Guest of Honor

Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap’s Tribute to a Great American Composer

The legendary crooner and top jazz pianist sing the praises of Jerome Kern, reflect on artistic satisfaction, and recall an epic concert that maybe didn't have to be quite so epic.

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Image courtesy of Sony Music

Bill Charlap is one of the top jazz pianists and bandleaders in America. He’s put out two Grammy-nominated albums. And Tony Bennett… well, in his almost 70 years as a musician, he’s released over 70 albums, won 18 Grammysa couple of Emmys, was a Kennedy Center honoree, and remains one of the greatest singers ever of American jazz and pop standards. No Oscar yet, but hey, the night is young.

He and Charlap just released “Silver Lining,” an album of songs by the great composer Jerome Kern. When Rico spoke to the two of them, he first asked Tony why he wanted to devote a whole record to Kern.

Tony Bennett: Well, he was the composer that inspired all the other composers at a great moment in American music, when they all wrote one great song after another for theater, and for early talking films. And those songs really will last forever, and it’s the biggest calling card for any American in any other foreign country. They adore American songs.

Bill Charlap: Like Tony says, Jerome Kern is the angel at the top of the tree for all the great popular writers. In fact, he was born around 1885. Now, Gershwin and Richard Rodgers were born right at the turn of the century, so he was kind of their father figure.

And he was really the first to really write American music. It didn’t sound like light opera. It’s direct. It’s not being fussy. It’s the way that we speak.

Rico Gagliano: Well, that’s a great excuse to get a song in here. Which of these tunes, when you hatched the idea for this album, was the first song that you knew you had to do?

Bill Charlap: Perhaps it was “All The Things You Are.”

Rico Gagliano: So, why that song, Tony? Why was that important for you to record?

Tony Bennett: Well, anytime I’ve ever met a great jazz musician, I’ve found out through the years that they were all playing that one song more than any other song. It’s really their favorite song to improvise on.

Rico Gagliano: Why do you think that is?

Tony Bennett: And… I never get tired of it. Whenever I hear it, I just adore the way that song was written.

Bill Charlap: It’s a perfect melding of lyrics and melody. The lyrics just drip off the melody. Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern.

Rico Gagliano: I also very much appreciate how spare and quiet your treatment of it is. That’s typical of all the songs on this record. And I feel like something that a lot of times keeps younger audiences from appreciating this kind of music is that it can be the opposite. You know, it’s kind of over-produced; it can be syrupy-sounding.

Both of you, to what extent do you think about the audience? Either satisfying your long-time fans or reaching out to new audiences?

Bill Charlap: You’re always satisfying yourself first, and by doing that, you satisfy your audience. But it’s very important, also, to communicate. We want to tell a story to the audience. So communication is vital, but that comes naturally when you’re being honest with who you are.

Tony Bennett: All I’ve ever tried to do is make people feel good. Because press and television, they always kind of bring out something morbid that happened today [laughs], and I just try to make everybody enjoy themselves and walk out saying, “Boy, I really had fun! I really enjoyed that tonight!”

If I could do that, I feel successful about what I’m doing.

Rico Gagliano: Although, there was a long period in the ’60s and ’70s where your style of music was out of fashion. I know your label made you do an album of covers of rock tunes, and… which I understand made you literally–

Tony Bennett: Well, you know, when you have to compete with four chords, and three of them are wrong, you know, you just have to be patient until it goes away somehow!

Rico Gagliano: [Laughs.] I mean, the way that I’ve heard this described is that recording rock for you made you literally, physically sick.

Tony Bennett: Well, I didn’t do it. Funny enough, I just left Columbia for half a second. I moved to England to get away from it for about three years, and just did my own thing with the greatest orchestrator of all time, Robert Farnon, and I made four albums with him. And it all paid off. Many years later, those recordings and films are starting to sell for me.

Rico Gagliano: Since we’re talking about your great work of the ’60s, I hope you don’t mind if I mention another. This would be your Carnegie Hall performance in 1962, which I know your fans consider one of the great moments of your career.

Carnegie Hall only started allowing pop concerts the previous year, so you, apparently, pulled out all the stops. I looked it up. You performed 44 songs that night, a huge range of styles. It lasted hours. What do you remember of that performance?

Tony Bennett: Well, Carnegie Hall… some of the greatest concerts that ever happened, happened in Carnegie Hall. It was the biggest moment of my life, as a young artist, and I remember with Ralph Sharon — who accompanied me — we were playing in Chicago, and spent day after day trying to put the shows together.

And I loved it. And I loved the way it sounded. But what I found out a few years later is that I did too many songs that one night [laughs]. It’s too much for the audience, you know? I finally learned what to leave out, not what to put in.

Rico Gagliano: You kind of burned them out by the end of the evening? They’re like, “Enough artistry, please!”

Bill Charlap: Well, I don’t know. That’s still a pretty classic performance, and every song is great but…

Tony Bennett: …Less is more.

Rico Gagliano: Here’s our last couple of questions that we ask to everyone on the show, and the first one is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Tony Bennett: I haven’t got an answer for that. I wouldn’t know what to say.

Rico Gagliano: I would think–

Tony Bennett: I’d probably walk away!

Rico Gagliano: I would think it would be, “Could you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco?'”

Tony Bennett: What’s wrong with that? That’s the greatest song that ever happened to me.

Rico Gagliano: You’re not tired of it yet?

Tony Bennett: I love the city. I adore San Francisco, the whole city. It’s beautiful!

Rico Gagliano: Of course.

Tony Bennett: It’s one of the best things that ever happened to America!

Rico Gagliano: I’m sure San Francisco’s happy to hear it, but you’re not at all tired of that tune?

Tony Bennett: I never get tired of singing that. I never get tired of singing that. You might get tired of listening to it, but I never get tired of that song.

Rico Gagliano: All right, get ready for a whole bunch of people, now, to ask you to sing it at the next party you go to.

Tony Bennett: No they don’t ask — at any party, no one asks me to sing, and I don’t sing at a party. I just enjoy myself.

Rico Gagliano: Really?  Even if there’s a piano there and someone starts playing a tune? What if Bill starts up a tune?

Tony Bennett: Well, it’s all according to who’s on the piano, and what people are there that night!

Bill Charlap: The main thing I don’t want to be asked is if I’m going to be having anything that’s gluten-free.

Rico Gagliano: [laughing] You’re a fan of the gluten, are you?

Bill Charlap: I am! I have as much gluten as possible.

Rico Gagliano: All right. Let’s move onto our final question, which is: tell us something we don’t know. And this can be about yourself or any piece of trivia. Maybe musical? Actually, my father, right before I did this interview — he, by the way, is a huge fan of both of you, to an almost frightening degree — he said, Tony, his favorite performance of yours is the song “This Funny World” by Rodgers and Hart, which I’m told is a pretty unusual tune. Is there anything…

Tony Bennett: [Sings a line from the song] “This funny world/will laugh at the things that you care for…” Your father has great taste! Believe me, listen to him instead of rock ‘n’ roll.

[Ed. note: For a list of great Bennett tunes compiled by both the DPD Dads — Frank Gagliano and Francis Newnam — click here]