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‘It was always a ride in the best sense’: Bill Charlap on Tony Bennett who is being honored by Jazz at Lincoln Center

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.

When Jazz At Lincoln Center holds its annual Gala on April 17th they're celebrating Tony Bennett and the pianist who accompanied him on some of last, best recordings. Bill Charlap, recipient of this year's Award for Artistic Excellence, has been turning out excellent work at the piano since his NYC childhood. Tony Bennett and Bill went back almost that far, and no one speaks more articulately and eloquently about Tony's legendary musicianship and style. We also talk about his many years as artistic director of Jazz in July at the 92nd Street Y and his very talented successor; his many years as director of jazz studies at William Paterson University; his matrimonial and musical partnership with pianist Renee Rosnes; and, his new (live!) album and the very special place where it was recorded. Having known Bill and enjoyed his work for so many years, it was a genuine "front porch" conversation.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Brian Delp: You went back fairly far with Tony Bennett.

Bill Charlap: Yes, we were friends for many, many years,

But long before you actually started recording with him.

Well, that's true. I remember him coming into a place that I was playing solo piano with Helen Keane, who had been Bill Evans’ manager. And that was the first time that we met. We struck up a friendship very quickly and we were friends for over 30 years.

Pretty much for the rest of his life. The first album you played with Tony Bennett. would that be The Silver Lining or was there something before that?

No, actually it was an album that I made of Hoagy Carmichael songs called Stardust. On that album was my trio of Kenny Washington and Peter Washington. We had some very special guests that included the great Frank Wess, Jim Hall. Shirley Horn and Tony Bennett, who sang “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” He put his inimitable stamp on it. Everything that he sung was the red carpet for the composer, and it always had his signature of depth and storytelling and warmth and, of course, that voice which you recognize instantly and goes straight to your solar plexus.

I couldn't agree more. That is absolutely true. Whenever I listen to Tony Bennett, he dug down deep in everything that he was singing, every single time too, without exception.

That's true. Something I remember very well is that I was playing a date with him in a very large hall. It was a large enough event where they actually had two screens like they have at the baseball games, so you can see the jumbotron. The funny thing is from the piano, one of those screens was like looking up at the top of a skyscraper and I could see him in real closeup. Now what I'm getting at is he was singing one of his iconic songs, something like “The Good Life.” I think that's what the song was. I looked up at the screen and I saw that his eyes were closed and he was reaching so deeply interiorly and the look of it was poetic. Of course, how he was singing was poetic. And what struck me at that moment is the deeper he reaches down, the further it goes out like the roots of a tree. The deeper that they go into the ground, the higher that the tree can grow. It was like he was shooting out to the fifth tier and the last row, but straight from the heart. And that was one of the gifts that Tony Bennett had in that he could make it feel like in a hall of 30,000 people that he was singing just to you. And indeed he was.

How is that when you're actually on stage and playing with him? What is the feeling of that when you're doing that?

Well, Tony was a jazz musician in the sense that he was always relating to the musicians that he was playing with. What you played, he would absolutely respond to it. He didn't just have a set way of doing things and he also would take risks and take you somewhere else. It was always a dance and it was always a very extemporaneous dance. And there was always a feeling of, “Man, let's just take the risk and jump into the deep end of the pool.” It was always a ride in the best sense and the feeling that we love so much as jazz musicians, which is that, well, it only happens once.

I was just wondering how intimidating that must've been. If you, especially if you were coming in basically after he stopped performing with Ralph Sharon and the fact that, How many decades did Ralph Sharon serve as his musical director for a very long time, maybe about 50 years or something like that?

I knew that imitating anybody else who had ever worked with him was probably a mistake and that's probably a mistake anytime. That doesn't mean you're not influenced and it doesn't mean that you don't have talent. People who are the paradigm for you, who you may look to and learn from, in some ways you really try to step into their shoes, but you're still going to come out yourself. To answer your question, I never felt nervous because there was such a joy in the extemporaneous moment that, “Let's make it up right now and let's put all of our hearts and souls and risk into that moment.” Tony would take you away with that right away. So I never felt nervous. I always felt lifted.

You never had any problems, of course, blending in with all of the other musicians that he utilized throughout his career.

He was a brilliant listener and remember, Tony Bennett was also a very accomplished painter. So there was something about form and structure and color and laying on the paint and being able to step away and hear the whole greater than its parts that a painter needs to do. And that any musician who is not just dealing with their own small playground, but playing with the other players they're playing with, and indeed, with the canvas of silence, has to do.

The gala is celebrating Tony Bennett, of course, unfortunately, because he passed last summer. I think they would probably be doing that anyway, to be honest with you.

Yes, that would make absolute sense. His vitality was with him throughout his entire life, and he was a very important part of jazz at Lincoln center. of course he was a champion of jazz and jazz musicians, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong. Billy holiday, Charlie Parker. I have a painting of Charlie Parker in my office that Tony Bennett did.

I was going to ask you if you had any of Tony's works, either in your home or in your office?

I do. there's that one and also a very beautiful pastel that he did of me, of the cover of the very first record of my now 27-year-old trio of Kenny Washington and Peter Washington. The album is called All Through the Night. Yes. And I have this lovely pastel that he did of the cover of that album. and he did many other sketches and watercolors and things that were printed and shown in other places. If I'm not mistaken, some of these are going to be on display. at the annual gala on April 17.

It's my understanding that there are going to be items from his household that are going to be on display for the gala, which I'm sure will be wonderful. Here is a really wonderful aspect of this gala: The fact that you are being given the award for artistic excellence.

Now, a couple of other, very accomplished West Coast individuals I know are receiving the Ed Bradley award for a jazz leadership, Tim Jackson, for instance, from the Monterey jazz festival, etc..  But you are being granted the award for artistic excellence, which I'm thoroughly behind by the way. Is this the first presentation of this award or is this an ongoing thing?

No, I believe it's been given to such incredible people as Ahmad Jamal, Terence Blanchard, Vince Giordano, Jon Batiste. What can I say? I'm deeply touched and moved to be recognized in this way by Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, and the community. There's nothing else to say. I was so moved to hear this and it's a great honor.

It’s well deserved, I assure you. After all, the reason that you are here with us at WBGO today is because you brought in your incredibly tight and swinging student ensemble from William Paterson University, where you have been the Director of Jazz Studies for the last nine years.

Once again, you are coming after some incredible people who have had that particular position, like you did at the 92nd Street Y.  For what, almost 20 years, you were the artistic director of Jazz in July. And you were coming immediately after people like Dick Hyman, who is your cousin, if I'm not mistaken.

That's right. My distant cousin on my father's side. They were a Charlap-Hyman, hyphenated a couple of generations ago. So yes, very close and a great mentor of mine. And it continues. We keep passing it on. Taking it over for me this year is the great Aaron Diehl. He's going to be taking over Jazz in July. I'm absolutely delighted to be passing the torch to Aaron Diehl.

Just as long as you're not ready to pass the torch at William Paterson yet.

Absolutely not. I love being there and I'm so proud of the students there and the incredible work they do. You will hear some of what they did today being broadcast on WBGO. We had a beautiful quintet that was made up of some of our wonderful students. They walked in and they played everything in a first take and they listened so beautifully to each other and they were swinging and elegant and made beautiful sounds individually and collectively. They played with poise and great feeling and risk and all of the things that we look for in the music. Such maturity that they played with. I was so proud of them.

I'm so delighted to be Director of Jazz Studies at William Paterson University and work alongside my partner there, Dr. David Demsey, who is the Coordinator of Jazz Studies, an incredible musician and human being and educator. I do come from an incredible line of directors of jazz studies. The people who are my predecessors are Thad Jones. Rufus Reid, whom we honored at the William Patterson University Gala last year, and the great James Williams and the great Mulgrew Miller. All I can say is I humbly try to walk in their path, in my own way.

I love working with the students there who are all amazing. Such great human beings and individuals. And so deeply committed to the art of this music and all have their own original story to tell. And it is so lifting to witness them as they develop and expand their vision of the music, their ability to play and to listen to each other and as they grow as artists, and it's an honor to be a part of their journey.

They're also incredibly talented, and it's not just one particular class either. That's year after year after year after year. Going back to when I first arrived at WBGO and the East Coast in 1995, I have seen one amazing class of musicians come out of William Paterson after another. And so many of them actually achieved a career in this music, which is hard enough. Carl Allen, Johnathan Blake, Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart, Jim Rotundi. All of these incredible musicians.

There are many others. I'm very proud of all the students. It's wonderful to be there.

You mentioned All Through the Night, your first recording with Peter Washington and jazz maniac Kenny Washington. That was the first album of that trio ever. It was also the first album that you issued after I had moved here. And in those days I was hosting a Jazz After Hours show. I played the title track from that album all the time. And now whenever I hear “All Through the Night” in my head, it's that version. Thank you. And having, of course, seen that same trio, my wife Susan and I have seen you and Peter and Kenny perform many times and we're always delighted by it. In fact, you remind me of my favorite restaurant here in downtown New York where I've never had a bad meal ever. Not even a mediocre one. You guys are that restaurant. You always bring it to the top level every single time I watch you perform.

