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Tony Bennett: A Hero's Journey in Authenticity

Photo credit: Edd Westmacott

Christine Passarella By

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This country's diversity has inspired me to appreciate the fact that people everywhere have each other in common; we truly are all neighbors.
—Tony Bennett

The Bennett Effect

Jazz singer Tony Bennett always looms large in my mind because of the elegant way he artistically embraces humanity. Awareness of Tony Bennett came my way when his music greeted me as a child, especially on Sunday during Italian American family dinners. With the delicious sauce covered ravioli and crisp Italian bread, we also had the vital ingredient of great music. The voices of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, and Peggy Lee flowed throughout the house, and of course, the selections included Tony Bennett. Tony's songs seemed to always equate to love and tenderness for me since my childhood in Mill Basin, Brooklyn. With Tony's music on the stereo, my dad taught me how to dance when I was a little girl. I would stand on his shoes and we would move around to swinging jazz music.

One lingering memory that I hold dear was a day I saw Tony Bennett live on an open field in Brooklyn, sitting with my mother and my baby daughter on lawn chairs listening to Tony alfresco in the 1980s. Seeing him live felt like watching an uncle embracing me and my mom, as his music helped us remember my father, my mom's one and only love. My mother was still in shock from becoming a widow too soon, losing dad to a battle with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I remember seeing her eyes fill up with tears as Tony's voice reached her, longing for her husband, her companion since she was 17 years old. I treasure that healing experience, remembering that day out on the fresh green grass as dusk became a starlit evening, because somehow Tony Bennett sent us a message of love, telling us everything will be alright. We did not personally know Bennett but in his crooning voice, he told us he knew us, because he lived his life in awareness, living in the now, valuing each day in front of him. His music that day transcended hope and my mom and I caught it, perhaps my baby daughter did too.

In all these days past and present, I can listen to Bennett for hours as he sings words that create a loving-kindness, a tapestry for my heart. Lyrics like, "the shadow of your smile, a teardrop kissed your lips and so did I... now when I remember spring, all the joy that all love can bring, I will be remembering the shadow of your smile... the very thought of you and I forget to do the little ordinary things... you will never know how slow the moments go until I am near to you... the very thought of you my love... It had to be you, I wandered around and finally found the somebody who could make me be blue, could make me be true... it had to be you... it had to be you, wonderful you," Tony speaks to all of us who have our arms open for tenderness, sweetness and a loving life. One of the songs that deeply resonated with me is his collaboration with pianist extraordinaire Bill Evans, "Make Someone Happy." This song speaks to the essence of being alive. It seems to be the beginning of an answer to the meditative question; "What am I here for?"

Bennett's voice is the human heart sparkling through whether in joy or heartache he makes being alive a recognizable miracle. So many beautiful great songs he exquisitely selected to sing in his repertoire with intention and conviction to express his personal emotions knowing his love would connect to our love. What a treasure he is, an American masterpiece. Tony Bennett has won 17 Grammy Awards and multiple Emmy Awards, he persevered for decades because his art connects to his love of humanity.

Tony's Upbringing

Anthony Dominick Benedetto born August 3, 1926, grew up in Astoria, Queens during the Depression. His father was an Italian immigrant who once sang in his childhood southern Italian village in Reggio Calabria. The gift of song was in the Benedetto DNA. When Tony's grandfather had to select a neighborhood to raise his young family in America he would firmly settle on Astoria, Queens because it offered a diversity of people from all different cultures. The Benedetto's came from a close family in which the children were encouraged in their pursuits. When Tony was a child, his parents owned a grocery store. He learned from his parents and grandparents the value of working with dedication and always doing your best work. He came from a magnificent and supportive family. Tragedy hit the family hard when his father died from complications of Rheumatic Fever. I shuddered when I learned this fact. That was the same illness that weakened my own mother, although she lived a long life, the threat of a weak heart haunted her health and it was indeed the ramifications from that same childhood illness that ended her life. For Tony, he would not have his precious father in his life past ten years old. He watched his dear mother figure out how to support him, his brother, and sister, as she now had to go into the factory working as a seamstress, to support her three children. She did this with honor, high standards, and conviction to always do her best work.

