At 88 years old, Tony Bennett appears poised for yet another comeback — though not for reasons you’d expect. The jazz great is still actively touring (he plays the Granada Theatre on October 12), as well as painting. And late last week he even dropped a new album (his 57th). The record, titled Cheek to Cheek, is a collaborative effort between Bennett and pop auteur Lady Gaga, who duos on all of the album’s 11 jazz standards. As the story goes, the pair met backstage in 2011. Gaga, a longtime fan and proficient jazz singer, immediately took to Bennett, who quickly suggested cutting a record together. Three years later, Cheek to Cheek beautifully highlights two comparable vocal partners. It also could be the record that introduces jazz (and Bennett) to yet another generation of fans.
In anticipation of his Arts & Lectures season-opening concert this week, we traded emails with Bennett to get his take on art, music, and the future of jazz.
You’re deeply involved in the fight to keep arts education alive. Growing up, what kind of impact did schooling have on you? I grew up in New York City but was fortunate that at that time in the public schools the arts were still very important. I was able to study both art and music while attending school, so it was important to me and my wife, Susan, to ensure that the arts would remain strong. We established Exploring the Arts and we currently are involved with 14 public high schools in New York City and just expanded our support to three high schools in East Los Angeles. We find that when kids are exposed to a strong arts program in their school, they like to stay in school, so it encourages them to come every day.
Were there particular teachers who helped instill in you an early love of the arts? I had many wonderful teachers both for art and music, but I would have to say that my Italian-American family gave me my earliest support to become a performer. My father passed away when I was only 10 years old, and my mom was left a widow with three young children. Every Sunday my family would come to our house, and we would have a big meal together, and then my family would form a circle and my brother, sister, and myself would entertain them. I received so much love and affection those Sundays that it was then that I realized that I wanted to be a performer.
How does painting differ from singing in terms of quenching your creative thirst? Do you feel like they inform each other? Absolutely. I like to think of it as a yin-yang kind of relationship, keeping everything in balance. With singing it is very gregarious in front of thousands of people, and you are involved with the audience, the band, the crew, but when I paint, it is just myself and the canvas; four hours seems like four minutes. So if I feel a bit burned out from painting, I then go back to singing and vice versa — but I’m always able to stay in a creative zone.
You’ve worked with some of the greatest talents in music. How was recording with Amy Winehouse? What kind of impact did she leave? Amy Winehouse was an absolute genius and a completely authentic jazz singer. I loved meeting her backstage at my shows in London over the years, and when we recorded “Body and Soul” together, I got to truly understand and appreciate what a talent she was. It was a tragedy to lose her so young.
How do you respond to people who say jazz is a dying or a lost art? When something is as good as jazz is, it will never be lost. It was one of the greatest gifts that the United States contributed to world culture. That’s one of the reasons I am so excited to have made a record with Lady Gaga doing all the jazz standards that we both love. She is a wonderful singer with an excellent love and understanding of jazz, and I hope that all her fans will now discover this music because she sounds absolutely terrific.
What do you hope for the future of jazz music? And who do you think is helping to bring it to the next generation of listeners? Well, I think artists like Lady Gaga who love jazz and embrace it as she has done will be a force in making sure new generations are exposed to jazz music.
What artist(s) have really wowed you with their version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and why? You know, I am not sure I have ever heard another version of it, but I was very fortunate to have sung the song as a duet with Stevie Wonder, who I adore. He always wows me whenever I hear him or sing with him. I just love him.
At 88 years old, what is it about performing that still makes you want to do concerts? I love to perform and make people feel good by presenting them with the best popular music that I can find to sing for them. You know, I love what I do so much that I can honestly say it feels like I have never worked a day in my life.
Tony Bennett performs at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Thursday, October 12, at 7 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu