It feels more than a little ridiculous to even bother opening this article with an explanation of who Tony Bennett – performing at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 19th, at 7:30pm – is, as if there is anyone out there that would see the name and think, “Who is this Tony Bennett you speak of?” The man is one of the few musical artists who can be called a living legend without an asterisk beside the proclamation, nor having to include the caveat of. “You know, if you like that type of music,” to it.
While clearly jazz is the genre in which Bennett is most at home, at this point in his career you may as well just call his music Americana, as it has touched the lives of so many Americans. Songs like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” have bled their way into the sheer fabric of this country in such a way that someone who has never purchased a jazz album nor tuned into a jazz station will find themselves quietly singing the songs to themselves when the moment calls for it. From Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga, his influence can be felt on popular music for the last sixty-plus years, and hopefully for at least another decade on top of that.
I had a chance to interview Bennett via email before his show in Durham this weekend. Now, I’ll admit, usually I don’t accept online interviews as a substitute for getting an artist on the phone. In this case, however, I took into account that the man is 90 years old and doesn’t seem to go a month without a performance on someone’s stage; while “saving their voice” as an excuse usually makes me roll my eyes, here I was more than happy to share my email address with Mr. Bennett. Among the subjects touched on are if Tony Benedetto would have been a fine name for a musical artist in 2017; if his public political leanings ever had an adverse effect on his career; and if he ever looks at these college kids and misses the dorm life?
Amazingly enough, there are still a handful of tickets available for this weekend’s show. You can find them online at DPACnc.com, Ticketmaster.com, at the DPAC’s Ticket Office, or by calling (919) 680-2787. Do not hesitate to buy tickets, Bennett is not a musical act that you want to put off attending his show for another year.
Isaac Weeks: If you were just starting out today as a young musician, do you think you would still go with the shortened Bennett name, or would you stick with Benedetto?
Tony Bennett: Hard to believe but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question. The story behind becoming Tony Bennett is such a good one, having Bob Hope himself come up with the shortened version, that I don’t think I would ever want it any other way. And when I began to really take painting seriously and start showing in galleries and museums I sign them under Benedetto, so I guess I have the best of both names!
IW: You’ve always been fairly outspoken on your political viewpoints, or at least have never been one to hide them when they are brought up. Do you feel that musical artists of today are doing enough politically, or do you feel that it is an area where they could improve?
TB: I think that is something that each artist — and in fact every citizen — needs to decide for themselves. I have never wanted to stand on a soapbox and tell anyone what they should do or not, but I have always considered myself a humanist. Ella Fitzgerald in her simple wisdom used to say to me, “Tony, we are all here.” and I took that to heart. We all share this planet together, and that should be enough to bring us together, and not be alienated by violence and bigotry. Artists are consummate communicators so they can always have impact on current issues, but again, it is a personal decision.
IW: What is the worst thing that ever happened to you, career wise, that you feel like you can point toward your progressive political affiliations as being the cause of it happening?
TB: I have been very blessed throughout my life, and I honestly don’t feel there was every an instance where my beliefs ever impacted my career in any meaningful way. When Harry Belafonte called me and told me what was happening down in the South I joined the march in Selma with Dr. King…as did many other artists and entertainers. Decades later I get asked if I was worried that it would hurt my career, but it wasn’t even a consideration at the time – it was just what I felt was the right thing to do.
IW: You are considered the standard bearer for interpretations of the Great American Songbook. Just wondering: who are some contemporary songwriters – or at the very least, songs – that you would love to cut a cover of, but just haven’t had the right project present itself?
TB: I would love to do a record with Stevie Wonder, as I think he is a master musician and his affinity to jazz is so much a part of what he does, so making a jazz album with Stevie would be a dream come true.
IW: With so many years spent on the road, how do keep performance nights from becoming monotonous? Or to put it another way, after all of those said years, do you feel freer to admit to yourself that every performance isn’t going to be the best of your career, and that’s okay?
TB: I have to say that when I perform I get five to six standing ovations throughout the show – the rapport and love that I have with the audiences that I feel like I can sing forever.
IW: I know that your daughter Antonia Bennett will be the opener for this show. I noticed that she graduated from Berklee School of Music. Are there any aspects of music schools in general that you wish you had a chance to experience?
TB: I didn’t have a formal music education, but after serving in WWII under the GI Bill of Rights, I was able to study at The American Theatre Wing and that gave me an excellent foundation. I learned the Bel Canto technique for singing – which many opera singers use – and it has helped me through the years, knowing how to sing and breath properly. Now my wife Susan and I, through our non-profit Exploring the Arts, support public high schools in NY and Los Angeles to provide support for arts education, as it makes such a difference when the arts have a vibrant presence in education.