Today, the world lost a great artist (musician and painter) and America lost a great patriot, Tony Bennett. I first saw Tony Bennett perform live while a student at Berklee College of Music. He was performing to a half-empty house with the Count Basis Orchestra at the Berklee Performance Center. I met him backstage after the concert and have two memories; his kindness and that he was wearing the greatest white dress shirt ever made. I loved and wore out his recordings with the great jazz pianist Bill Evans for many years until his son engineered his popular comeback, first via a Simpsons appearance, decades later. (Watch an impossibly brilliant duo concert by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans on YouTube here.)
Over the past two decades, I saw Mr. Bennett perform live as often as possible. I saw him play the cavernous Staples Center for his 85th birthday, a concert that the LA Times reported as him turning the basketball arena into a cabaret. Other memories include seeing Bennett perform as part of Stevie Wonder’s annual all-star Xmas extravaganza and taking a friend to see him perform at the magnificent 1929 movie palace, The Regent Theatre. That was the first time in which I saw him end a concert by commanding, in that inimitable voice, “Mr. sound-man, turn off all of the mics!” What followed was a nearly impossible a cappella performance that painted the furthest surface of the theatre with the most beautiful sound and bathed every audience member in love.
Anyone I know who met or played music with Tony Bennett loved and adored him. He was kind, genuine, soulful, considerate, and loved being around other artists. He often sketched other musicians while watching them perform and then gifted them the art he created.
I will never forget when Stevie Wonder joined him onstage at his Staples Center concert to sing “For Once in My Life.” (They both enjoyed hit records with that song – Tony first.) Tony then asked Stevie if he wanted to do another song, and Stevie called, “San Francisco.” Whether staged or not, Tony Bennett appeared shocked and delighted by the request to sing his signature tune, and frequent finale number, on his concert – and off they went to leave their hearts in San Francisco!
A whole lot of musical genius in the slideshow below…
Tony Bennett was a serious visual artist in addition to musical genius. I remember reading an article in an Australian publication about how early in the morning after his concerts, he would appear on the doorstep of Robert Wade, an Australian artist he introduced to the audience as his “painting teacher.” Wade remarked that he could not keep up with Bennett’s stamina of performing and then wanting to paint the very next morning. (Here’s an interview about Tony Bennet’s passion for painting.)
I watched any Tony Bennett interview I could and frequently heard him share a bit of simple, yet profound advice he received from Duke Ellington. “Don’t do one thing. Do two.” Tony Bennett would go on to say, “When I get tired of singing, I paint. When I get tired of painting, I sing.” I have passed along that advice to others on numerous occasions.
Musical remembrances worthy of your attention:
- Pianist Ethan Iverson’s July 21, 2023 blog post, Five Cameos from Tony Bennett
- Jazz writer/critic Mark Stryker’s musicological tour of Tony Bennett’s career (via Twitter)
That ain’t all
In addition to being a great musician, painter, and philanthropist who started a public high school for the arts in New York City, Tony Bennett was a patriot who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, liberated a Nazi concentration camp, and who risked his life, safety, and career in the fight for civil rights. In 1965, Tony Bennett joined Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis in the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He performed along the route and lent financial assistance to the movement.
Learn more about Tony Bennett’s remarkable civil rights legacy
- Tony Bennett discusses his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Tony Bennett saw racism and horror in World War II. It changed him. [Washington Post]
- Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi remembers her friend and great American, Tony Bennett [MSNBC video]
- Entertainer Tony Bennett is remembered in Atlanta for his support of civil rights [Atlanta Journal and Constitution]
- The voting rights martyr who divided America [CNN]
- Tony Bennett to attend March on Washington [USA Today]
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the author of Twenty Things to Do with a Computer – Forward 50, co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.