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For Tony Bennett, 88, the Point of Art Is to Convey "Truth and Beauty"

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
Larry Busacca

No, Lady Gaga will not perform with Tony Bennett at Mesa Arts Center.

There's long been talk of a collaboration CD between the two, and it seems that come September, the two finally will release Cheek to Cheek, an album that finds the unlikely collaborators crooning jazz standards, backed by consummate jazz professionals. If the two singles that have trickled into the world so far, "Anything Goes" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," reveal anything, it's that Gaga is a fantastic jazz singer, and Bennett, at 88 years young, still has some powerful vocal performances left in him.

See also: Tony Bennett Praises Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum, Disses NYC Museums

Bennett is of a dying breed, the pure jazz singer, a relic of jazz's golden age. The New York native has a treasure trove of memories and experiences, the friend of greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra. The prime of his career included a series of recordings with legendary pianist Bill Evans, and in his twilight years, Bennett has steadily released a series of duet albums, on which he collaborated with modern music's stars, from Amy Winehouse to John Mayer to Sheryl Crow. When a singer as celebrated and accomplished as Bennett continues at his age, there can only be one motivation: burning, unquenchable passion for performance.

Editor's note: A little inside baseball here, apologies: I normally don't conduct interviews via email. There are two main reasons for this. One, is journalistic: Email interviews offer little chance for follow-up, so if an artist touches on something interesting, it's impossible to get them to expound on it. The second is practical -- most people's writing styles, even if they are supremely talented musicians, just aren't that interesting, at least not interesting enough to read for 1,200-plus words. We've made an exception for Tony Bennett here. Why? He's Tony Bennett. At 88, he can do whatever he wants. Bennett shared some of his accumulated wisdom during a brief email interview in preview of his upcoming show at Mesa Arts Center. And yes, we never got to press him as to whether her prefers singing in front of big bands or backed by a small combo, or his assertion that he only conveys truth and beauty in art, rather than addressing life's harsh, uncomfortable realities. But oh well. The master jazz singer offered up the following responses to Up on the Sun's questions. Enjoy.

Up on the Sun: What performance stands out for you more? The first time you sang at Carnegie Hall, or the first time you sang at the Metropolitan Opera?

Tony Bennett: That is a very tough question and I think it might just be impossible to answer, but I have to say that being on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and being introduced to the stage by President [Bill] Clinton was truly an unforgettable evening.

Four years ago when you were in Phoenix, you had a lot of kind words to say about the Musical Instrument Museum. How much of that appreciation was pumping up the home crowd, and how much was a genuine appreciation of the museum?

I was very impressed with the museum and I had attended an event held in Steinway Hall to announce the establishment of the museum years before it opened, so it was a thrill to finally see the project come to fruition.

 

In the documentary Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends, Alec Baldwin says, "in theater, an in live performances, the audience has to believe there's no place else you'd rather be, and there's no one else that conveys that more effectively than Bennett." How, at age 87 [editor's note: Bennett was 87 when Up on the Sun sent these questions], do you manage to keep the enthusiasm for performing?

I grew up during the Depression and my father died when I was 10 years old so my mom was left a widow with three children. My Italian-American family was so supportive for us, and every Sunday they would come over to our house and we would have a big meal and then they would sit in a circle and ask my brother, sister and I to entertain them. It was at that point, because they encouraged me so much, that I knew I wanted to be a performer and entertain people and make them feel good. And I still feel that way after all this time. I love what I do and can honestly say I feel like I have never worked a day in my life.

If you could choose one artist, living or dead, to make a record with, who would it be?

Well, there is one person who I would have loved to have had the chance to sing with - we were very good friends but we never worked together - and that was Louis Armstrong. Louis really taught us all how to sing and any young singer that needs to learn from a master entertainer should just start listening to his records.

What is your ideal backing band? How many members? Who would lead it?

Actually I have the absolute best jazz quartet touring with me, and I wouldn't change a thing about it -- they are all master musicians and very nice people as well.

What would be more desirable to you, singing in front of a full big band led by Duke Ellington or singing with a trio consisting of, say, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans, and Jimmy Cobb?

Wow, another impossible question, and I think that is an impossible choice and love your dream trio.

Why did you never do Broadway or films?

Actually I spent quite a bit of time on Broadway performing with Lena Horne, as we had a show together, but as to film, the late Cary Grant once told me that making films was tedious and you spent most of you time in your trailer by yourself. So he told me to stick with performing on stage for a live audience.

Your career has been long and satisfying, yet, no career is without peaks and valleys. What would you say was the hardest or lowest time in your career?

Well you brought up Duke Ellington and there was a very tough time in my life as I was in New York City when I had just divorced and was separated from my family right before the holidays. I knew that Duke was in town doing his Sacred Concert at [the Cathedral of] St. John The Divine, and I was watching TV in my hotel room when I heard this music coming from what I thought was the TV. There was a knock on the door and in the hallway was the choir that Duke was working with for the concert, and they serenaded me with the song, "On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)." I never forgot that, and it was just like Duke to know when you were down and pick you back up.

What was the latest lesson you'd say you learned about music?

Lady Gaga is a fantastic jazz singer.

You've never been shy in performing at fundraisers for politicians you've supported. Yet, your music has never been overtly political. Why has the great majority of the music you've recorded over the years been so apolitical?

I like to communicate truth and beauty in my art, so I am gravitated toward that with the songs I choose to sing or the subjects for my paintings.

Tony Bennett is scheduled to perform on Saturday, August 23, at Mesa Arts Center.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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