Never in a million years did I ever think that one day I would be sitting in Tony Bennett’s studio overlooking New York’s Central Park. Unbelievably, here I am. The view is nothing short of spectacular. The park is covered in snow glistening in the afternoon sun. It is a magical scene straight out of those great black and white movies when men dressed in tuxedos for dinner at eight and ladies smoked long Turkish cigarettes through diamond-tipped holders. You get the picture.
But I’m not here to admire the scenery and reminisce about the past; I’m here to talk to the man, the voice, and the charisma that is Tony Bennett. Artist, performer, singer . . . descriptions that somehow seem way too small to describe so large a talent. An American icon of the highest order that still considers himself a student of life and of the arts. A man who at 85 years of age refuses to stop learning and who relishes every single second of every single day.
Bob Hope gave him his stage name, Tony Bennett, but he was born Anthony Benedetto. Quick to flash that famous smile and ready with an amusing anecdote, he peppers his language with the artist’s lexicon. Make no mistake, he is serious about his art. This is no Johnny-come-lately riding the coattails of his celebrity status. Nor is he a weekend warrior painting to relax from the daily grind. Far from it. In fact, Bennett’s work has received accolades from fellow artists, collectors, and art institutions all over the world. Several of his paintings are in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and one is in the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.
Bennett has been painting all his life and still likes to attend the Art Students League with fellow artists young enough to be his grandchildren. He has studied and refined his skills with several leading artists, most notably with the great portrait artist Everett Raymond Kinstler who he considers a friend and mentor. Bennett relishes the learning experience, immersing himself in his passion all the way, approaching each canvas with the same scholarly approach he has to his music. He loves having two careers and paints every day. He tells me that he can’t help it, that he has no choice, he has to paint. And I believe him.
Q: It’s very rare to excel in two different fields of creativity, as a performer and then as a painter. Not very many people can do that.
A: It’s two different concepts. And you know, it’s tough for the public to digest that you can do both things. For instance Fred Astaire introduced a lot of songs that are loved all over the world. Whether it’s a song like “Night and Day” or “I Get Along Without You Very Well” or “One for My Baby”—all these great songs that we all love in the American songbook were introduced by Astaire. But publicly Fred Astaire is only referred to as a great dancer. They never mentioned that he introduced all those songs. It’s tough for the average person, even an elite person, to accept someone who does two things well. People are still surprised to find out that I paint, even though I’ve been doing it all my life. That doesn’t matter to me. I’m just doing it because I have to. I don’t have a game going on or any ambition about it. I’m gonna keep painting. I’m not going to retire. My passion is even greater now than when I was younger. It’s more consistent now.
Q: You’re very much involved in bringing art into schools. How important is this to you?
A: Very much so. My wife, Susan Benedetto, and I started a school, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, in Astoria where I grew up. And the last ten years, 97 percent of all the students went on to college. They don’t drop out because they paint and they sing; they dance, and it’s all about the arts. Now we have seven schools that we’re sponsoring, giving pianos, providing wood floors for the dancers, paints, easels, whatever it takes. The dream is to start an art program in every public school. So they have a sense, even if they’re not going to become artists, of the difference between good art and bad art. Who knows, one day there may be more artists in the United States than any other country in the world. That’s what we’re working on.
Q: Are your children involved in the arts?
A: My son paints; he is a very good painter. I have terrific children. They all work with me. My other son, we started the Bennett recording studio in Englewood, New Jersey, right over the George Washington Bridge. He’s the engineer of the recording studio. So he records me. My daughter, Antonia, is a singer and she tours with me . . . so everybody is involved. My grandchildren are working on camera in film. We’re all in it together. They’re all good kids, very creative.
Q: Tell me about that creativity. Where did yours come from?
A: It comes from my Italian-American family. My father died when I was 10 years old, and I was in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe it because we all loved him so much. And my mother was forced to raise three children by herself. Those were very hard times. My mother was a seamstress, and she made a penny a dress to put food on the table. She had to work like a fiend to do as many dresses as possible. Sometimes she would take a dress and throw it over her shoulder and say to me, “Don’t let me work on a bad dress. I’ll only work on a good dress.” She didn’t want to do anything cheap. She wanted her work to be the best she could do it, and that made a big impression on me. To be the best I could and not settle for anything less.
Q: So even at an early age you had a sense of reaching for the brass ring.
A: Yes, I did. You see the Italians and the Greeks, they created two thousand years of civilization and culture. Those two countries taught the rest of the world how to become civilized. They created everything like it was going to be around for a long time. They didn’t believe in obsolescence. They did everything with care. All of that was around me in my childhood. Even though we were poor we had a sense of that.
Q: When did you become aware of the power of singing and painting in your life?
A: Well, my relatives were very encouraging to my brother, sister, and myself back then because we would entertain them. They would take out their guitars, mandolins, and they would make a circle around us, and we would entertain them. They would say look at how he paints or at how he sings; he’s such a good entertainer, he makes us laugh, and all of this, and I remember very clearly thinking this is who I am. This is how I can communicate. They like my paintings; they like my singing. And it stayed a very strong passion for me my whole life.
Q: So painting, like singing, was a way for you to communicate your feelings to the world?
A: Yes, you could say that. During the Second World War, I was in France and Germany. Many years later I met people I was in the war with and they said to me, do you remember when you were in the trenches what you were doing? I said no. They said you were always sketching. While the bombs were going off, I was still sketching. So my whole life I’ve really had a passion. And now that I’m going on 85 this year, the passion is stronger than ever.
Q: How does that happen? How do you keep that fire burning?
