A Tony Bennett Q&A
Tony Bennett, the legend of American popular song and jazz styling of it, will sing at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall Tuesday evening (March 6). His daughter Antonia, an established jazz singer in her own right, will join him. Bennett took the time over the weekend to answer a few questions, via e-mail exchange. Here it is, with very little editing.
Strini: Your daughter Antonia will appear with you on the Milwaukee program. Her style differs from yours. Do you do anything special to mesh when you perform together?
Bennett: Antonia has been coming on stage to sing with me since she was a little girl, so we are very comfortable together. It’s such a joy to have her on the road with me.
Strini: Do you coach Antonia? Has she ever asked for advice?
Bennett: She is very well trained and is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, so she has very good technique as a singer. We often talk about songs – she may ask my opinion about a certain song she wants to add to her set, or about tempo. But she has been around the performing arts all her life so she has a very strong foundation.
Strini: You and your career were at a low point in the late 1970s. Can you point to a particular moment or person that turned things around?
Bennett: Actually, when I chose to leave my record label Columbia at that time it was really a very artistic period for me. I moved to England and was able to work with the Robert Farnon, the great orchestrator and conductor that everyone called “The Governor.” And it was during that time that I also made two albums with the late jazz pianist Bill Evans – which to this day are recordings that I am very proud of and they have been critically acclaimed.
Strini: Right after World War II, you studied Bel Canto singing in New York. How has that served your singing, in terms of tone production, understanding of phrasing and in terms of a technique that has kept your voice intact?
Bennett: Bel Canto is the technique that opera singers use as well, and I have always felt that the training I got has absolutely taught me how to preserve my voice over the years. You learn how to use your breath and scales and not to “push” your voice, which over time can lead to damage. So I was very fortunate to learn how to sing properly early on in my career.
Strini: Back in the 1970s, did you have any idea that you would become such a revered presence in the music industry among performers three generations younger? Can you explain the surge in your popularity that began in the late 1980s and has continued unabated?
Bennett: There was a time in the music industry, that really started in the 50′s and prevailed for some time, where young people were told “this is your music and your parents listen to that other music.” I was always taught to sing to the whole family – choose good songs that everyone can appreciate. The focus wasn’t on marketing and demographics. Fortunately we seem to be moving away from that and now it’s okay for everyone’s iPod to have all kinds of music on it – jazz, classical, pop. To me that’s a much healthier attitude. I have always tried to avoid just having hit songs. I have always aspired to developing a hit catalog that would last.
Strini: You were active on Civil Rights and other political issues as far back as the 1940s. Are you still engaged in such issues?
Bennett: I consider myself a humanist…as Ella Fitzgerald used to say to me “Tony, we are all here.” And she was right – we have to learn to be citizens of the planet and not just of one country, so we make decisions and act in a way that is beneficial to everyone.
Strini: What about music motivates you and continues to engage you? I mean, you could just be playing golf every day. What keeps you on the road and singing?
Bennett: I have always had a passion to sing – it’s not that I want to sing, its that I have to sing. That’s what keeps me going. When I get asked if I plan to retire I say, Retire, to what? I am doing what I love the most right now.
Strini: I’m teaching American Songbook, 1920-1960, a course in the honors college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. What’s the most important thing I can convey to them about this music?
Bennett: That’s wonderful to hear. It was a golden age of songwriting in the 20′s 30′s and 40′s – almost like the Italian Renaissance when you had master craftsman of the highest quality all working at the same time. I mean, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin all creating the best popular music ever written. I think it was the absolute care that they took to craft a song properly that is the key. That’s why the Great American Songbook is still something that audiences want to listen to today throughout the world.
Concert Info: Tony and Antonia Bennett will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Great seats available at $105, $125; very limited seats available at $65, $85, $175. Call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206 or visit the Marcus Center website to order.
Display photo on the A&C page courtesy of the Marcus Center website.