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Friday August 16, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday August 16, 2013 MYT 2:11:21 PM
by ian yee
Singing his song: Legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett will be performing in Malaysia for the first time on Sept 9.
Tony Bennett’s upcoming concert
in Kuala Lumpur
is proof that the man enjoys nothing better than singing for
an appreciative audience.
THE United States of America has given the world many a great thing – basketball, Coca-Cola, Google, iPhones, the cast of Jersey Shore … so much awesome stuff.
But if you asked Tony Bennett, there’s one thing that just has to be way up there in that list – jazz.
“I feel jazz is one of the greatest contributions America has given to the world. It really is our classical music,” he said in an e-mail interview with Star2.
“I love the spontaneity of jazz music. Jazz musicians are consummate instrumentalists, and their level of skill is so high they can improvise all the time, which, in my mind, keeps every performance very much in the moment. They never play the song twice.
“I spent so many great hours in the jazz clubs of New York City on 52nd Street where you wouldn’t walk out of the clubs until four in the morning.”
And that’s exactly the kind of music – and that level of performance – that Bennett, still going strong at 87, hopes to bring to Malaysia when he does his first show here at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre on Sept 9.
“I always have said there are no bad audiences – only bad performers,” he said. “Currently, I have a magnificent jazz quartet with me on the road that have been with me for quite some time and they are master musicians. I think the audience in Malaysia will love them.”
For most music-lovers, the chance to watch his quartet alone would be pretty cool already. Throw in the greatest jazz vocalist of our time, and you’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As an artiste, Bennett is quite simply in a league of his own. His career has spanned seven amazing decades, which have included soaring highs and debilitating lows.
Having dropped out of high school at 16 to help support his family, Bennett was forced to do a variety of odd jobs, including one as a singing waiter.
But during World War II, he was drafted into the army and even fought on the frontlines in Europe. It was an experience that would change him forever. He once described it as a “front-row seat in hell”.
“It affected me mostly as a human because it instantly turned me into a pacifist, and taught me that violence is the lowest form of human behaviour.
“But as an artiste, it was a very good training ground as I had the opportunity to perform in Army bands throughout the time of my service and met some very talented musicians as a result,” he said.
After being discharged from the army, Bennett returned to the United States and immediately started formal music training (making use of the new Servicemen’s Readjustment Act for returning WWII veterans) while continuing to perform at small venues. American comedian Bob Hope was at one of those venues, and that’s when Bennett got his lucky break.
“He liked my singing so much that after the show, he came to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘come on kid, you’re going to the Paramount to sing with me’,” he recalled, referring to New York city’s famous Paramount Theatre, where Bennett often sang on the same stage as Frank Sinatra – who called a young Bennett the “best singer in the business”.
Troubled times ...
and the turning point
But the rock invasion of the mid-1960s preceded a dark decade in Bennett’s career. Jazz was considered outdated and Bennett was forced by Clive Davis, president of his record company at the time, to record two ill-fated pop-rock albums which left him so disgusted he decided to leave the label.
“Young people are absolutely programmed,” he once said. “They’re still being told, ‘This is your music, and that other stuff is for your parents’.” He also added that all Grammys might as well go to the distributors rather than the artistes.
Bennett stuck stubbornly to his guns throughout the 1970s – with little success. He created his own label, Improv, to record the music he wanted, but it soon went bust with no distributor willing to come on board.
At one point, he was reportedly shut out from Las Vegas. He was also struggling financially, and had a near-fatal cocaine overdose in 1979 that became a turning point in his career.
He reached out to his son Danny, who became his manager and helped sort out his financial affairs and started booking Bennett in colleges and smaller theatres where his artistry could be fully appreciated.
Danny believed that younger audiences would fall in love with the traditional jazz his father embodied – if only they gave it a chance – and set about booking him on shows like The Late Show With David Letterman in the 1990s. He would even do an MTV Unplugged concert later on in 1994.
“If the music is good, then that’s all that counts,” he said. “A good song written 50 years ago sounds like it was written yesterday – that’s what makes it a standard. Good songs from whatever era will always rise to the top.
“I am not a fan of categories or demographics,” he added. “(Italian conductor Arturo) Toscanini said music is either good or it isn’t – it’s not someone’s opinion.”
Even if you asked him now what he considers the popular songs of today, his answer is, “Anything written by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, The Gershwins … there are just so many of them.”
All that jazz
Now closing in on the big 9-0, Bennett is still as active as ever. His three Duets albums cleverly took advantage of the fact that even the biggest pop stars of today would jump at the chance to record with Tony Bennett, so the man himself can continue to keep his timeless art in vogue.
Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Michael Buble, Carrie Underwood and Mariah Carey are just some of the names he’s recorded with recently. But what about his favourite collaboration of all time?
“There are so many, but I have to say recording Body And Soul with Amy Winehouse will always be a very special memory for me. She was a true jazz singer and a genius at improvisation. It was so tragic to lose her at such a young age.”
Recalling his struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, Bennett’s advice for young jazz artistes is to do what he did – just tough it out.
“Jazz music is based on love. It’s never been about being commercial, making a lot of money or playing stadiums; which is why it is still such a pure form of music
“Most jazz artistes I know have a regular job to support themselves. It’s very tough for them but I think if you have a passion for something, then you have to go for it as much as possible,” he said.
And if you want to know what passion really is, take a cue from Tony Bennett.
“You know, I still get ‘butterflies’ before every show, which, I had learned from Frank Sinatra, is a good thing. He once told me backstage at the Paramount Theatre that being nervous shows that you care, and the audience will sense that you care and they will be on your side. So, I am glad I still have the butterflies.”
> Tickets for Tony Bennett Live in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 9 at Plenary Hall, KLCC, are available from www.ticketpro.com.my. For more info, call 03-7880 7999.
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