Tony attended the High School of the Technical Arts in Manhattan which turned out to be a good fit as it helped cultivate his talents. He refused early on to live someone else's plan for him, and his journey had to include the creative arts. Both his mother and father taught him the value of living an authentic and artistic life. Armed with this philosophy Tony Bennett creates his hero's journey, living the life that speaks to him with honor, courage, and dedication. Excited to sing for family, friends, and in local neighborhood clubs in his youth, he was certain singing would be part of his life.

The Courageous and Enlightened Journey

When Tony was 18, he was drafted into World War II and learned the heartache of the battlefield. Bennett would utilize his courage and integrity to get through the difficult hellish combat he was drafted into. During those years Tony was part of a troop that would free a concentration camp of suffering people who were held by the Nazis. Tony Bennett is now a pacifist who despises war.

His early arrival overseas would break his heart, but at first, it was not from a combatant enemy but from the disease of racism. Newly overseas, far away from home, Tony was so happy to meet a friend from New York but was soon punished by a superior officer for insisting on being friends with his high school buddy. His friend, Frank Smith was African American and Tony was Italian American. Tony invited his fellow serviceman Frank to have Thanksgiving dinner with him in the mess hall, but the army was segregated and both men were punished for being friends. "When we got to the hall, a red-faced officer came up to me in a fury and screamed, 'Get your gear, you're out of here! I don't like the people you associate with.' 'Are you serious?' I asked. 'He's my friend from school.' But the officer just said, 'I don't care where he's from. Get out.' He took a razor from his pocket and cut my stripes from my shirt, threw them on the ground, and told me I was no longer a corporal; I was being demoted to a private. For a minute I didn't comprehend why he was doing this, but then I realized it was because Frank was African American, and therefore he wasn't allowed in the segregated mess hall," Bennett writes in his book, Life Is A Gift: The Zen of Bennett. Tony never understood why racism existed and embraced all groups of people into his heart and life. He credits his family for raising him to see all people as equals.

Creating Songs with Friends and Navigating the Dissonance from the Music Business

Tony Bennett refused to be shaped by music moguls who wanted to mold gifted artists into what they saw as commodities. Producer Mitch Miller, at Columbia Records, was a man Bennett had to give quite a lot of push back to because Miller tried to take the creative process away from musicians. Miller did not like jazz. This would not sit right with Tony because he was not going to live another man's vision. When Columbia records placed lawyer Clive Davis in the position of company president this posed more dissonance for Tony as he was signed to the label. Clive got involved in directing the signed artists' song choices and tried to insist many of the artists do rock and roll or commercial songs. Tony once overheard a Columbia executive, refer to him with this Italian American ethnic slur, "we have to get rid of that WOP." Clive Davis actually let the great Duke Ellington go because he said he was not selling enough records. Lucky for the listeners these artists stayed strong.

Tony did not agree with the advice of Miller and Davis. Bennett discussed this problem with his good friend the bandleader and pianist Count Bill Basie who advised against following the advice of the corporate executives. He told Bennett, "Why change an apple?" Confirming for Tony he should stick to his belief in singing the jazz songs that he truly loved.

Tony was certain that the music industry would frustrate and exploit musicians. This behavior would stifle the growth of the art of music and he was alarmed because he saw that corporate moguls were now running the industry. In Bennett's view, they had zero talent and suppressed the blossoming of the musicians. Tony never wanted to be trendy, he was set on his own path with standards of excellence, and he knew that the quality would sustain him. He was correct. Tony was a jazz singer but some corporate leaders refused to see him that way because he was white according to Bennett in his fabulous book, Life Is A Gift: The Zen of Bennett . Joyfully he collaborated with other jazz artists during his seven decades plus career who became close to him, many of these superb artists were African American.

Tony Bennett considers some of the most magnificent jazz musicians his loyal friends, they have included luminaries Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Quincy Jones. Bennett surrounded himself with like-minded musicians who expressed creativity to its highest standards and truly valued his close circle. His friends were generous coming from a place of abundance and kindness, always willing to teach, share and support one another. In the later decades, the legendary Bennett collaborated with a younger generation of stars such as Stefani Germanotta aka Lady Gaga, K.D. Lang and Amy Winehouse. Guiding a new generation of singers into their truth is important to Tony.

