Tony Bennett: The Ultimate Interpreter of Jazz and the American Songbook

June 23, 2023

Tony Bennett, who died July 21, 2023, in New York, at the age of 96, won 19 Grammy Awards. His first best-selling hit record, “Because of You”, was released in 1951. Sixty-three years later, his 2014 Columbia album with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek, was the Number 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart. A giant of the American Songbook, Bennett also had a close relationship with the jazz community.

“I always wanted a jazzman with me. For me, having jazzmen with me means I never get stale,” he told DownBeat Magazine’s Dom Cerulli in May 1958. DownBeat’s John McDonough, writing the day of Bennett’s death, described his passing as “almost certainly the longest sustained career as a star performer in the annals of show business history . . . His celebrated recent partnerships with Lady Gaga, Diana Krall, and others kept him a stadium act in the contemporary music scene, while his regular solo concerts at Radio City, Ravinia, Carnegie Hall, and The Hollywood Bowl represented a lineage of living cultural memory that connected audiences to a distant and vastly different time in mid-20th century America.”

Music historian John Edward Hasse, Curator Emeritus of American music at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said Bennett “possesses one of the great voices and singing careers of the last 60 years. Not very many singers, much less musicians, have achieved that kind of durability. He’s got a jazz musician’s phrasing and sense of timing, as well as a feeling for spontaneity. These are classic, timeless aesthetic values that he personifies.”

In a 1974 New Yorker profile, jazz critic Whitney Balliett described Bennett as “an elusive singer. He can be a belter who reaches rocking fortissimos. He drives a ballad as intensely and intimately as Sinatra. He can be a lilting, glancing jazz singer. He can be a low-key searching supper-club performer.” Bennett’s voice, he added, “binds all his vocal selves together.”

Writing in The New York Times (July 21, 2023), Bruce Weber said Bennett had “a storyteller’s grace with a lyric, a jazzman’s sureness with a melody, and, in his finest performances he delivered them with a party giver’s welcome, a palpable and infectious affability . . . the songs he loved and sang – ‘Just in Time’, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, ‘Rags to Riches’, and ‘I Wanna Be Around’, to name a handful of his emblematic hits – became engaging, life-embracing parables.”

In addition to “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches”, his early ‘50s hits included “Stranger in Paradise” and his version of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart”. Mitch Miller, a producer at Columbia Records, was instrumental in the decision to record “Because of You” with the backing of a lush orchestral arrangement by Percy Faith. Later, Miller tried to convince Bennett to record some novelty songs, which Bennett resisted and, for the most part, avoided.

In 1961, Bennett’s pianist, Ralph Sharon, proposed a new tune for a scheduled West Coast tour. Bennett recorded “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (Douglas Cross/George Cory), and it was released as the B side of single, “Once Upon a Time” (Charles Strouse/Lee Adams). It was one of the best-selling records of 1962, resulting in Bennett’s first Grammy Awards, for Record of the Year and Best Male Solo Vocal Performance. It continued to be the song he was most closely identified with for the rest of his career, although no one had anticipated its popularity. In fact, Bennett once joked, in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, that, “a Columbia rep called me up and said, ‘Turn the record over. San Francisco is really catching on.’”

In the mid-‘70s, Bennett left Columbia and formed his own company, Improv Records. That’s when he recorded two albums with legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans. They were not big sellers but were well received in the jazz community. When both recordings were reissued by Universal/Fantasy as a double album in 2009, The Guardian’s John Fordham wrote: Bennett can sing a now unfashionable lyric such as ‘The Touch of Your Lips’ with a fervency that suggests the experience has only just happened to him, and Evans’ gleaming, multilayered chording supports the sensation of emotions churning. The Evans classic ‘Waltz for Debby’ also has its cheesy lyric transformed by Bennett’s immaculate timing and casual dignity, while ‘But Beautiful’ is given a matter-of-fact, bar-conversation informality. If most of the music smokes rather than swings, there are some mid-tempo jaunts, such as ‘Dream Dancing’, in which the two sound as if they’re having the time of their lives.”

Bennett returned to Columbia Records in 1986 and released more than a dozen albums in the 1990s including a centennial birthday tribute to Duke Ellington, Bennett Sings Ellington, Hot & Cool (1999). Reviewing it, All Music’s William Ruhlmann called the album, “Tony Bennett’s practically inevitable commemoration of the Duke Ellington centenary . . . an appropriately blue-chip affair, with a big band and orchestra augmenting the Ralph Sharon Quartet on arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli, who has slowed the tempos to give the singer time to give intimate interpretations to the lyrics of songs like ‘Mood Indigo’ and ’Sophisticated Lady.’ Especially impressive are the less familiar tunes, such as ‘Azure’ and ‘Day Dream.’ The slowest tunes also leave room for expressive solos by trombonist Al Grey and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis  . . .” 

Sometime during that period, according to The Washington Post’s Matt Schudel, Bennett “became something of an avuncular emissary to a generation that never heard of Cole Porter but who admired Mr. Bennett’s cool nonchalance and his refusal to follow other people’s trends.”

He won Grammys in the ‘90s – for a 1992 tribute to Frank Sinatra, Perfectly Frank, a 1993 tribute to Fred Astaire, Steppin’ Out, and for MTV Unplugged, a live album, released in 1994. Backed by the Ralph Sharon Trio, Bennett appeared on the TV show MTV Unplugged to spotlight the Great American Songbook with guest appearances by Elvis Costello and k.d. lang. In 2005, he was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor, and, in 2006, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

“There was never a time when Bennett was not in proximity to the finest (jazz) players,” according to DownBeat’s McDonough. “His musical directors came straight out of the jazz world: Ralph Sharon, Torie Zito, John Bunch, and Lee Musiker. Ruby Braff, Harold Jones, and Gray Sargent were part of his working groups, and there were encounters with Count Basie, Herbie Hancock, Candito, Herbie Mann, Neal Hefti, and Bill Charlap.” In the 1958 interview with Cerulli, Bennett credited guitarist Chuck Wayne as “the guy who really influenced me as to the guys playing good jazz.”

