[Dixielandjazz] Tony Bennett interviewed, Nice Comments on Armstrong
rsr at ringwald.com
Wed Oct 27 10:27:01 PDT 2010
A Tony Bennett Kind of Town
New Orleans is an eternal muse for the jazz-pop legend, who takes the Mahalia Jackson
Theatre stage Thursday.
by Keith Spera
New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 26, 2010
At 84, the ever-classy Tony Bennett is one of the last of his generation still swingin',
singin' and soarin' at such a high level. He was a consensus highlight of the 2009
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, dropping names ranging
from Liza Minnelli to Britney Spears. An accomplished painter as well, his portrait
of buddy Louis Prima appeared on this year's Jazz Fest poster.
On Thursday, Oct. 28, Bennett headlines the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing
Arts. He called recently to chat about the genius of Louis Armstrong, his friend
Herman Leonard, why he doesn't always do encores and the night Bob Hope bestowed
his stage name.
TP: People loved your set at Jazz Fest in 2009.
Bennett: That afternoon was so wonderful. I have my own little private history of
playing in New Orleans. When I first started I stayed at a little hotel and hung
out with the jazz artists in the center of town. Later on I started playing the Fairmont
Hotel (at the Blue Room). A couple of times I played the theaters.
As far as I'm concerned, the home of Louis Armstrong is the greatest place for art
and music in the whole United States.
TP: One of the great Armstrong anecdotes is that as a boy, he was arrested for firing
a gun into the air on New Year's Eve. That put him in the boys' home where he really
learned to play cornet.
Bennett: (laughs) What a great story. I didn't know that. He's my idol. He's my favorite.
A lot of people listen to Sinatra and Nat Cole and say, "Boy, they really swing."
People don't realize that Louis Armstrong invented swing. He was an American genius.
He actually invented bebop. Every musician I know that really knows how to play well,
their idol is Louis Armstrong.
TP: Most people know his latter-day recordings of "Hello Dolly" and other pop tunes.
They're not as familiar with his early Hot Seven and Hot Five recordings, the work
he did in the '20s and '30s.
Bennett: Just like anything in history.... there was an era of Impressionism in France.
With music there was Ravel and Debussy and Tchaikovsky. You had Monet and Van Gogh.
It was a renaissance. We had that in our country in the '20s and '30s and '40s. The
greatest composers and musicians you could ever dream of came out of that period.
Louis Armstrong was the master that inspired all the musicians. Paul Whiteman, Tommy
Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, all of them were influenced by
They're doing a documentary on Louis Armstrong that's going to be something. It's
called "An American Genius: Louis Armstrong." Quincy Jones is doing it and a fellow
who wrote a couple books on Sinatra.
TP: Your upcoming show in New Orleans is with a combo or a bigger band?
Bennett: It's a quartet of wonderful artists. Each one is a master musician. I don't
work with big orchestras. I did for many years. But it's more spontaneous, more honest,
and makes the show different every night, with great jazz artists on the stage. Even
though it could be the same repertoire, it sounds different every night.
TP: Do you typically do an encore? At Jazz Fest, you didn't.
Bennett: I don't want to stay on stage too long. You have to know when to get off.
(laughs) It takes years to learn how to do that. If you keep staying on, they won't
want to see you for another 10 years. This way, you leave 'em wanting a little more.
TP: Your friend the late Herman Leonard, the great photographer, lived in New Orleans
until Hurricane Katrina, then moved to California.
Bennett: His two best friends were Quincy Jones and myself. I was the last one to
talk to him before he died. He called me and wanted me to know how much he loved
me. It was very nice.
He was the most wonderful person. He lived all over the world but he loved New Orleans
better than any place he's ever lived in.
TP: He literally created the visual image of jazz with his black and white photographs.
Bennett: They're the best. He was the best photographer of jazz artists that's ever
been created on the planet. They just put out a new book (of Leonard photos) called
"Jazz" with Miles Davis on the cover. This surpasses any of the books he ever had
out before. It's gorgeous.
