Goodbye, Mr. Bennett: A Tribute

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Bennett had a wealth of material to draw upon, and he had a direct association with much of it.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

Perhaps no interpreter of American popular song had as long and distinguished a career as Tony Bennett. Yet in his everyday life, he was not one to dwell on the past. Neither his 20 Grammy statuettes nor the boatload of other awards — save for the Kennedy Center Honors medallion — were on display in his home, according to his son and manager, Danny Bennett.

And, he said, his father never regarded his albums as objects of nostalgia. The elder Bennett only listened to them for research purposes.

“He never looked back, was always in the present and hopeful about the future,” Danny said by phone after his father’s death on July 21 at the age of 96.

So it was all the more unusual that, in a 2018 interview for DownBeat almost exactly five years to the day before he died, the elder Bennett — seated on a well-worn couch in his small, spare art studio 15 stories above New York’s Central Park South — eased quite comfortably into a discussion of the past.

True to form, no awards were on display in the studio. And true to form, he looked dapper and spoke lucidly — despite having early-stage dementia — about his classical voice training at the American Theatre Wing, his haunting of jazz clubs on 52nd Street in Manhattan and his friendship with jazz cellist Fred Katz in the army during World War II.

Discussing his days at Columbia Records in the early 1950s, his tone became slightly heated when he recalled his successful battle with label executives to take a more adventurous approach to his interpretations. And it became wistful when he recounted his unsuccessful attempt to become a kind of double act with singer Rosemary Clooney, whose visage gazed out from a framed photo placed prominently on a table in front of the couch on which he now sat.

“I loved her,” he said softly, his hand lightly touching the arm of a writer seated next to him.

That he was thwarted in his desire to pair with Clooney is ironic, given that he would later win acclaim for a series of duets with women, among them Amy Winehouse, k.d. lang, Diana Krall, Carrie Underwood and Lady Gaga.

But that was hardly the biggest irony of his career. That may be the outsized popularity of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which was expected to be the B-side of a 1962 single but famously emerged as his signature song. Less known is that the A-side, “Once Upon A Time,” the melancholy fairy tale with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, was once also a staple of Bennett’s sets.

“I was sorry to see it go,” guitarist Gray Sargent, a member of Bennett’s working quartet from 1997 until the singer’s last gig in 2021, said by phone after Bennett’s death.

Some of Bennett’s most preferred material was not even on his set list. Top of mind, when Sargent was asked, was the Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II tune “All The Things You Are.” The tune had not been on the list during Sargent’s 24 years with Bennett despite — or because of — the prominence he gave it elsewhere.

A sublime four-and-a-half-minute rendition of the tune opens his Grammy-winning 2015 album of Kern songs, The Silver Lining. His collaborator on that album, pianist Bill Charlap, said that the singer was well aware of the harmonically opulent, lyrically transcendent tune’s standing at the apex of the food chain in both the theater and jazz repertoires.

“Tony knew how important ‘All The Things You Are’ was,” Charlap said by phone after Bennett’s death.

Of course, Bennett had a wealth of material to draw upon, and he had a direct association with much of it. A set list Bennett’s staff provided DownBeat at the time of the 2018 interview included hits like “Just In Time,” “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and a medley that incorporated “Because Of You” and “Rags To Riches.” It also included tunes by the Gershwins and Michel Legrand that Bennett had sung many times.

Of particular interest was the inclusion of Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” A 1993 music video built on the tune helped Bennett connect with a younger generation when it aired on MTV. Coming after a period of financial and other setbacks, the video was a catalyst in a widely celebrated commercial resurgence — one that reestablished him as a presence on TV, from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons, and boosted his profile to epic proportions generally.

Danny Bennett, who is credited with engineering the resurgence, debunked what he said was a misconception about it: “Everyone thinks he reinvented himself. We reinvented the audience.”

In the 2018 interview, Tony Bennett was at a loss to explain the phenomenon, though he was obviously pleased with its impact: “It was a way of exposing the Great American Songbook to a new generation.”

Singer Kurt Elling, whom some locate in a lineage that includes Bennett — and who, in a 2021 DownBeat interview, said that as an aspiring singer he regarded Bennett as “the guy you want to be” — noted by phone after Bennett’s passing that the resurgence was accomplished without pandering.

“Tony carried the torch,” he said. “He sang the songs the way they were meant to be sung. He never deviated from the path. To my knowledge, he never recorded junk just to continue to be a star.”

Bennett’s uncompromising outlook grew out of a youthful desire to explore the more challenging path that jazz represented. He said he started fashioning himself as a jazz singer when he began listening in as his brother studied the music. Then, as a young man checking out 52nd Street, he was confirmed in his direction.

“I said, ‘This is the way to go.’”

Although Bennett never set out to be an improviser in the Betty Carter mold, few seem to argue that, in his freewheeling attitude and freethinking sensibility, he did not measure up to Sargent’s declaration: “He was a jazz guy.”

Elling took a view that was more nuanced, if no less certain.

“If the voice is willing and the approach is fresh with even the spirit of improvisation in there, then you have a better claim than anybody in the pop world who’s there to rearrange everything in a very straightforward fashion, even if they are there to invigorate it as though it were being sung for the first time,” he said. “But it’s not.”

Charlap, for his part, saw Bennett in multiple dimensions — as an artist equipped with a powerful arsenal consisting of “bel canto coupled with jazz phrasing coupled with Judy Garland’s way of setting the story.” The factors, he said, were a combustible combination, generating a sense of “intense drama” that, in his experience, was evident from their first rehearsal.

Naturally, Bennett felt freer to let his jazz flag fly when working in smaller units, especially partnerships with pianists with whom he could spar eye-to-eye. Notable among them were Bill Evans, with whom Bennett made two acclaimed albums in the 1970s, and Charlap, whose Kern collaboration was followed by one in 2018 focusing on the Gershwins and featuring Krall titled Love Is Here to Stay (Verve/Columbia).

Comparative treatments of “All The Things You Are” are telling. In contrast with the version on his 1962 live album Tony Bennett At Carnegie Hall, where he is accompanied by a full orchestra, the duo’s take included on The Silver Lining displays considerably greater breadth musically and, arguably, emotionally.

Granted, the half-century that elapsed between the versions — and the maturity gained — might account for some of the change. Nonetheless, the number and spontaneity of the later version’s signature Bennett moves — the primal growls, tremulous glissandi, abrupt shifts in dynamics, risky intervallic leaps, unexpected modulations — are striking, reflecting a fuller expression of his instinct to make every note, every bar, every phrase a fresh one. And that argues for placing him squarely in the jazz tradition, where he wanted to be.

Bennett’s last touring gig was at the Count Basie Theater in New Jersey on March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. After that, he came back in August 2021 for a two-show, televised performance with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. That was his official swan song.

But he played with members of his band one more time. On New Year’s Day 2022, Sargent said, he and bassist Marshall Wood visited Bennett at his New York apartment. Bennett’s dementia had progressed, he said, but not to the point where he couldn’t sing — and, for 40 minutes, the three of them played as a band again.

“It was a wonderful feeling,” Sargent said. “He came out. He looked great. He gave us a big smile. We hung out and told him what a great time it had been making music with him.

“Then, you know it’s not going to be like that, but you want to offer just a nice thought.” So he did, on what would be his final parting with Bennett:

“‘Oh, yeah, we’ll see you some time.’” DB



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