Duke Ellington will always have a very special place in Tony's heart. He saw in Duke the qualities of a mystic. The legendary pianist and songwriter wrapped him with a wonderful deep friendship. A touching story Tony tells was one New Year's Eve when he was feeling very low, his second marriage was not working out, and he was alone. Ellington heard about this, and that evening sent a choir to cheer up his friend. When Tony opened the door, he discovered Duke's musicians singing the magnificent song, "On A Clear Day." Tony considers this one of the greatest gifts he ever received, as the extremely thoughtful gesture came at a time that he sorely needed to feel that love supreme. Tony remains grateful to Ellington for setting the standard as a professional and humanitarian.

Civil Rights are Human Rights

Tony was devastated when two of his dearest friends singer Nat King Cole and pianist and composer Duke Ellington were mistreated under the horrible Jim Crow laws that were in place when they were performing together. "Nat and Duke were brilliant human beings who gave the world some of the most beautiful music ever made, yet they were treated as second-class citizens. The whole thing made me furious. When Harry Belafonte called me in 1965 and asked me to join Martin Luther King's civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, he described to me what had been happening in the South." Tony Bennett befriended the singer and actor. It was natural for Tony to respond positively to Harry's request to help the movement. It was dangerous for all the marchers but Tony encouraged by Belafonte stayed strong and participated in this historic and transformative action.

"We only live a short time; only a brief ninety or a hundred years at most, and that really goes by quickly. In order to appreciate the gifts, we've been given, we need to learn the beauty of just being alive, and of being good to one another. That's a big lesson that many of us haven't yet embraced. We need to start putting down the greed and the racism. People who think, I've got mine; the hell with everybody else, aren't contributing anything to society. You have to think in a more all-encompassing way and say, Is this good for all of us on the planet?" Tony Bennett stated in The Gift of Life: The Zen of Bennett.

In the United States, Americans are reeling from watching the tortured death of George Perry Floyd. People are weeping at the tragic loss of a precious life and horrified to see what happens to a society when individuals stop seeing the humanity in others. During this month of April, the world is watching the trial of former police officer Derick Chauvin who is charged with murder. With an aching heart, I watch this case praying change finally comes and we insist all people are treated with respect. It seems to me I was watching a crucifixion. How will we respond as a nation? My hope is that we Americans insist on being Coltranian forces for good, individually moving into the future, and as a country, we are an unwavering force for real good at the highest level bringing all communities together. Tony Bennett's life is an example of how to love humanity, insisting on healing and bringing each one of us closer in real behavior not just agreeing with talking heads on commercial media or social media posts.

Surrounded by Family, Truth, and Beauty

Tony adored his mother throughout her long life. When he was a young boy, he dreamed of buying her a home, and indeed he did do that. He said his original reason for going into show business was to have the ability to have her retire from sewing in the factory. There were so many moments that filled him up when he was able to share his success with his mother. Tony cherishes the time he introduced his mother to Ella Fitzgerald at Birdland, one of her favorite singers. Tony and Ella would become close friends and when he moved to California for a while, he spent the Christmas holidays with her and his daughters.

Tony's professional management changed about thirty years ago and includes his family. His son Danny is his manager, and his son Dae produces his records. Under Danny's direction, Tony reconnected with Columbia records. With his sons on his team, Tony continued to soar, and younger people got to know him better. He also enjoys when his daughter Antonia performs with him on the road and is equally proud of his daughter Johanna who dedicates herself to philanthropic causes. The Benedetto's are a tight and supportive family with each member celebrating and contributing to the life of their outstanding father. What profoundly matters to Tony is exemplified in his family, they all live generous and creative lives.

Tony's beloved wife, Susan Crow Benedetto came to my attention when I created my Kids for Coltrane curriculum. I read the Benedetto's established an arts high school. I was very impressed. Susan had been a school teacher and understood Tony's dream of establishing a school in Astoria where he grew up. He wanted the arts to be at the forefront of the curriculum. My work as an elementary school teacher infused the arts in all my lessons, so I understand their mission and vision. Bravo, I said to myself when first learning about the Frank Sinatra School in Astoria, Queens. Tony and Susan were able to make this dream come true in collaboration with the City of New York. Discussing the school Bennett proudly stated, "The program has rigorous academics as well as arts instruction; you teach the kids what the masters did, so they can learn. And we have seen firsthand that if you emphasize the arts in school, the kids like to come to class, so our attendance rates are terrific."

