“LADY GAGA IS GOING TO SING WITH ME”, Tony Bennett said on the phone. “It’s a secret!” We were in Montreal on July 1. Tony was sing-ing that night in his favorite hall at his favorite jazzfest. But there was an added attraction: the most famous pop singer in the world sing-ing with the living legend of the Great American Songbook. “We’re going to surprise evetyone. Come to the soundcheck, Bennett loved how much Gaga loved singing “The Lady Is A Tramp” on his 2011 album Duets II. Dancing in the accompanying music video. Curvy in tight black lace. Her hairs bouffant of swirling teal. Dancing over to Bennett’s mic to sing “I’m so broke!” “But it’s OKE”, he replies, his face beaming. Delighted. “She loves jazz”. Bennett had said back then. “And she’s really good!” The pair has now recorded an entire album of standards, Cheek To Cheek (Streamline/ Interscope/Columbia), and at the Montreal Jazz Festival they were sneak-previewing several of the songs: Gaga singing “Lush Life” solo and the two vocalists doing duets of “But Beautiful” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing", “Doo-waht Doo-waht” they swung. Backstage at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, they came for the soundcheck, Bennett in a green tracksuit, Gaga in a tight cocktail dress with a drape of black across the bodice. Looking swanky for a partyon the moon. She smiled and, being in a city so culturally French, kissed us on both cheeks. Bennett had introduced us several weeks before at his apartment in Manhattan. (Gaga certainly has a larger-than-life persona, but I’ve rare-ly encountered anyone so immediately and even radiantly nice. “It’s no wonder”, I’ve thought ever since, “that the nicest guy in show biz gets along with Gaga”). They rehearsed in Montreal with Bennett’s quartet, with master accompanist Mike Renzi at the piano. And what amazed me at once were Gaga’s chops, even when projecting a swooping chorus up to the balcony. And she can sing in a hush. So quietly tender. Especially on a hear, breaker like “Lush Life, Festival photographers were not supposed to
shoot at the show that evening, but when Bennett surprisingly called Gaga to the stage, to a roaring tumult of cheers, cell-phone cameras clicked all around the hall. And by the next morning, Bennett and Gaga—as depicted in a wobbling blur from the balcony—were sillging together on YouTube.
“WE WERE BOTH DOING A MAIM BENEFIT: ‘Bennett recalled, discussing the origins of the Cheek To Cheek album. They were singing at the 2011 gala for The Robin Hood Foundation. “We raised millions of dollars that night for the impoverished people of New York".That night Gaga sang “Orange Colored Sky”, the song that Nat “King” Cole recorded with Stan Kenton, with the famous chorus “Flash! Bam! Alakazam!” It’s a perfect fit for an extroverted swinger like Lady Gaga. “I was knocked out when I heard the reaction of the audience to her”, Bennett said. “I’d never heard people enjoy anything that much in my life. I couldn’t believe the wonderful reaction she gets from the audience. They adore her!”
“When I found out that Tony wanted to meet me, my mother and I screamed”, Gaga recalled. “We were backstage at the Robin Hood event. My mother and I were in a trailer. We screamed—and we started to fix our hair! My father started laugh-ing and shaking his head. We ran to meet Mr. Bennett, Oh, my gosh, it was a wonderful thine “When I met her”, Bennett said, “she couldn’t get over that I was backstage to say hello to her parents and her. And I said to her, Td love to do an album’. And she said, tees do it’. She’s that quick about things. When she says something, she means it, Not that recording together happened as quickly. “Usually, it takes a couple of months for me to think about an album, but when I do it, it, four days”, said Tony. “This album took a whole year—because of her fantastic touring all over the world. Whenever she had a chance, that’s when we did it, During the recording sessions, Bennett, quartet played on some of the songs. Gaga’s jazz friends, the quintet of trumpeter Brian Newman, were also featured. An orchestra was arranged by Jorge Calandrelli. Brass was arranged by Marion Evans. And contributing solos were saxophon-ist Joe Lovano, trumpeter George Rabbai, pianist Tom Rainier and, playing flute on “Nature Boy,” the late Paul Horn.