A: It just happens. I can clearly tell you that I’ve never worked a day in my life, because I’m doing the two things I love. So it’s never like a pain in the neck to do it. When I wake up I’m either studying music or painting. And that’s it. With each stage of learning it’s like starting all over again.
Q: And you’re never too old to learn.
A: No. In fact, one of my favorite painters is Katsushika Hokusai, the Japanese painter, and it wasn’t until he was 102 that he said, “I’m only now just learning how to paint.” One hundred and two! You’re never too old to learn something new.
Q: When you start a watercolor, do you start with a sketch first? Do you have a clear vision in mind?
A: Rembrandt said, “The master is nature.” So the first thing I look at is nature. And it starts teaching you so much. There’s no teacher that is as great as nature. The more you look at nature, the more you realize how phenomenal life is. It teaches you to celebrate the rest of your life. Nature is unbelievable. It just goes on and on. I have an instinctive sense of composition that I get from nature.
You keep learning all the time. Whatever the next stage is. I know how to draw. Let’s say I have to study anatomy so I can see the body movements, so it’s not just a stick figure. I have to know what the body can do and what it can’t do. And you finally start studying as much as a doctor studies the inside of the body and realize where everything is at. Then the next stage is learning what to leave out, the edges and all this. You never stop. I’m in class every day of my life. From the moment I wake up I’m in class.
Q: Do you like to paint plein air?
A: Yes, the more you paint directly from nature, the better it is. I can only do so much outside, because once I get recognized, it’s over. I leave early in the morning, like seven or eight o’clock, when no one is in the park yet so I can have two hours of just painting whatever I see that looks nice. And it’s the sunrises and sunsets that are the two best times to paint because of the dark and light.
Q: You paint every day. Is that important to you?
A: It’s very important. I can’t stress that enough. The whole thing is repetition. It’s like playing tennis. The more you play tennis, the better you’re going to get. If you just play every once in a while, you’ll be a so-so tennis player. But if you play every day, and every day you work harder, you finally get very good at it. It’s the same thing with painting or music. Anything that you do well, it’s the repetition. With music, I still study music.
Q: What about canvases—do you have several paintings going at the same time?
A: A wonderful stage and movie actor, Zero Mostel, taught me: “Paint two or three paintings at one time, then you don’t get burned out on one.” You go from one to the other, and finally anytime you feel a little wasted working on a painting, you go to another one, and it’s a lift. And then you get a little burnt out on that one, you return to the first one. And you go oh yeah! That one!
Q: Are you painting for yourself, or are you painting for me? Are you thinking about the viewer when you paint?
A: That’s a tough question because I have to do it. It’s not that I want to do it; I have to do it. I see those flowers up there and say that would be a nice painting, and I go for it. I can’t seem to stop myself. So I guess I paint for myself first, but I also love it when people respond to my work. I’m always honored if I’m put in a magazine like yours, or when the Butler Institute recently called me one of America’s great artists. I couldn’t believe it.
Q: That’s a tremendous honor.
A: Oh, it’s wonderful. I also had three paintings in the Smithsonian.
Q: How important are the traditional techniques to you in the creation of your art?
A: Essential! I asked the great entertainer Jimmy Durante fifty years ago—I met him at the Stage delicatessen eating chicken soup or something—and I said, “Jimmy, what do you think of rock ‘n’ roll?” He said, “They play three chords, and two of them are wrong.” So there’s your answer.
And that’s why I like the Academy in Florence. You see those students painting like the old school. And there’s no question if it’s put in a gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, someone’s going to buy it. It’s too good. They’ll make a great living. It won’t be the latest rage, you know, but it will be good art created from strong, proven principles.
Q: You like to be around other artists. Is that for inspiration?
A: I live here in New York because the Art Students League is right up the street. It’s just a block and a half away. And the best teachers in the world are at the Art Students League. The students that go there have actually become many years later the teachers in the school, and they’re so good. When you go into those classes and have a solid four to five hours with a great teacher and with a class doing their work, you come out with a lot of knowledge and inspiration. I love being around artists because you learn from them. It’s a form of thievery.
Q: Who have you learned from? Who are your teachers and inspiration?
A: I think Robert Wade from Melbourne, Australia, is the finest watercolorist in the world. And then I have two or three good teachers—Basil Baylin who is a very good portrait painter in New York, and Charles Reid, and Everett Raymond Kinstler. Those are my teachers. I live with them, I go see their work when I visit their homes in Connecticut. They paint so beautifully because they know the right values. The two painters Kinstler has me study are Sorolla and Sargent.
I study these greats so that I don’t become tight with a painting. I don’t want to be tight. I want to just be there. If you look at a Charles Reid painting, they’re just an impression. He paints like a jazz artist, loose and improvised. But he has the chops, the training that allows him to do that.
Q: It’s interesting, when you’re being Tony Bennett, you’ve got the band, the audience, the lights. When you’re Anthony Benedetto, it’s a very singular thing—it’s you all by yourself.
A: But the rules are the same. When you’re on the stage, one of the things you learn is less is more. You have to know when to get off the stage and when to get on the stage. It takes about nine years of being in front of an audience to learn that. My audience is my teacher—they teach me what they like, what they don’t like. I base everything on really capturing the audience. And respecting them enough to let them show me what they want. Sometimes they want a certain amount of humor; sometimes they want some very dramatic thing, or something romantic. So you have to put all these very different colors together to create a show. It’s a very similar process to painting.
Leonardo da Vinci, on his deathbed, said, “Has anybody ever finished anything?” That’s what Leonardo said; there’s that much to learn. It never stops.
Mr. Bennett will be playing at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Jackson Hall on March 30, 2011, at 8 p.m.
Our sincere thanks to Sylvia Weiner for her assistance with this interview.