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‘Life is a gift’: Bill Charlap remembers Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap's new album, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, is out now.
Courtesy of the artist
Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap's new album, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, is out now.

The first time I met Tony Bennett, I was playing solo piano at a club called J's at 97th Street and Broadway. Tony came in with Helen Keane, who had been Bill Evans’ manager. He listened and he sketched something of me and gave it to me. Of course, I was delighted to meet him. I had grown up on the duo albums that he had made with Bill Evans, among many other jazz-oriented recordings he did like Bennett and Basie, and Carnegie Hall, and things with the drummers like Art Blakey and Billy Exiner and all of that.

Those records by Tony and Bill are masterpieces. I remember being given those recordings by my teacher, Jack Reilly. He gave me a cassette. On the cassette it said Bill and Tony on one side, Bartok Third Piano Concerto on the other. I remember it very well, because Jack said, “When you listen to these, these are like Mahler songs, the relationship between the accompaniment and the vocal.”

I think the next time I saw him was when I was playing with Phil Woods at the Blue Note in the mid-90s. I was in the dressing room and the maitre’d came to me and said, “Mr. Bennett's in the house and he'd like to see you.” I went down there and greeted him, and he said, “You know, there are a couple of gigs that Ralph Sharon [Tony’s regular pianist] can't make right now and I'd like you to do a few things with me.”

First of all, I was thrilled because he was just about my favorite singer ever and one of my favorite musicians. I was so moved by the way he would interpret the song. His glorious voice, his incredibly dramatic interpretive skills and the ability to tell the story and put his signature on it. He always talked about doing something that was definitive, a definitive interpretation of the song—something that came from his heart and from his instinct.

In preparing for those shows, I listened to a number of concerts and noticed that things were different from night to night. When Tony would do a set list, it might have 50 songs. It was a lot. I prepared as well as I could and as quickly as I could, because the dates were happening three or four days later. I went straight into the shed, as they say. But, of course, I knew the songs, and once I understood the routines and I understood that there was some looseness to it too, it was automatic, and very natural. He had beautiful time. His phrasing was very extemporaneous. If he would sing something one way one time, he might sing it very differently another time. I knew how many choruses it might be or where a solo might be or that sort of thing, but it was definitely extemporaneous within that structure.

Tony Bennett was a very accomplished painter. He had that sense of design and architecture in what he painted. I believe that he also painted a beautiful line with what he sang, with all the nuance of the brush and the oil paints and all of those beautiful things that were there.

I was never a member of Tony's band, but we were friends and we would perform together from time to time. He told me that he wanted to do an album together of Jerome Kern songs. Of course, I felt that you can't do better than that. Tony Bennett singing Jerome Kern: two iconic forces in American music and some of the greatest songs ever written. As I’ve said many times, in a way Kern is the angel at the top of the tree of American popular songwriters. All the songwriters looked to him. Tony asked me, “Should we do it as a duo album or with your trio, or with two pianos with your wife Renee?” At that point he had come many times to hear my trio with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington. He would even come up on stage to sit in with us.

He also loved hearing Renee [Rosnes] and I play two piano duets together. I said, “Let's do all three of them – duo, trio and with Renee.” Because he was always talking about doing something different or in a new terrain, I thought all of that would keep it fresh, integrated, and in the family. I knew that it would all be of a piece. The resulting album was The Silver Lining, which is under both of our names, and the record won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album. He was in such fantastic form. He was already in his late 80s and singing brilliantly, both technically and interpretively.

 Cover of 'The Silver Lining' by Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap
Cover of 'The Silver Lining' by Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap

Tony understood how to tell a story and how to do it in such a musical way. Underneath that beautiful classic Italian bel canto voice, he was also informed by the singing of Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. Plus he drew on the great instrumentalists who also deeply informed his interpretations. He often told me of how he loved the way that Art Taum made a production of a song. All of those influences are in there when you listen to Tony's singing.

Tony had such great taste in the way he dressed, in the way he painted, in the way he sang, in the repertoire he chose. He possessed all of those brilliant aspects. Yet he was also a true New Yorker, from Astoria, who was from the street. He was a world icon with all the success that goes with that, but he really dug everybody. He wasn’t an elitist. He had a way of walking in the world. I walked through it many times with him, down the city streets, as people called out, “Hey Tony, how you doing?” He handled it with elegance. It was never, “Get away from me.” Never. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He was always warm and he always had time for people. He wasn’t looking for attention either. It was just Tony, that guy who’s on the street where you live.

Tony always talked about how much it was a gift to be alive, how he loved life, how he loved art, how he loved. He felt blessed. When he would talk about somebody in his past, like, “Fred Astaire told me this” or “Judy Garland told me that”, … it's almost surreal because these are such icons. But it was real life for him. These were the people in his life who had touched him deeply. Of course, he was absolutely standing shoulder to shoulder with these iconic forces. He was one himself. But there was always that feeling of “Wow, I can't believe this, I feel so lucky.” There was real humility in the essence of who he was. He didn’t live in the past. The feeling around Tony was that it was always, “Let's go on to the next day.”

Tony loved to share his passion for art with his friends. I remember we were in Washington, DC. for Carol Burnett winning the Mark Twain Prize for comedy. There were all kinds of superstars on that show. Tony came out, with just me at the piano, and he sang “The Way You Look Tonight.” He stood there and looked up at Carol in the box and sang his heart out straight to her. That was really quite a beautiful moment. But I remember earlier that same day he said, “You know, at the Phillips Collection, there's a beautiful Van Gogh exhibit. We've got to go. Do you want to go?” Of course I went. He had such a passion for life. He wasn't just putting his feet up during the day. He couldn't wait to get over there and see what was happening there. And he was generous enough to go over there with his friend. Over the years he taught me so much about the great painters whom he admired, like John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Anders Zorn.

Audiences adored him, and he adored them back right. They could feel the genuineness of that love. Man, could he sing. And, boy, did he sound great. What a God given instrument. The way he developed it and the way he sang. It was just so soulful. That's all there is to it. And it sounded so distinctly him. That's what you want. With some singular artists, you can name them in just one note. You know it’s Tony Bennett in just one note, just like Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong. One note. It could only be the one and only Tony Bennett.

His longevity was remarkable. He was still at the very height of his powers for a very, very long time. That’s a great inspiration for any of us.

At the bottom line, Tony Bennett loved life. He always felt life was a gift. He lived it that way. God bless him. I feel very lucky to have known him. Tony Bennett is a part of every note I play, for the rest of my life.

(as told to Lee Mergner)

Grammy award winning pianist Bill Charlap has performed with many of the leading artists of our time including Phil Woods, Tony Bennett, Gerry Mulligan, Wynton Marsalis, Freddy Cole and Houston Person. Born in New York City, Charlap began playing the piano at age three. His father was Broadway composer Moose Charlap, whose credits include Peter Pan, and his mother is singer Sandy Stewart, who toured with Benny Goodman, and was a regular on the Perry Como show. She earned a 1963 Grammy nomination for her recording of “My Coloring Book." In 2005, Charlap and Stewart released the acclaimed CD, Love Is Here To Stay (Blue Note). In 1997, Charlap formed his trio with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, now recognized as one of the leading groups in jazz.