I don't have a choice but to try with Kenny Washington and Peter Washington.

That's true. My father used to say water seeks its own level.

I will tell you this—the chemistry that we have together was instant. If you ever want to hear the very first time we played together, drop the needle on All Through the Night. What's interesting about that is the chemistry is already there. It already sounds like the collective chemistry that we have with the three of us. So I'm proud of that. That makes me feel very good.

Your most recent album with the trio is Street of Dreams.  Do you have anything new in the works since that was about three or four years ago?

Yes, we certainly do. We have a new album that's going to be coming out probably right before September. It's apropos because we always do two weeks at the Village Vanguard right after Labor Day. This was recorded at the Village Vanguard last September. I'm very happy about how this one came out, particularly in that it's extremely spontaneous. It was so beautifully recorded by James Farber, who is one of the great engineers of all time in this music. It was mastered by the great Mark Wilder, one of the great mastering engineers. The sound is so good, it captures the Vanguard. It captures all of our individual and collective sounds. I'm looking forward to this album coming out. We've just finished all the post-production very recently and chose the takes. Pretty much one of the sets from Saturday night is what you're going to hear.

It’s a great trio swinging on most hallowed ground. What is the title of the album?

It’s called And Then Again. I'll tell you why that is. And then again, we're at the Village Vanguard. And then again, we're playing another chorus and another chorus because it's what we do. It happens to be one of the pieces on the album. And that piece is a blues, written by the man whom I feel is the premier jazz pianist in the world today. And that's Kenny Barron. He was gracious enough to allow me to use that as the title for the album.

Are you still on Blue Note?

Yes, I am. I love working with Blue Note and Don Was and Justin Seltzer and all of the people there at Blue Note. It really is still the pinnacle of a jazz record label and everything that that means.

Well, their slogan is the finest in jazz is 1939. I think that says it all. Do you feel like you've reached a pinnacle now, Bill, with this award? With all of your activities, you and your wife, Renee Rosnes, are constantly busy.

She's the pinnacle. Let me tell you, she is just the absolute top. Renee is such an unbelievable composer and pianist and bandleader and partner. We love playing two pianos together. I should mention that on The Silver Lining, the record I made with Tony Bennett, which is all Jerome Kern songs. I remember Tony calling me up and saying, “Hey, should we do it as a duo, just piano and voice? Or with your trio with Kenny and Peter? Or should we do it as a duo with you and Renee and me?” Because he loved the duo piano of me and Renee playing together, which he had heard. I said, “Well, let's do all of them because they will all be within the family and all be different orchestrations.”

Not everybody knows that there are four tracks on The Silver Lining, which feature Renee and me, two pianos. It's just that when we play together, there's no duel in our duo piano. It's very transparent, it's more marital and musical harmony and less clashing and dueling.

I'll put it to you this way. We called the album that we made uble Portrait. I remember talking to Alan Bergman, the great lyricist, who's a dear friend of mine and talking about possibilities of titles / We didn't use this one, but we may use it another time. And he said, perfectly, “How about In the Key of Us?” Which is what we do. It really becomes both of us, but considering how many songs he wrote with his wife, Marilyn, I think there's no better authority than that. They are the top and two of my dearest friends ever. Of course, Marilyn is gone now, but I learned so much from them.

But you asked me, am I at this work pinnacle? No, not at all. It's just on a journey. I'm glad to hear that amazed to feel that it's lovely to be witnessed and to be recognized. But everything that we do in our music is about living in the moment, trying not to think about the next note you're going to play and trying to let go of the note you just played.

That means also, let's say you have a really great set one night. Leave that alone. Let's say you have a night that you felt you had to work a little harder. Leave that alone. Don't carry any of that with you. Try to start fresh every day. And that's one of the things that we have in our music that we try to cultivate.

The ability to come from a place of the heart knows everything the head knows, so we train the head and we trust the heart. When I hear genius improvisers like Steve Nelson, for instance, play on a piece that I've heard him play often, I get the chance to do that because he's often been a member of Renee's quartet. I will hear him from night to night approaching a piece of music I've heard the night before and I tell you every night it is a perfectly wrought and structured solo. Yet it's completely different from the night before. I've learned a lot from watching him and listening to him. I've learned a lot about what I would like to be able to do. I think he's one of the grand masters alive today.

As are you.

Thank you.


This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Delp has been a member of WBGO’s on-air team for more than two decades, most-recently as the long-time host of Jazz After Hours. He has emceed at nearly every major jazz venue in the New York City area and hosted a portion of New York City’s City Parks Foundation’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival over several summers.