His philosophies are simple: life is beautiful, it only gets better with age, and it’s all about quality, not quantity. Legendary singer Tony Bennett embodies these principles. The nearly 86 year old is currently on an extensive European tour. He will play the Olympics and Royal Albert Hall, as well as make stops in at least a half-dozen foreign countries. He says there will be nothing tough about it, and he has no complaints about life on the road, citing the good fortune of traveling on private planes and enjoying infinite vistas to paint. “Traveling like this, working like this, is not hard,” Bennett says. “I love it. I always work-in a vacation. I paint every day. Susan [my wife] and I play tennis. We stay busy. But it’s quiet and relaxed and away from show business completely. We just become people enjoying history and the gorgeous scenery and the peacefulness.”
Bennett’s original relationship with Europe began on the front lines of World War II. This combat veteran fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but still came out of conflict with a positive spin on life. He says his wartime experience spurred his creativity.
“When we came home, under the GI Bill of Rights, the schooling that we missed in the service, being 17 and 18 years old, we were allowed to go to any school we wanted to, to make up for our education we missed while we were serving in the Army,” he explains. “So, I chose the American Theater Wing and it was the best thing that ever happened. Because we won the war, it was so positive, that they gave us the very best teachers in music, acting, theater, stage design, and in what to expect if you were going into film. The school was so good—it became The Actor’s Studio, which was attended by Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier; great actors came out of that school.”
Bennett wants leaders and citizens today to reward our newest veterans with the same opportunities he was given. “I hope these soldiers get the same treatment when they finish what is called ‘The Good War,'” he says. “I just hope that our government gives them an opportunity to get a proper education so they can decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives. They deserve it. They risk their lives, they put their heart and minds on the line, and it was threatening for them and they really deserve all the help they can get. The citizens and politicians of the United States should go way ‘over the top’ to help the soldiers become proper students with the kind of schooling that they would love to learn.”
Education is something that has never ceased—not even for one day—in Bennett’s life. He considers himself a constant student. “To this day, I am still learning as much as I can about singing and painting,” he says. “I just love it. I know this sounds kind of phony, but it isn’t. I’ve never worked a day in my life because I love what I am doing. I wake up in the morning and I paint. I wake up and I think about singing. I am always studying music and painting and it’s done a world of wonderful things for me.”
Painting is side by side with singing when it comes to Bennett’s passions. His works, many on public display and well collected, are signed with his given name of Anthony Benedetto. He was noticed as a talented artist as a very young boy, growing up in Astoria, New York, raised by a single mother struggling to take care of her children. “I’ve always had a passion [for art and music] because of my Italian-American family,” he explains. “They were nice enough to help my mom when my father died. They realized she had to raise three children. They would all come over and we would perform for them on Sundays. As a little tot, I was being told by them, ‘You make us laugh, and you are such a good little singer, and we also like the way you paint.’ That created a passion for me in my life. I remember very clearly saying, ‘They are telling me I can sing, and I can paint.’ As a result, I just stayed positive.”
That attitude never waned, not as a traumatized solider, not as a young man trying to forge a career in the arts, not as a flagging superstar who hit hard times in the 1970s. Bennett says he was always an optimist, but one with a strict boundary: He would never buy into commercialism.
“I’ve never compromised,” he says. “The school I went to, the American Theater Wing, one of the things they told me was absolutely dangerous for the fashion of everybody in America at that time. They told me to never compromise and only do quality. Don’t do any trick songs that might make a million dollars but be forgotten six weeks later. So, I stayed with quality. From 1950 until now, everything I’ve recorded sounds absolutely brand new, it doesn’t sound dated. I sing the best music of Cole Porter, Gershwin, Johnny Mercer. I sing the best music with best musicians and the best sound equipment. When The New York Times put out a complete box set of my recordings, they said they think it will never be done again—that there are no bad sides from 1950 until now. I surround myself with four of the best musicians I can ever think of. I don’t need a large orchestra. It’s much better to just have very spontaneous jazz musicians: guitar, piano, bass and drums. I have four stars that I present on the stage with me. They are really great artists. I have no regrets musically.”
Bennett, who has sold an astounding 50 million records, won 17 Grammys and two Emmy awards, has surprised many fans, old and new, with his recent choices of duet partners. He says singing with pop music chanteuses, such as the recently deceased Amy Winehouse and ubiquitous Lady Gaga, has been nothing but fantastic.
“The songs I’ve recorded with them have been successful,” he says. “Like with Amy Winehouse, we did the great Johnny Green song, “Body and Soul.” I only do standards. I don’t sing bad songs. Also, Lady Gaga is one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard.”
When Bennett talks about other women who impress him, the conversation ultimately circles back to his wife, Susan. Together since the late 1980s, the Bennetts met through their mutual work in making the arts more accessible to people who could not afford to be exposed to it. Together, they founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in New York City. The school’s matriculation rate of 99 percent (97 percent of graduates attend college) is one of Bennett’s most proud achievements. He credits Susan with its success.
“More than anyone else, my wife is just fantastic,” he shares. “My wife did a fantastic job creating the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, in my hometown of Astoria. The school has ended up in the five boroughs of New York City.” He and Susan, who married in 2007, have also run the nonprofit “Exploring the Arts” foundation since 1999.
“We give every public school money for performing arts and award a lot of helpless people who are homeless and who have major problems; we give them money so that they can go to college,” he says. “Some had babies when they were 12 years old. You can only work on people individually. We give scholarships to people, reward them complete financial education.
They are over the top, so thrilled [about] being awarded so they don’t have to pay a high price for a good education in college.”
Bennett keeps the rest of his family by his side as he enjoys his philanthropy, his art and his perpetual musical success. Of his four children, three work with him directly. One manages his career, one engineers his recordings, one sings with him on stage.
“I am very fortunate,” he says. “First of all, my two daughters and my two sons, they are creative people, and they are nice people. My daughter Johanna is a wonderful person that is trying to start a film festival. I am very blessed with good family.”
Good family, and good music. He urges musicians and fans alike to stick with the greats. “The song I love more than anything else—any musician of quality that I’ve ever met it’s their favorite song—it’s ‘All The Things You Are,'” he says. “Now, I have my daughter singing it. Listen to Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald. Their music will never die. It’s just quality.”
Bennett will grace us with his presence Saturday, Sept. 22 as a headliner at the 55th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. Ever grateful for the simpler things in life, he says he is looking forward to sketching our beautiful coastline, and to seeing his old friend, Clint Eastwood. “I like the fact that Clint announced me on the stage last time I played there, and that was unforgettable for me,” he says. “Carmel is beautiful, especially for a painter. It’s my favorite place to paint in the world, Carmel. I have paintings I’ve done of the seashore, and they are automatic. They are paintings that work immediately. I love Carmel.”
And Carmel loves you, Tony Bennett.
For more information on the 55th AnnualMonterey Jazz Festival, which runs September 21-23, go to www.montereyjazzfestival.org.