He humbly honored his best friend the late Frank Sinatra by naming the school after the world-renowned crooner who once said Tony was his favorite singer. While I was teaching in Queens, I had the opportunity to visit the magnificent Frank Sinatra School in Astoria. I was also invited through a friend to attend an Educating Through the Arts event at the Martin Luther King, Jr. school in Manhattan. ETA, the nonprofit created by Tony and Susan supports arts programs in the educational system. The Bennett's know how valuable the arts in education are to developing a complete and enriched life.

Authentic Life Through the Arts

Tony Bennett's exquisite human voice allows him to tap into his emotions and by sharing this he can also make other people feel present and alive. His confidence comes from years of practice, which offers an appearance of being effortless. Hours of dedication to his craft are at the foundation of his mastery. Tony has always respected his fans. He knows to never underestimate the audience's taste, and he also knows he can stretch the taste of audience members as long as he offers high quality. Tony believes the public always has the final word. It is clear, decade after decade, Bennett has the people on his side, even when on occasion the music industry was not in agreement with him.

Bennett is also a painter and enjoys creating gorgeous work on canvas throughout the four seasons. His Manhattan residence offers views of the beautiful Central Park. He is inspired by the majestic park, nature, and many other subjects. Even as he gets further into his senior years his painting and music keep him inspired and in love with life.

I always include jazz music in my curriculum when teaching children, not just during Jazz Appreciation month but all year long. When I taught for the NYC Department of Education, I included a trip to the Louis Armstrong House in my annual plans. I loved going on that trip to watch the new groups of students enjoy being in Armstrong's warm house year after year. One of the treats, when I visit this museum in Queens, is spending time in the master trumpeter's home office. There centered on the wall opposite the trumpeter's desk is a portrait of Louis painted by Anthony Benedetto. Tony gave the painting to his friend who proudly displayed it. Tony signs all his paintings with his birth name, showing his family roots are always part of his creative process. Armstrong was a virtuoso who is considered one of the founders of jazz, America's classical music. Tony painted Armstrong quite a few times because he has such respect for the man. Tony and K.D. Lang paid homage to Louis when they recorded "A Wonderful World," and at the very end of the song Tony states, "You were right Pops." Pops was an endearing nickname that Armstrong was referred to.

Bennett also has his masterful art hanging in the National Art Gallery in Washington DC at the Smithsonian Institute. Three of his paintings are at the Smithsonian including one he did of his close friend the great Duke Ellington. The portrait of the master musician is surrounded by roses and one of Bennett's favorite paintings. Tony wrote on the painting "God is Love."

Bennett has learned from wonderful art teachers ever since he was a boy, he credits a neighbor living in his building back in Astoria for seeing his talents and generously offering him art lessons which helped him see his creative path. Tony has traveled the world over and over and learns from viewing the work of the great masters. Rembrandt is one of his all-time favorite painters. He says in his work you can see the artist's soul. Tony paints every single day, he has stated it sustains him.

A Hero's Path

Authenticity is why Bennett's music never goes out of style, it represents the human experience in all its passages through falling in and out of love. As we listen to his soul reaching out, our souls recognize the emotions his music brings to us. It can have us soar in exaltation or rock us down to our knees weeping in longing. Tony helps us understand the hero's journey of finding out what we love and how to love.

Living a life in which one continues to give birth to who they are from stage to stage takes hard work, courage, discipline, and conviction. Tony's example encourages us to live our own hero's journey. It is indeed what acclaimed writer and professor Joseph Campbell wrote about in his understanding of universal consciousness, there is a way of loving the world that keeps people together. This is the love that John Coltrane spoke of as well and shared in many of his songs, especially A Love Supreme. Bennett encourages us to face our fears and to take chances. He will tell you if you don't try to follow your bliss, it is a guarantee you will fail. Use the butterflies when you feel unsure for fuel, and in time you will soar into your authentic life, and perhaps with Grace you too will live a hero's journey.

Recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease he continues to connect to the arts looking out his window at Central Park. Surrounded by his beloved family his life is rich because he valued God's loving miracle, and he is rooted in the empathetic awareness of the preciousness of every human being."One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that." —Joseph Campbell

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