One of the great jazz voices of all time breaks into song before an enthralled Club crowd
He may be 87, but Tony Bennett showed that he still knows how to work a crowd when he appeared for a press conference at the FCCJ, just ahead of his headline appearance at the Tokyo Jazz Festival. Asked whether he might treat the packed house to one of his songs as a preview of the festival, Bennett initially declined on the grounds that he is in show business with the emphasis on “business” and that the onlookers would just have to come along to the show.
But apparently unable to resist the look of disappointment on FCCJ Member Haruko Watanabe’s face, Bennett broke into the first verse of the song that has defined his long and impressive career, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Pitch perfect even when performed at the drop of a hat, it was met by a rousing round of applause.
Bennett was performing in Japan for the first time in 13 years, and a review in The Japan Times of his set at the festival described it as “commanding.” He performed more than 20 numbers, backed by a jazz quartet, including “Fly me to the Moon” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and over ran his rigidly allocated time by 10 minutes.
From his earlier comments at the FCCJ, it appears that he still gets as caught up in the moment as when he was a fresh faced singer emerging into the spotlight along side such greats as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. Sinatra once described Bennett as “the best singer in the business” an accolade that the man himself dismissed with a self depreciating “But what did he know?”
“I’m an entertainer,” Bennett replied with a shrug when asked to describe himself. “And I consider myself to have been blessed.
“Jazz is funny; it’s not something you can go to school to learn,” he said. “You can study music, of course, but jazz is the art of spontaneity and improvisation. You either have it or you don’t. It’s a gift of an art form and when an artiste performs it well, they are giving it to anybody who cares to listen.”
It was not always easy for Bennett, who served as an infantryman in Europe in the closing stages of World War II before developing his singing techniques and joining Columbia Records. He had his first number one hit “Because of you” in 1951.
“When I first started, there were a lot of seasoned performers who were resentful of the fact that I was becoming popular,” he said. “They were still nice enough to say, ‘you’re doing alright kid, but it will take you seven years to learn how to walk onto the stage properly.’ They were right, but I always felt they could have been a little nicer to me,” he added.
That was one of the motivations for his most recent collaborations, Duets: An American Classic, released in 2006 and followed in 2011 by Duets II. It features the Italian American veteran from Astoria, New York, performing alongside Michael Buble, Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse, among others. A new recording, The Classics, is a new collection of 22 of his most famous recordings, while an entire album with Lady Gaga is due to be released around the end of the year.
“I’m one of the elders in the business now, and I did these albums with all these different popular artistes to show to the world that they can do these things, to show that they do not have to be restricted and to show that what I was told that you have to wait seven years to be famous is just not true.”
Asked his most memorable experience in his long musical career, Bennett unhesitatingly singled our working with Lady Gaga. “She did ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ with me and it became a big hit,” he said. “I consider Lady Gaga to be the Picasso of the entertainment world. She is very, very intelligent and a very talented person.”
Their new collaboration will include some works by the great songwriters of Bennett’s generation Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin with the support of a big swing band.
But if he was forced to select a personal favorite singer, Bennett opts for Billie Holiday. “She was absolutely the best singer who ever lived,” he said. “Any recording of hers is beautiful. It’s not digital, it’s not multi track and it’s strictly mono, but boy, it’s timeless. She was exquisite.”
As he approaches his 90th year, Bennett is still in good physical shape and can clearly still command the stage. “I just love to entertain people,” he confessed. “It keeps me alive and it keeps me in shape.
“I’m a great fan of the artist Hokusai, who said he was just learning to paint when he turned 102,” he said. “I like that.”
Julian Ryall is the Japan correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.