Tuesday, February 1, 2011

An Interview with Tony Bennett – The Streets of Astoria (December 1993)

New York-born Tony Bennett is one of the most respected vocalists in the world today. With a 56 year musical career that includes performing with the Count Basie Orchestra in the 50s, classic recordings with Bill Evans in the ‘60s and an incredible solo performing and recording career spanning five decades, Bennett has always been accompanied by an impeccable collection of jazz musicians. His passion for music is equaled only by his love of art. As a painter, he continues to study and show his work at galleries throughout the U.S. Bennett was open and giving during this interview. In 2009, I had the privilege of photographing him live in concert at the Festival du Jazz de Montreal. At 84, he’s still a powerhouse.

Bill King: You’ve had a remarkable year, beginning with a Grammy for your tribute to Frank Sinatra, ‘Perfectly Frank’, and now the release of ‘Steppin’ Out’, a tribute to Fred Astaire. Is this one of the most fulfilling periods of your life?

Tony Bennett: Yes, it is. Producers often try to change the creative instincts of performers instead of trusting them. They’ll want you to do a quick novelty song or something silly to sell records immediately. A good artist avoids that.

We did ‘Steppin’ Out’ and ‘Perfectly Frank’ as they say “unplugged”. Actually, I’ve been “unplugged” for years. We just did it the way we know how to do things; very naturally.

Winning the Grammy was a very gratifying experience because no producers interfered with this project. The fact that we were able to do the album in an uncompromising way win in an age of heavy metal, rap and hip-hop, is very exciting.

B.K.: How important was it for great composers like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others to have Fred Astaire introduce their songs?

T.B.: From what I understand, they wouldn’t make a move without Fred. His colleagues mention it and so do the history books. He was part of the Golden Era. They respected him so much. He would bring shows in, not just songs. This was way before he did films and was on Broadway.

It’s interesting that not one of those songs hit the charts, yet they are heard internationally and have become our ambassadors all over the world. If I sing ‘Dancing in the Dark’ in Japan or ’A Foggy Day in London Town’ in Italy, everybody knows those songs as American songs. Like jazz itself, the cream rises to the top.

B.K.: it’s been the jazz players who have kept these songs alive through all the changes that have occurred in popular music.

T.B.: Yeah. All the famous - Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins records, -Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and now Wynton Marsalis keep the music fresh. There are so many artists, I could go on. Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington. All of them interpreted those songs.

B.K.: it speaks a lot for the dynamics of an inspired composition.

T.B.: They are our tradition. We are such a young country and don’t realize it. We’re always craving for something new, something that will be bigger than the Beatles or Elvis Presley. The industry just wants the big cash. Businessmen are blinded by that, all they want is more.

Jazz deals with the truth, with honesty and sincerity. Sooner or later, when people hear it down the line, even 2000 years, we’ll be hailed for giving the world some of the most beautiful music it’s ever heard.

B.K.: Do you think any of the songs in the last 15 to 20 years will have the same kind of longevity?

T.B.: I’m positive they won’t. There are just a few by people like Stevie Wonder, Billie Joel, Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Stephen Sondheim and Burton Lane – they are all great composers of mature popular craft, but they aren’t played on radio.

Everybody’s hyped up. This is the age of obsolescence. People want something that will increase sales.

B.K.: Are you an artist who lives in the recording studio, or one who devotes the bulk of his time to pre-production?

T.B.: I spend time preparing so that when I go in, I do it fast. I spend months in preparation. I memorize everything. On the latest album, I planned the sequence of the songs instead of waiting until later. We just went in and started with the first tune should be placed and what kind of concept it should have.

B.K.: How many songs did you record to arrive at 18?

T.B.: I did 24. Fred Astaire’s advice was whenever you have an act that feels perfect, pull out 15 minutes no matter how good you feel it is. The reason is to avoid staying on stage too long. I feel a record has to be the same way. You don’t want to be predictable or monotonous.

B.K.: Do you have a philosophy for linking songs together?

T.B.: I look for songs that uplift the human experience.

B.K.: Pianist Ralph Sharon has been with you for over 30 years. What has made this a perfect match?

T.B.: He’s my favourite musician. He’s the best colleague a guy could ever have. I just love being with him. He’s very intelligent and doesn’t throw it out at everybody. He’s much understated, but very educated.