Bunch was Bennett’s Musical Director and Conductor for six years. Charlap and Bennett recorded The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern on the RPM/Columbia label in 2015. Reviewing the album for The New York Times, Nate Chinen compared “its voice-and-piano intimacy” to the previous Tony Bennett/Bill Evans albums. “Jerome Kern,” he pointed out, “turns out to be the ideal touchstone for Mr. Bennett: He was a suave melodist who married classical form with jazz inflection, and many of his tunes have long been standards. ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘All The Things You Are’ are each rendered here as a duet, with Mr. Charlap in exquisite form.” The album won a Grammy Award in 2016 for Best Traditional Pop Album.

In an email the day after Bennett’s death, Charlap told me, “Tony Bennett was American popular song. His interpretations were definitive. The depth of his choices, the level of taste, the way he told the story of the song, the nuance of his phrasing. All of it iconic, original, and definitive.”

Bennett discussed the Evans and Charlap albums with the San Diego Union-Tribune’s George Varga in September 2019. Working with Bill Evans,” he said, “was all about proper involvement of the highest level. It’s rare that a pianist of such magnitude as Bill, who had his own career as a solo artist, also was able to understand how to accompany a vocalist. It’s like a great marriage, where you are tuned in all the time and are able to know what your spouse is thinking and can finish their sentences. That’s how it worked with Bill during those sessions.”

As for Charlap, “I have such admiration for master musicians such as Bill and the quartet of jazz musicians that travel with me. They are so gifted, and their expertise is on such a high level, that they are able to be completely spontaneous when they perform since they have such a strong foundation of musicianship. It is why I have always gravitated to working with jazz musicians, as they can be completely in the moment and yet also anticipate and react to what’s going to happen next.” 

Bennett, who lived in Englewood, NJ, from 1957-1971, was born in Astoria, Queens, as Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926. He sang at family gatherings and, as a teenager, listened closely to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby before joining the Army during World War II. After leaving the Army, he was invited by comedian Bob Hope to be his opening act at New York’s Paramount Theater. Benedetto was using the stage name, Joe Bari, but Hope asked him his real name. Before Benedetto could tell him, Hope added, “We’ll call you Tony Bennett.”

In addition to his career as a vocalist, Bennett was an accomplished visual artist. “I’ve always done the two things that I love to do, which is sing and paint, and it’s wonderful being honored about it,” he told Reuters at an exhibit of his work in 2017. He signed his paintings, which have been displayed around the world, with his birth name, Anthony Benedetto.

He was also a political activist and advocate for civil rights, campaigning for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and participating in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. 

In 2006, Bennett recorded the first of two “Duet” albums featuring duets with a variety of singers from various segments of the music world. The first, simply titled Duets: An American Classic (Columbia) featured him singing with Barbra Streisand (“Smile”), James Taylor (“Put On a Happy Face”), and Billy Joel (“The Good Life”), among many others. That was followed in 2011 by Duets II including Lady Gaga (“The Lady is a Tramp”), Amy Winehouse (“Body and Soul”), and Norah Jones (“Speak Low”). In 2018, he recorded a duet album on Verve/Columbia with Diana Krall (who was on Duets) called Our Love is Here to Stay.

When AllMusic’s John Bush reviewed Duets II, he pointed out that, “Bennett, as ever in splendid voice and impeccable groove, laughs and trades lines with stars half his age (like John Mayer), or in the case of Lady Gaga, six decades younger, and clearly makes them so comfortable in this setting that it would be easy to believe that jazz vocals were their home.” (see photo with Lady Gaga below).

On Facebook, the day after Bennett’s death, Joel called him “one of the most important interpreters of American popular song during the mid to late 20th century. He championed songwriters who might otherwise have remained unknown to many millions of music fans. His was a unique voice that made the transition from the era of jazz into the age of pop. I will always be grateful for his outstanding contribution to the art of contemporary music. He was a joy to work with. His energy and enthusiasm for the material he was performing was infectious. He was also one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known.”

In 2016, Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and that was revealed in August 2021 by his wife, Susan, on the AARP website. That month, he gave two farewell concerts at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga to celebrate his 95th birthday. In an article on by Jim Beckerman, John Schreiber, President and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, recalled a concert by Bennett at NJPAC in 2018 when Alzheimer’s was beginning to take its toll. “I was standing backstage with him and his wife Susan,” Schreiber said, “and he was standing still, expressionless. When it came time to go on, and he heard ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Tony Bennett’, he sort of lit up. His wife gave him a hug, and he went out there and twirled around, put his arms in the air, danced. He was totally Tony Bennett.”

In a well-known 1965 Life Magazine interview, Frank Sinatra called Bennett “the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more.”

Jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein, on Facebook, recalled seeing and meeting Tony Bennett in 2007 when Weinstein was 21, performing his first gig in New York City (Stephane Grappelli’s posthumous induction into the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center). “For me,” Weinstein said, “Tony Bennett symbolizes old New York – a New York where people had a sense of occasion, where folks dressed up to go to the theater, not because of a dress code but because it was just what you were supposed to do.”

In addition to his wife Susan, Bennett is survived by two sons from his first marriage (to Patricia Beech), Danny Bennett and Daegal Bennett; and two daughters from his second marriage (to Sandra Grant), Joanna Bennett and Antonia Bennett.-SANFORD JOSEPHSON


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