guidance. “Bennett is not an interpreter of American popular song,” says Bill Charlap, the highly regarded jazz pianist. “He is American popular song. His readings of Gershwin and Porter and Rodgers—they’re definitive. He is the peerless master.” It’s a mantle Bennett wears gracefully, yet with surprise. He still seems to feel like the aspirant, the kid. Endearingly, when he talks about having become “the master” to performers such as Bono, 47, and Elton John, 60, he estimates their ages to be within 10 years of his own.

These two singers and 18 others, including Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion, joined Bennett on the Duets album of classic songs. And Bennett’s live performance of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” with 26-year-old pop singer Christina Aguilera stopped the show on Saturday Night Live last November. Aguilera, who has described her latest album as “a throwback to the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s,” is one of the many young stars whom Bennett has helped inspire to return to classic jazz—or to turn to it for the first time.

Bennett and Aguilera also performed together on Tony Bennett: An American Classic, an 80th-birthday variety show tribute that aired last fall on NBC. Speaking to a reporter after that performance, Aguilera expressed a bit of the awe younger performers feel for Bennett. “I mean, there are no words. I’m just ecstatic here on the stage with him,” she said, turning to Bennett. “I can only hope to follow in your footsteps.”

Michael Bublé, the popular young crooner, says the secret of Bennett’s multigenerational appeal is his love of the music he sings. “Joy emanates from him as he effortlessly moves through a song,” Bublé says. “It’s infectious.”

 

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Standing before a few dozen guests at a postconcert reception in Virginia this summer, Bennett displayed not only his graciousness but also his impish charm. During a Q&A period, a fan raised her hand to ask whether Bennett would be willing to say hello to her teenage daughter, who couldn’t come to the event because she had homework to do.

Bennett gave a perplexed smile but nodded, and the indulgent mother carried an open, glowing cell phone up to him.

The singer put the phone to his ear. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said. “Do your homework!”

‘It’s not that I want to paint or I want to sing. I have to.’

Naturally, Bennett’s voice has changed over the years; it has deepened, and it has more of a rasp. Kinstler, a contemporary and a close friend of Bennett’s, says his interpretations have deepened, too. “I sat with him for four hours watching him hone one melody, for phrasing,” says Kinstler. “He was always a great singer, but now as a singer, he’s a great artist, because of his sensitivity to words.”

Every song has an emotional story, Bennett explains. It’s his job to put that story across. These days the story of his favorite song—the melancholy, homesick “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”—has an unspoken political edge. “You think of the boys in Iraq,” he says. “When I sing it, it’s like my own personal prayer on stage. Privately I wish—I wish it—I wish that everybody would get sensible enough to get the boys back home as soon as possible.” Bennett, who liberated a concentration camp in World War II and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, says that the Iraq war has turned him into a pacifist, opposed to all wars. “Fighting a war is the lowest form of human behavior,” he says. “It’s not intelligent. It’s not constructive. It’s devastating.”

Among fellow musicians, Bennett is known for never performing a song exactly the same way twice. That constant reinvention is part of his genius, says legendary producer Phil Ramone, who produced Duets and three earlier Bennett albums. “I think he’s one of the ultimate artists in seeing life from a musical point of view,” says Ramone. Whereas many performers need a crowd’s response to spark a fresh idea, he adds, “Tony completely comes from within himself.”

Says Paul McCartney, a friend for many years: “On meeting Tony, I was reminded that most of the great people are nice to be with, because they don’t have anything to prove.”

 

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If you have ever wandered below Bennett’s fifth-floor studio window, there’s a chance he has painted you. The artist snaps photos of street scenes for inspiration and tries to capture their light in oil or watercolor.

The apartment Bennett shares with his new wife, Susan Crow, his companion for the past 20 years, sits one building over from his art studio and several floors higher, its view of the park more majestic. Along with artifacts of Bennett’s musical life such as a Bösendorfer baby grand and an old Victrola cued up with a 1955 jazz platter, the uncluttered apartment features paintings by such friends as David Hockney and a variety of Asian art objects, including a screen decorated with Chinese calligraphy that Bennett prefers to display upside down.

Here is where he and Crow, a former New York City schoolteacher, hatched their plan to create a new public high school for the performing and fine arts. The school opened in September 2001 and next year will move to its permanent home in Bennett’s hometown, Astoria, Queens. (For information about the school and Bennett’s educational charity, visit www.exploringthearts.org.) Typical of Bennett’s sense of debt to his predecessors, the school is named not for him but for Frank Sinatra.

Bennett has been married twice before, and he has four children: two sons, manager Danny and Dae, with his first wife, Patricia; and two daughters, Joanna and Antonia, herself a jazz singer, with his second wife, Sandy.

Because of the business savvy of Danny and Dae, a recording engineer, Bennett has reached a point where he no longer has to work. But he continues to do so, not because he’s worried about money, says Danny, but because he’s worried about complacency: “He worries about falling into the same routine. That’s his advice. Always follow your passion, your heart, your dream. Don’t say something is impossible.”

Bennett says both music and painting are forms of meditation for him. “People go to the ends of the world to search for calmness,” he told writer Robert Sullivan for the forthcoming book Tony Bennett in the Studio (Sterling Publishing). “You can paint for four hours and it seems like a minute. And in those four hours, you’re facing your own story…. The more you paint, the more you realize how beautiful life is.”

So, for Bennett, the work of life continues. “When someone questions me about retiring,” he says, “I say, ‘No, I have too much to learn yet.’ ”

Features editor Margaret Guroff wrote about Sally Field for the September & October 2006 issue.

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