By September, two singles had been released: “Anything Goes” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love", both topped the download charts. Additionally, “Nature Boy” was released for streaming on Gaga’s Vevo channel. The album Cheek To Cheek includes 11 songs on the standard version and 15 on the deluxe version, with different bonus tracks on the albums from Target, HSN or iTunes. There, also a 180-gram vinyl version. Plus, there are videos of the songs and a behind-the-scenes broadcast special for HSN. On July 28, Bennett and Gaga sang together at Frederick P. Rose Hall in Jazz at Lincoln Center. The concert was taped for a Great Performances special that will be broadcast on PBS on Oct. 24. That they were ever able to coincide enough to record Cheek To Cheek was phenomenal. The past couple of years, Bennett and his new Lady both have been… busy.
Gaga’s third album, ArtPop, topped the Billboard 200 album chart, and she’s toured worldwide. She was the last artist to play the leg-endary Roseland Ballroom, concluding a week-long residency with an April 7 concert—the final concert for the famed, 95-year-old venue. She also hosted Saturday Night Live and a Thanksgiving TV special with The Muppets. She acted in a couple of movies for director Robert Rodriguez (Machete Kills and Frank Miller’s S. City. A Dame To Kill For). And she’s been quite active as a philanthropist, including her own Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages youth empowerment, and as an advocate for LGBT rights. Bennetes most recent collaborative albums—Duets: An American Classic, Duets II and his encounters with stars of Latin music, Viva Duets—all have been international best-sellers. Another album he made last year (yet to be released) con-sists of Jerome Kern compositions recorded with pianists Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes. He also released the massive box set The Complete Collection, his life in jazz and song on an astound-ing 76CDs. He still tours. “I have enough—I don’t have to sing”, Bennett explained, “but I love to sing, With his wife, Susan Benedetto, he heads Exploring The Arts, a nonprofit that supports arts education in schools all around New York City and in Los Angeles. Bennettt and Gaga also collaborated on another benefit. Tony Bennett the singer is, in his other artistic life, Anthony Benedetto the painter. He paints every day if he can. He sketches almost constantly. Not long after they’d starting working toget her, Tony sketched Gaga nude (except for very high heels) and the charcoal-on-paper portrait was auctioned off for $30,000 to benefit Exploring The Arts and the Born This Way Foundation. Famed photographer Annie Liebovitz shot the scene in Bennett’s atelier for Vanity Fair magazine. And another piece of Benedetto artwork—his portrait of Miles Davie trumpet—now actual-ly decorates Gaga herself: as a tattoo, on the inner part of her right arm. For this DownBeat feature, I talked with Bennett in his studio, overlooking Central Park. Bennett’s landscape of the park, along with his portrait of Duke Ellington, are just two of the paintings that he has donated to the Smithsonian. Around us in his studio were a new watercolor of a surrey in the park and portraits of Joe Lovano and Dizzy Gillespie. I talked with Lady Gaga on the phone from a tour stop in Australia. What follows are edited excerpts from both conversations. Simon Rentner produced recordings of both interviews for a WBGO radio special that can now be heard online at wbgo.org.
Tony, most of the songs on the album are familiar classics from the Great American Songbook—except one I don’t know, your solo, “Don’t Wait Too Long.” Tony Bennett: It’s a good song I recorded many years ago [in 1963]. It’s about demographics. I’m 88. She’s 28. I figured it would be a good number to do for her on the album. “You are the summer. I am the .11. Don’t wait too long. My songs are ending, and yours have begun. Don’t wait too lone Actually, it’s saying, “We’re from different eras, but let, get along, the common denominator for both ofyour generations is these songs. Do you feel Gaga is introducing Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Duke Ellington songs to a younger audience”.
TB: Her younger audience has never heard of Cole Porter, who wrote better than anyone, and Gershwin, and Irving Berlin. A lot of corporations will say, “That’s old music, But it’s not old, It, America’s greatest music. The United States, in the ’20s and ’30s, has given the world the greatest popular music. I go to China and the audience starts singing the songs with me. And all over Europe, they know all of these songs. No other country has ever given the rest of the world so much beautiful music as the United States.
Gaga, you’ve said that when performing your songs, you’re telling a story. What is the story you’re tel., when you’re singing jazz?
