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Bennett on Bennett 

The legendary artist on art, music and how nothing beats a good pasta marinara

What becomes a legend most? Accessibility. Legendary jazz/pop crooner Tony Bennett graciously found time between interviews, his painting (which he does every day) and his full touring schedule to talk to The Indy. Just don't look for his reality-TV series (a la The Osbournes) anytime soon.

The Independent: How does it feel to have spanned numerous generations of fans?

Tony Bennett: I was always taught to sing to the whole audience, not to one demographic group. I used to do seven shows a day at the Paramount Theatre in New York and by the time I did the seventh show there wasn't an age group for whom I haven't performed. My philosophy has always been stick to timeless songs, have great musicians on the road with you and the audience will come to you. If it is good, then it will appeal to everyone. I was recently touched by a man and his son who came backstage to one of my shows--the father told me that he son had discovered my records and really like them and it was through their shared enjoyment of my records that they formed a closer relationship--that meant a lot to me.

You're known for jazz-oriented music. How did Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues come about? Also, how did you get so many A-list performers together on one album?

I first had the idea to do a blues album as I always loved the blues. The first record I ever made, when I was with the Army band in World War II, was "St. James Infirmary," and they taped our live shows--that was my big number back then. My son, Dan, suggested that we do the blues album with duets and then he and producer Phil Ramone went out and approached the various artists. I was completely bowled over when they came back to me and said they had k.d. lang, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and all the others, and I had a great time with each artist in the studio recording each duet. It was a lot of fun and very relaxed, which I think shows through when you listen to the album.

You've performed and recorded with k.d. lang and it's obvious you both have a tremendous respect and affection for one another. How did you meet and why exactly do you vibe so well together?

I first met k.d. backstage at a Grammy rehearsal and I had heard some of her albums and was very impressed with her. I had just gotten word from MTV at the time that they wanted to tape an MTV Unplugged special with me for the spring, so I asked k.d. at rehearsal if she would want to sing a song with me on the special and she said yes. Since then we kept in touch. She is a painter also, so we have a lot in common, and we decided to tour together last summer and just had a great time together. She is one of the vocal greats, right up there with Garland and Piaf.

Who are your heroes in the music world? Who inspired you to do what you're doing today?

Oh, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Armstrong--they were masters and what they have contributed to world culture will last forever. I was also very interested in jazz and would see as many jazz musicians at the New York Clubs as I could. The first time I saw Charlie Parker I was so overwhelmed that I had to run out of the club and--for lack of a better expression--I threw up, that was how strongly his music hit me. I had a music teacher, Mimi Spear, and her advice to me was, "Don't imitate other singers, instead find inspiration in a musician." I had always loved Art Tatum, the jazz pianist, who put a lot of intensity into his work so I found that I would try to do that with my singing as well.

If you suddenly found you were unable to sing, what would you want to do instead?

I have painted all my life, starting as a young child, and I thought I would become a graphic artist and enrolled in the High School of Industrial Art in New York City. It was at that school that I had a music teacher, Mr. Sondberg, who liked my singing and encouraged me to stick with music. Otherwise, I definitely would have become an artist, and still I paint every day, even when I am on the road performing.

Is there one particular thrill during a performance that sticks out for you?

There have been so many but if I had to pick one I would say it was the show I did at Carnegie Hall in 1962--it was the first time a pop star had ever performed a solo show at the hall and it was just a magical night.

Rumor has it that MTV wants to follow you around with cameras a la The Osbournes. What would a Tony Bennett reality show be like and how long before you told the cameras to "take a hike?"

Oh, I don't think it would make for great TV. My passions are music, painting and a good game of tennis--and a nice pasta marinara afterward. Not exciting enough for MTV, I think. EndBlock

More by Zach Hanner


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