He liberated victims at a concentration camp near Dachau, Germany, during World War II, marched with Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. during this country’s civil rights movement and when his daughter, Antonia, converted to Judaism after marrying an Israeli, he gave her his full support.
You might not have guessed that about the uber-famous jazz and American songbook singer who has kept his music current and charting for seven decades, Tony Bennett, who turned 92 in August.
Bennett was in town for one performance with his daughter at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Sunday, Nov. 4. The JT had a chance to ask him a few questions about his life in between his many tour stops.
JT: First, welcome back to Baltimore. Any particular memories or thoughts about Baltimore?
TB: I love performing at Meyerhoff as it is a magnificent venue, so I look forward to coming back again to Baltimore as the audiences are always so welcoming each time I am in town.
JT: How is your time split these days between performing, recording, your nonprofit Exploring the Arts (ETA), charities, painting, family and downtime?
TB: Every day is an adventure, so yesterday I had some time in my art studio to get some painting done and I have some downtime right now in my home in New York City and then I head out on tour. So it’s a nice balance of being on the road and on stage in front of thousands of people and then coming back to a blank canvas where it’s just me and a paintbrush and some paints. I never get burned out, as I am able to move between various activities.
JT: What was the catalyst for your strong support for civil rights?
TB: Well, I consider myself a humanist and when my good friend Harry Belafonte, who I had known since the 1940s when we were both just starting out, called me up and told me what was going on in the South and asked me to join Dr. King on his march to Selma, I knew it was important to be there and support. I remember it was decided that we wanted to set up a performance for the marchers one night, but we were in an open field. One of the organizers had a friend who owned a funeral home and they brought in 18 wooden coffins and we used that as the foundation for a stage that night.
JT: You captured Nazis and liberated a concentration camp in World War II — how do you feel about the current divisive climate in the U.S., given your experiences in WWII and the civil rights movement?
TB: My experience in the Army turned me into a lifelong pacifist and it’s my hope that all wars and violence will become a thing of the past. Ella Fitzgerald, who was my next door neighbor for many years when I lived in Los Angeles, used to say to me, “Tony, we are all here.” And Ella was right, we share this planet together and we have more in common than we have differences since we are all human.
JT: How did you feel when your daughter converted to Judaism?
TB: I was very happy for my daughter, Antonia, that she found her mate in life and they have a beautiful daughter named Maya. She studied for a very long time and committed to doing all that was necessary, so I was very impressed with her dedication.
JT: Have you been back to Israel since your first 2015 concert? What was your impression of Israel?
TB: I had always wanted to perform in Israel and a few times over the years it would come up, but then it wouldn’t come to pass, so I loved finally having a chance to perform at this beautiful theatre — the Mann Auditorium — and the audience was so responsive. The night before I performed, it turned out that Lady Gaga was singing in Tel Aviv as well, so I joined her on stage as a surprise. It was a wonderful but short visit, so I hope to be able to come back again.
JT: You are a prolific painter. Have you done any paintings of Israel?
TB: Unfortunately not, as I was only in the country two days as part of my tour, but I would love the opportunity to visit again and have more time.
JT: Much of the American songbook consists of Jewish composers and lyricists. Any favorites?
TB: That is very true, as so many of the master composers of that golden age of songwriting in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s were Jewish and contributed so much to the Broadway theatre and film. I just released an album with Diana Krall called “Love Is Here to Stay” in which we sang the music of George and Ira Gershwin. And this year marks the 100th anniversary of “God Bless America,” written by Irving Berlin — the son of a Jewish cantor — who also wrote one of the most beloved holiday songs, “White Christmas.”
JT: If you had to pick one song that sums up how you feel about life or that most inspires you, what would it be?
TB: I would have to say “The Best is Yet to Come,” as that is how I feel every day that I wake up — that something good is always on its way and I have the opportunity to learn something new. I like to stay positive and avoid stress whenever I can and I have been fortunate that I have been able to make a living doing the two things I love the most — singing and painting. I truly feel like I am just starting out.
JT: To what do you attribute your zest, optimism and energy that has kept you vital and current for your entire career?
TB: Again, it’s about doing things you love to do — and if it isn’t something that is part of your daily work, then it can be a hobby — as long as you make it important to yourself and it makes you feel good. And I am very fortunate that I have a wonderful wife, Susan, who makes sure that I exercise at least three times a week and we eat healthy meals, so I credit her for keeping me in good shape.