TP: Do you have a favorite portrait of yourself taken by Leonard?
Bennett: He had such a great reputation that it was an honor to have him photograph
me. When I was very young, just starting on Columbia Records in the early '50s, I'm
sitting up against a wall listening to a playback of one of my records, kind of just
dreaming. It's in the new book.
TP: At Jazz Fest, you dedicated "The Good Life" to Britney Spears.
Bennett: (laughs) Now I do it to Lady Gaga. It gets a big audience reaction. Whoever
the hot item is at the moment, I drop that line in, and it gets a big laugh. You
have to put a little humor in; it lightens up the show. It's in the tradition of
Louis Armstrong. I don't want to act like I know more than the public. I still believe
in the Louis Armstrong philosophy, where there's melody and harmony and just the
right tempo. I'm a strong believer in entertaining the audience. I'm a jazz-pop singer,
but I really like to make people walk out feeling good.
TP: You released "The Ultimate American Songbook, Vol. 1." That implies that there
will be a "Vol. 2."
Bennett: We had very big success with the "Duets: An American Classic" album that
I made (in 2006). It sold in the millions, five million in fact (worldwide). It's
with different contemporary artists, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney.
We're doing it again, because it sold so well.
TP: You painted your buddy Louis Prima for the 2010 for the Jazz Fest poster.
Bennett: I usually don't do anything like that. I make a living as an entertainer.
I've had strong passion to sing and paint my whole life. But I never looked at (painting)
as an occupation.
I never dreamt of anything like this, but the Butler Institute from Youngstown, Ohio,
which has a museum of American artists exclusively, like Winslow Homer and Thomas
Eakins, they've just selected me as one of the great American artists. I couldn't
believe it. It's wonderful.
TP: Do you mostly do portraits of people you know?
Bennett: I paint my family and friends, and the homeless, and the workers of New
York City. I do a lot of landscape, also. I like to go toward the humanity of regular
people and what they do. I feel for the homeless. A lot of people just walk by them
and don't even pay attention to them. I see the plight that they're in.
TP: In the 1960s, you marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. You seem
to be of the opinion that it's an artist's responsibility to be involved.
Bennett: An artist searches for truth and beauty. When he sees a tragic situation,
he has to report it. When I walked on that walk with Martin Luther King, I felt everybody
in the whole United States should have been there, not just a few celebrities.
The United Nations honored me for being a "world citizen." I'd never thought of that.
I've always loved the United States so much, and I still do. But "world citizen"
made me realize, "Wow, on this small planet in the universe, we're all here." Everybody
should be treated with dignity and a proper education.
TP: The last time you were in New Orleans, you and some other folks donated $100,000
worth of instruments to the KIPP Believe College Prep school on Carrollton Avenue.
Bennett: My wife and I love doing that. We have seven schools in the five boroughs
of New York and we assist them. We give them instruments, and if the roof is leaking,
we try to fix the roof for them. Some of the schools are in very bad shape.
TP: You've never had any interest in living anywhere other than Manhattan?
Bennett: No. I live right over Central Park. I'm right in the bulls-eye of Manhattan.
One block over is 5th Avenue and the other side over is 7th Avenue, which goes right
into Times Square. It's very convenient.
TP: Who came up with "Joe Bari," your original stage name?
Bennett: I did. Bari is in the heel of the boot (of Italy) and Calabria is in the
toe. My parents are from Calabria.
Rosie Clooney and I won this amateur contest, and then Pearl Bailey gave me a job
down in Greenwich Village in her revue. Bob Hope was at the Paramount Theater with
Jane Russell and Les Brown's band. He came down to see Pearl Bailey and he got a
big kick out of me because I was the only white kid in the show.
He said, "What's your name?" I said, "Joe Bari."
He said, "That's a city in Italy. That's a phony name. What's your real name?"
I said, "Anthony Dominick Benedetto."
He said, "Well, that's a little long for the marquee. Let's economize it and call
you Tony Bennett."
So when I paint it's still Benedetto. And when I perform it's Bob Hope's name, Tony
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