Lady Gaga: I started singing jazz when I was very young. I was maybe 13 years old. I’d been listening to it with my mom on Sundays. She would always play Billie Holiday on Sundays. And then I discovered Ella Fitzgerald. I used to go down the street; there was a boys school where they had a jazz band. I auditioned to sing in it. They loved my jazz voice. They would have me sing a lot of songs. I learned a lot more about the Great American Songbook. I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Phillips. He came to me one day and said, “You’ve really got to sing this song”. He played it for me and sort of sang it. It was Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life, I was just a kid. I didn’t understand what the song was about, and I’d really never heard such an intricate and complex melodic line like that before. I started to cry. I got very emotional when he played it for me, and I loved it. Then I listened to all the different versions of it, and I tried to create my own, tried to improvise with the song as much as I could. Fifteen years later, now in this moment with Mr. Tony Bennett, I start-ed to sing “Lush Life” in the studio, and I cried again. It was the same tears, but this time I knew exactly what the song was about. I guess I’m trying to say that the story began a long time ago. I fell in love with music before I can even remember having my first thoughts. Now, returning to jazz is like returning to my true nature. I, able to truly look at my life and its how l’ve changed. The way Tony answers “Lush Life” on the album, with “Sophisticated Lady”, he says, “Smoking, drinking, never think-ing of tomorrow. Nonchalant”. Those lyrics, he’s communicating with me about the first time he heard me sing a song where my true nature was very exposed to him. The truth is, I’m very tortured on the inside. I go up and down. I think a lot of artists do. That’s the complicated thing about being a musician: The things that make you creative are also the things that give you nightmares. I feel connected to every artist who’s sat at a bar and stared into the moon and asked, “Why do I feel so sad and lonely?” That song connects me to generations and generations of artists and souls. I, very grateful to Tony that he made me feel so comfortable in that situation. I’ve never been so vulnerable in a studio.
Tony, the first time you recorded with Gaga, the song “The Lady Is A Tramp”, was a blast. You were both having so much fun.
TB: It was Danny’s idea—my son, who manages me. He said, “Let’s do 'The Lady Is A Tramp'” and at first I thought: “What". Then I realized, “He’s correct, she’s Lady”, in fact, to this day, I don’t call her Gaga. I call her Lady.
Lester Young called Billie Holiday “Lady”, and that Lady is one of this Lady’s idols.
TB: That’s what I like about Lady. She’s got these great ears. And she knows the difference between Billie Holiday and all the other singers. If you want to learn how to sing, I suggest that you listen to all of Billie Holiday’s early recordings. And to this day, the most entertaining thing you can do is listen to Ella Fitzgerald.
LG: That’s hot you learn. You listen to the greats. I didn’t really have a jazz vocal teach-er. I would say my jazz vocal teacher was Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, and maybe Judy Garland. When I watch Ella sing in those lit-tle videos, she sings with her whole body. And yet there’s this kind of calm that comes over her. It’s like the Stanislayski Method. Relaxing your-self as a performer on a stage. Ella relaxed her whole body, and then she stopped her heartbeat, and then she felt how that heartbeat was aff.t. ins the thought in her mind, and then she would just sing, If you’re a jazz singer, you’re able to communi-cate with your (band) and maneuver within the instruments. if you were another—which you truly are. The voice is an instrument. If you think about how the horns phrase, how the arrange-ments are so different, how things are transposed, the way the music communicates—once you understand that, you can really improvise. I can look at the guys, and we can just know, It’s like, “I, gonna go here, and I, gonna go there, and I’m gonna meet you back here, It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz every time I sing. I’m just tak-ing different Yellow Brick Roads. I love singing jazz. It’s fant.tic. I don’t work well with restrictions. I’m very rebellious. Tony is always laughing at me, because I’ll say something very rebellious, or I’ll do something crazy, and he laughs at me. When I have restrictions, I go crazy, If I’ve got anybody telling me we should put [an audio eff.t] on this vocal, or we should put something more el.tronic, or .This is the new thing now”—theres none of that. (I have) Tony with a sword and shield standing around me, say-ing, “Don’t you tell her what to dot You just put that mic on and let her sing”, Tony took away all of my restrictions, so I can sing whatever I want. I can sing improvisational jazz. I didn’t realize how much more I love sing-ing jazz than pop music until Tony called me. It’s like I forgot.
TB: My personal feeling is that she is one het-lava jazz singer. She sings differently every time she sings. And she’s very educated musically. She plays wonderful jazz piano. I really think every-body’s gonna say, ‘We had no idea that she sang that well, Becau. that, how the album came out. There, not one bad side on the album. She just sang terrifically, with good feeling, good meaning, good intonation and a good relationship between her and I. I’m a big, big fan of hers. She really knows what she’s doing. She’s very happy right now. And she’s promoting jazz like I’ve never seen anybody do. She sends (messages on her iPad),”jazz this” and "jazz that’. She’s talking about jazz all the time. And when she puts a quote out, it goes to 40 million people, She was in Japan, working to 45,000 people, and on the way out, I heard it on the iPad, she said, 111 be back next year with jazz”. Already, the great jazz festivals of the world are calling us up. They want us to do shows together. We’ll be working togeth-er an awful lot. And she’s a terrific person. What I love about her, she’s very close to her mother and father. And her success hasn’t gone to her head. “The Lady Is A Tramp”, when I first met her, she impressed all of us in the studio. She went to the engineers. She went to all the people in the studio. She thanked everybody personally, for being good to her. My first reaction, I said, “This gal’s got a lot of class”.
