Monday, October 5, 2009

Tony Bennett talks about Getz, Sinatra & Picasso

In this fantastic interview for the Vancouver Sun, my dear friend Tony Bennett - thanks to Richard Templar for introducing me to Tony, back in 1980 - talks about the influence of Stan Getz on his phrasing, about Frank Sinatra and also Picasso. I had the opportunity to meet him several times along the years, attended many of his concerts, and even interviewed him for a TV special on the Brazilian Manchete TV network, back in 1985.
Stubbornly Rooted in the Old School
Tony Bennett recalls the days of Frank Sinatra as 'the end of an era of quality music'
by Heath McCoy, Canwest News Service
Vancouver Sun, October 5, 2009

Tony Bennett
Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Orpheum Theatre
Tickets $82.95 - $124.95 from

In this decade alone, jazz singer Tony Bennett has won seven Grammy Awards, among his career total of 15.

He boasts pridefully that his record label, Columbia, just resigned him to a $10-million dollar contract, noting laughingly: "I'm 83. They usually send us guys out to pasture."

Far from being in the pasture, in recent years Bennett has sung acclaimed duets with such modern stars as k.d. lang, Bono, Paul McCartney, John Legend, Tim McGraw, Christina Aguilera, the Dixie Chicks, Diana Krall and Stevie Wonder, to name but a few.

Nobody can say that Bennett is anything less than relevant. The jazz icon from Astoria, Queens, N.Y. is undeniably successful as a contemporary artist.

And yet, he remains as stubbornly rooted in the old school as one can get.

Without naming names (though he does single out hip hop as an offending genre) Bennett freely admits that he's not a fan of much modern pop music. Throughout this phone interview -- to advance his Canadian tour -- he bemoans the "obsolescent" nature of today's music, insisting that the last great era of popular music was the one he grew up with.

"Frank Sinatra was the end of an era of quality music where everything lasted," Bennett says. Among other influences, he lists Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum and Stan Getz.

"That music never dies. It doesn't sound dated. It's timeless, no matter when you play it....

"But a lot of the modern stuff sounds dated from the first minute it's released."

This leads us to Bennett's artistic credo, which he hammers home repeatedly.

"The more far back you go, the more ahead you'll get," he says confidently.

In Bennett's book, you can't go wrong when you study from "the great masters."

That's a motto he applies to his painting career as staunchly as to his singing gig.

Adopting his birth name, Anthony Benedetto, as a painter, Bennett has become an accomplished visual artist over the years with three of his works in Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian.

"Even the great Picasso, 'til the day he died... he always learned from the past," Bennett says. "You learn from the masters. You go back to the primitive artists to find out what colours they used and how they used them. Why did they mix their colours a certain way?"

Art with no respect for tradition is sure to suffer, Bennett maintains.

So, where did modern music lose touch with its all important roots, in Bennett's opinion?

That's a crime the singer lays primarily at the feet of big business.

"[The success] of all the quality artists created huge [record] companies," Bennett explains. "And the money men, the corporation guys... they started telling the artists what to sing. They wanted to make money off something that comes out quick and big. But that stuff is quickly forgotten.... [Suddenly] everybody's doing the same thing and there's no soul in it."

Bennett also feels that popular music lost something special when it spilled over into arenas and stadiums.

"The great artists I admired, they all worked intimately," he says. "We worked in small little nightclubs and from there we went into theatres.... It was a great experience for us." When artists began selling out the Madison Square Gardens of the world, however, things changed, Bennett feels. "Every businessman in the world looked at that and said 'My God, look at how much money we can make.'... It's happening, but it's forgettable. You don't get any intimate experience from that."

But for all his talk about the great artists who inspired him, Bennett stresses that the secret to his success has been in aspiring to a singing style that's all his own.

He's never forgotten the advice one of his teachers passed on to him, when he was studying to be a singer at the famous American Theater Wing in New York City.

Bennett, who grew up impoverished, was able to attend the elite school thanks to the G.I. Bill, passed to aid U.S. veterans who had served in the Second World War. Bennett himself had fought in Germany as an infantryman, an experience he once equated with having "a front-row seat in hell."

But he remains eternally grateful for the opportunity that was opened to him when he attended the school.

"I had a teacher who told me: 'Don't imitate other singers, because you'll always just be one of the chorus,'" recalls Bennett.

Instead, his teacher advised him to imitate the sounds that other musicians were making instrumentally. "She said: 'Listen to what they're doing musically and try to do that with your voice.'

"Stan Getz had this wonderful melodic sound, this honey sound on his saxophone. So I tried to imitate that, and I developed my own style that way."

Over 60 years later, with his career still thriving, that style continues to serve Bennett like a charm.

It's hard to sum that up any better than the man himself does: "In my case," Bennett says, "I'm blessed."

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