He grew up in Britain and was on the top of the jazz magazine charts there. He was number one for 12 years. He used to play piano for Ted Heath who had the most famous band in England. Ralph also did a lot of movie scores. He’s a jazz player who also loves the public and likes to entertain them.

As a result, he’s very good at selecting songs. He’s found all the songs for me the past 30 years. We consider ourselves tunesmiths and collaborate on introducing songs. We’ve introduced 135 so far, and out of that 50 of them are real blockbusters. Everybody, musicians and singers, performs them now.

B.K.; You find jewels like ‘Drifting’.

T.B.: Ella Fitzgerald suggested that song for me. She said,’ Do that song Drifting,’ and you know when Ella suggests a song you better give it a listen.

B.K.: What makes an accompanist like Ralph Sutton invaluable to a singer?

T.B.: I consider those guys high artists. When I say those guys, it’s just a few people who really know how to accompany, like Tommy Flannagan and John Bunch. There is just a handful of guys who really know how to play behind a singer. Bill Evans, of course, was just ideal.

B.K.: Do you have to be a great soloist?

T.B.: It’s someone like Count Basie, another great accompanist, who made all of his musicians sound magnificent. It’s a gift that’s in them where they want to help other cats out. There’s niceness about them. They decide to sublimate themselves to make everybody else sound good. I think that’s a wonderful quality.

I think they are high artists who aren’t respected enough because they’re in the background, but that background is what makes the whole thing happen. It’s like Jo Jones who took a newspaper, wrapped it up backstage at Newport and just hit his knee and kept time and the whole band knew it. Everyone picked up on it and it became the best Ellington live performance record ever made - just done with a newspaper.

Some guys play too much and it interrupts the singers. You’ve got to breathe with the singer. You’ve got to know every move the singer is going to make. Ralph knows me like the back of his hand. He knows what I’m thinking from phrase to phrase.

B.K.:A vocalist like Shirley Horn understands herself so well it would be impossible to find a better accompanist.

T.B.:I love the way she sings. I heard a cut she recorded recently called ‘Too Late Now’ by Burton Lane and Allan J. Leonard, it’s just perfect. She accompanies herself absolutely perfectly.

B.K.: Personnel changes in your rhythm section are a rare occurrence. What inspires you to alter the chemistry from time to time?

T.B.: I’ve always had very superior musicians like Joe LaBarbera and Paul Longosch who were with me many years. They’re perfect guys and Joe is just the sanest person I’ve ever met. He wanted to settle down. He bought a house and is working in L.A. and doing very well. He’s getting married. What happens is that after a while certain guys get tired of the road. I’ve brought in some wonderful guys like Douglas Richeson from Ohio and Clayton Cameron who played with Sammy Davis Jr. for seven years. All of the musicians say he’s the in-thing right now. He’s everybody’s favourite drummer.

B.K.: Do you find travelling a strain?

T.B.: No, I’ve been doing it 45 years and have gotten used to it. If you look around at people who live in one place, they’re strained too. I love to read. When I get on an airplane, especially on overseas trips, I can finally get into some long-term reading. There are no phones. Other people say,”Oh, God, what a long flight”. To me, it’s like a dream. I can get into a book without having to pick up a telephone.

B.K.: Have you modified your style over the years?

T.B.: I think I have. You get to learn what to leave out. I keep trying to get better. I work at it and take good care of myself. I’ve done almost everything to experience life in the past and now I feel very mellow about the fact I’m in control of myself. I’m disciplined, eating good foods, exercise properly. I’m 67 and in good spirits. I feel very good about life. I know that doesn’t make news, but I’ve never felt better.

B.K.: With all of the radical changes in popular music, you’ve managed to withstand the excesses, wore a smile and attracted new fans. Were there periods which tested your confidence?

T.B.: Yes, Abbey Mann, a good friend I grew up with and the author of ‘Judgment at Nuremburg’, said, “Do you realize how many produces we’ve been through and we’re still here.” That was very astute.

Executives of the record companies and other media like television and film feel very superior in their positions, but when they’re out of it, they have no power. Each new guy decides to change everything.