Gaga, your ArtPop concerts are spectacular. Every moment, every movement, is all choreo-graphed, with lots of lights, lots of production, crazy and loud. And then, in the middle of the kaleidoscopic maelstrom, you’ll sit alone at the piano and sing a ballad. Everyone expects the spectacular, and it, all the more enchanting when, in those quiet interludes, you pull every-one into your heart.
LG: I think the ballads I’ve written will be the songs I will always truly cherish. “Speechless”, the song I wrote about my father, and “You And I”.
Your ballads are so intimate, jazz singing is what Tony often calls intimate singing.
LG: For me, to really sing jazz the right way, like Tony is saying, in that intimate way, it’s when you’re singing to one person. The audience is re-al-ly witnessing a conversation between Tony and I. And then they remember, “Oh, they’re talking to merlhat’s the thing about art. Art, ultimately, for me, is all about interaction. You can make somebody feel something strong—by interacting with them, by telling them a story.
TB: [When] you sing intimately, the audience comes to you. ‘learned that from watching films. If you see a film with the great Marlon Brando, he’s actually whispering a lot of times when he’s speaking. You listen that much more. You want to hear every word he’s saying. You find yourself bodily mov-ing in to hear what he’s saying.
How did you pick the songs on Cheek To Cheek?
LG: I love a lot of songs in the Great American Songbook. Tony and I talked about our favorite songs, and then he picked a whole bunch. And we sang them all! They’re actually One-Take-Suxies. They’re a full take, me and Tony and the group, all together in the studio. Tony and I wanted it to be real-ly organic. I weep when I listen, not just because I, with Tony, but because I love these songs so much. “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” is a bonus track [on the Target release]. I dreamed my whole life to record that song. “Eery Time We Say Goodbye” at the deluxe version) is my favorite on the album.
You’re telling a story with the sequence of songs on the album. You start with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
TB: I love that tune. It really fits Lady Gaga. “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking—now, heaven knows, any-thing goes!” If you think about it, you can get away with anything nowadays. Cole Porter was absolutely the best of all the composers. He was intelligent. In fact, as a follow-up album, we’re going to do a Cole Porter album.
Cole Porter’s songs always have been favorites of jazz players because they like blowing on his changes. And his lyrics are so smart and witty. Jazz singers also like to improvise with a song’s words.
LG: I do that, too. I sometimes feel bad when I’m doing that. I listen back and I think, “Why did I do that? Who do you think you are? Thinking you can sing a better lyric than Cole Porter!” But then I remember: I was having a moment—and Cole Porter would want me to have a moment.
The next song is the title track of the album, Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek”
LG: I love that you hear the story in the way we did the track listing. That’s exactly what we wanted people to fed: a story about love. That’s why we called the album Cheek To Cheek. Isn’t that the most perfect way to express what it is to really, truly be in love? I always say to Tony, “I’m not happy unless were cheek to cheek".
Thereafter cornes love aplenty. The “Nature Boy” lyrics say that love is “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn, and then”‘ Can’t Give You Anything But Love, But eventually, the heart breaks. “Lush Life”.
TB: When she did “Lush Life she told me, “This song is my life. Everything that’s happened to at is in that song”.
The story continues: Tony answers with “Sophisticated Lady”—but “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”. Love can be weird, “But Beautiful”—and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”.
LG: I love jazz so much! When I’m in the room with Tony, I feel the souls of every singer that came before him. I’m really, truly asking them, as humbly as I can, “Look, I know I haven’t shown the world that I can do this yet, but maybe you’ll give me a sign that it’s OK that I’m doing this”. It really means something to me to honor jazz, to bring it to the younger generation. And to make Tony as proud as I can. I don’t quite know how to explain it. Tony sort of leaned over to me, and he said, “I think you’re so talented, but you’re not living up to your full poten-tial, And I looked at him, and I just smiled, and I said “I know, Tony.” And he goes, “OK! Lees go sing some jazz!”.