After Tony Bennett and I spent a few minutes catching up at his art studio two weeks ago, we sat down on a sofa to chat for The Wall Street Journal (go here) about Cheek to Cheek, his new duet album with Lady Gaga (go here). Ten minutes into our conversation, I asked him a question that for many jazz fans is the elephant in the room:
"No, no, I don't think that's true," he said. "Lady's a real jazz singer—an improviser who sings these songs differently each time we do them. If we tour, I think many people are going to say, 'Wow, we had no idea she could sing that well.' Look, jazz is so special—I've always wanted to let young people know about it. The world loves jazz, more so than here in most cases. When Lady finished her concert in Japan recently, 40,000 fans were screaming and she said, 'I'll be back and it will be all jazz next time.' That's my dream—to bring jazz out so it won't be forgotten."
So while this partnership between an 88-year-old jazz and pop icon and a 28-year-old phenomenon is the merging of two fascinating recording artists and performers, this is also about jazz's cultural longevity. And the approach is really quite radical: to preserve jazz, you don't need to sell it like soap or dress up in suits and ties; you merely have to expose more young people to it through high-profile ambassadors who love it and want to share the passion. The music will do the rest.
On Friday, I interviewed Lady Gaga by phone from Dubai (go here). We talked about her passion for jazz (she boxes while Ella Fitzgerald is playing), her love of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and why Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn have been meaningful to her since age 14. Then I asked her the question that's probably on most jazz fans' minds:
"Some may think your interest in jazz is just a fling, that it's just a phase. True?"
"Not at all," she said from the side of the road in Dubai, where she asked her driver to pull over for better phone reception. "I'm planning to release one jazz album a year. I think I will continue to do that forever. I enjoy it so much. I want to spread it to all of my fans."
Let's take two steps back, if we may, for some perspective. The music industry has changed radically in the past five years. If you're a close reader of Billboard as I am, then you know that the way top artists make their living today isn't by recording albums but by touring. You only have to check the concert grosses in the magazine's BoxScore chart to see where the clef signs meet the road. Tony has been recording with young talent since 1994 and knows that for jazz and pop—our music—to endure, you have to expose young people to its virtues, and the best place to do that is on TV or live in concert. All those cell phone pictures and blurry performance YouTubes? Think of it as marketing.
Lady Gaga—whom I found highly articulate, passionate and open when we spoke—works extremely hard and will be touring steadily through Thanksgiving before heading home to the U.S. Just listening to her talk about the road is exhausting. Personally, I sensed a loneliness in her voice, a sadness and fatigue with the pop industry, which she said thrives today on scandal, hype and working talent to the bone to cover costs. My guess is that part of Lady's proclivity for revolving fashion-forward looks and costume changes is art along the lines of photographer Cindy Sherman. But it's also a way for Lady to create an ever-shifting series of personalities so that her original self can hide out in disguise. It's hard to blame her.
But inside this dollhouse of concerts, photo shoots and tabloid stories is a desire on her part to get real, to perform music that actually satisfies her and makes her feel artistically special. Enter Tony Bennett.
Let's also understand something. If we climb 40,000 feet and look down on the eight-decade period following the end of World War II, here's what we find: Jazz and swing come out of the war intact but new markets and trends demand new music. So jazz grows an R&B branch while swing evolves into pop and Easy Listening. By the mid-1950s, pop flip-flops, becoming less about big bands and more about vocalists, while R&B goes mainstream as rock and roll.
This brings us to 1964, when the explosive global popularity of the Beatles and those who followed threw traditional Songbook pop into virtual darkness—which at this point in time most effected pop vocalists. Many artists, including Tony, faded fast by the end of the decade into a nightmarish oblivion, unsure of what just happened and what they're supposed to do to earn a living when no one at their record companies will take their calls.
Then in 1993, Danny Bennett, Tony's son and manager since 1979, urged him to take a big risk. Aware that the CD age presented Tony with an opportunity, he wrangled Tony a gig presenting at the MTV Video Music Awards with two of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As a gag, Tony was urged to dress wildly, like one of the Peppers, which meant black shorts, a black short-sleeved shirt, a gray scarf, over-sized white-rimmed sunglasses and a stovepipe hat. Long story short, the move payed off. Tony goofed around on stage in keeping with the script, the audience chanted his name and rock royalty lined up after to meet him.
Overnight, Tony was reborn as rock's father figure, the only adult willing to listen younger artists and treat them as worthy heirs. And for the next 20 years—from "MTV Unplugged" in 1994 to "Duets II" in 2011 and beyond—Tony has brought the American Songbook and the art of street singing to young music fans. This began before Rod Stewart's successful Songbook series that started in 2001 and the tidal wave of duet albums that today seem to be coming out of the woodwork. And unlike Frank Sinatra's duet albums, in which the parts were phoned in, Tony recorded his in the studio with his young partners, further winning their respect and praise. Only Linda Ronstadt and Harry Nilsson precede Tony in stirring the Songbook coals among young listeners. But these were kids. No other artist of Tony's generation ever had the wherewithal or credibility to take traditional pop from the '50s and '60s and make it relevant today.
My point is this: What Tony is doing is actually quite fascinating. It's payback time. For years, the Beatles and hard rock slashed his earning power. Now, he's on a mission to close the rock gap—to haul the pre-Beatles pop era a little closer to today's world so that young people know that jazz and pop existed before the Fab Four and that there's merit to the music and those who pioneered it between 1955 and 1964.
As for Lady Gaga, she is on the record now as being committed to jazz and, if her words mean anything, she will pick up the torch and do her part to expose young audiences to the music. Let's face it, as noble and as tireless as Jazz at Lincoln Center and other jazz institutions are, they simply don't have the candle power or influence that Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett do among the world's young music listeners. This isn't a knock. These institutions do as much as they can and perform a valuable service.
At this point, some may protest that what Tony and Lady are talking about isn't jazz at all—it's pop with a snappy beat. Maybe so. But I can tell you from experience that before I found my way into jazz, I knew every single pop standard and beyond by listening endlessly to big band records of the 1930s and '40s. The Songbook is the gateway to an intelligent understanding of jazz. Just ask Sonny Rollins. For example, to have a finer understanding of jazz, Frank Sinatra's recordings with Tommy Dorsey between 1940 and '42 are required listening, not to mention his Columbia years.
So, the more that can be done to fan the flames of the American Songbook in the youth market, the greater the odds that this music won't be lost and young audiences will eventually find their way to Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Bobby Brookmeyer—particularly as they age and become more curious and introspective. At least that's what Tony is thinking, and I think his crusade is admirable. After all, he could simply paint and stroll the streets of Florence if he wanted to at this point in his career.
Whether or not you love Tony and Lady's new album "Cheek to Cheek" and no matter what you think of Lady's voice, it's my belief that this album will be seen as a watershed moment in jazz and jazz-pop preservation. If we're being frank, I think it's rather cool that the music is being championed by a 28-year-old who knows how to hold the world's attention and an 88-year-old who had his first pop hit in 1951. Sort of hard to chastise Tony or Lady for bonding and joining forces when the cause is such a grand one. The real winner ultimately will be jazz. Much to Tony's delight.
I'll be reviewing the new album next week when it's available. I've obviously listened to it inside and out at this point, but it's my policy to avoid writing on albums until they're available for download and purchase. Doing so earlier just frustrates JazzWax readers.
JazzWax clips: Here's Tony in 1993 presenting at the MTV Video Music Awards with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Be sure you're sitting down when you view. Move the bar to 2:14 if you want just the presentation...
Here's Tony and Lady singing I Can't Give You Anything But Love...
And here's Lady and Tony singing Anyting Goes...