Once the companies have enough of your catalogue, they get somebody else. If they sense you’re predictable, you’re out. To get into the game of longevity, you have to bob and weave.

B.K.: When performing, where do you direct you art - to yourself, the audience or the musicians?

T.B.: First to myself. The whole idea is to communicate with the audience. I can’t wait to hit the stage. I’m that kind of performer. Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, we all went for the audience. We want to entertain.

B.K.: Are you more at ease in concert or in the studio?

T.B.: I like all of it. You have to prepare for it. If you’re going to get nervous, it should be with live performance because there are no retakes. With recording, you have at least four takes for every tune. You don’t have to release anything you don’t want to. With that many takes, you can usually find one that is near perfect.
With live performance, you’re going out there and if that one shot isn’t right, it’s gone with the wind. If you’re going to get shook up, it better be on stage, not in the recording studio. The studio feels really comfortable with me.

B.K.: Do you ever fear they’ll release the ‘out-takes’ on a compilation?

T.B.: They shouldn’t. It would be disastrous.. I also paint and one of my big jobs is to tear up the paintings that don’t work. You should never present a picture unless it’s absolutely excellent. It’s representative of you. You have to shoot for a very high level and that doesn’t happen every day. Most of the time, you’re just doing exercises in painting and once in a while you hit one and say, ‘Look at that, it’s really good’.

B.K.: Have you always painted?

T.B.: I’ve gone to art schools my whole life. I’m still studying. I study with the best painter in America, Everett Raymond Kinstler. I feel so fortunate that he’s teaching me. Painting gives you a happy life. You’re studying nature. Every day you paint, you learn. You always feel fulfilled. It’s meditative and knocks out any of your worries. When you’re painting, four hours go by like four minutes.

B.K.: Would you give some brief thoughts or impressions on some artists? Sarah Vaughan.

T.B.: Sarah Vaughan was blessed with the most wonderful voice - a four-octave range without falsetto. She was really the essence of a singer. When you say Sarah Vaughan, I say she was born to sing.

B.K.: Frank Sinatra.

T.B.: Sinatra is the king of the entertainment world. He’s conquered all the mediums. He’s the Al Jolson of today. He was also blessed with a golden voice.

B.K.: Billie Holiday.

T.B.: Every once in a while there are singers that are very rare. I can think of three. -Hank Williams down south, Edith Piaf in Paris and Billie Holiday. There is a destiny about those three singers. Their lives have become legendary.

B.K. Joe Williams.

T.B.: A magnificent singer. He was with Basie’s band. I was the first white singer to sing with the band and he was the vocalist at the time. Those were some of the greatest days, being around the Count Basie band in the ‘50s.

B.K.: Betty Carter.

T.B.: She’s a wonderful singer. You’re hitting on something that’s so interesting to me because when someone says to me what your category is, I find I dislike that word. I sing all kinds of songs, but I do lean towards pop-jazz singing. Like Ella, God goes through Betty on every note.

B.K.: Harry Connick Jr.

T.B.: I think he’s got a lot of talent. For a young guy, he’s come a long way. I had a lot to do with getting him into films. We had the same agent and I suggested it right at the beginning. He’s just a grand guy.

B.K.: What jazz artists do you listen to?

T.B.: I’m still bewildered by Duke Ellington. I just think that he’s timeless and so avant-garde. Each guy in his legendary orchestra was an artist: Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Cootie Williams. All these guys were part of an era of individualism. I love that era.

B.K.: With all the new reissues, artists like Ella Fitzgerald are topping the jazz charts with recordings that were classics in another era.

T.B.: That’s very good, you know. When there’s a change on the entire music scene, there are a lot of different reasons why it happens. The big thing has been the compact disc. All of a sudden everybody’s hearing recordings without any surface scratching. They’ll hear a production of an early Erroll Garner record and say, I never knew it sounded like that.

It’s an education for people who have never heard this on the radio. For 30 years, we’ve been rock-saturated. Young people have had to live through this obsolescent age and don’t know about great performers like Fats Waller who made some magnificent records and is really fun to listen to.

The Beatles generation now has two or three young children and all of a sudden they’re discovering their folks weren’t wrong. Young people are starting to come on- board with artists like Natalie Cole and Harry Connick Jr. In fact, I was even in in Rolling Stone this week.