What Tony Bennett Taught Me About the Life of a Writer

From a story on poynter.org by Roy Peter Clark headlined “What Tony Bennett taught me about the life of a writer”:

Like Tony Bennett, my mom lived to the age of 96. She loved Bennett, and, like him, kept singing until the end. At a party for her 95th birthday, at DiMaggio’s Trattoria on Long Island, she performed with her three sons, wearing a pink feather boa. She began with a classic tune from the Great American Songbook, that body of work that Bennett so much admired, “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You.”

She belted it out like the saloon singer she could have been. Someone in the back of the room shouted, “Sing us another, Shirley.” Such was the shortness of her memory that she responded, “Sure! How about ‘You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You’”? She wound up singing her favorite song three times and such was the kind spirit in the room that everyone responded as if they were hearing it for the first time.

I share this anecdote because, having just turned 75, I am beginning to wonder about the length of my creative life. I have begun to collect examples of writers and artists who have kept at it until the end. The great William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well,” was blind into his 90s, but was still receiving writers in his New York City apartment, and taking poetry lessons from a young tutor.

Donald Hall, the prolific writer and American poet laureate, mailed me a letter to inform me of his new collection of essays. He wrote me: “You approach 70 as I approach 90. … Who wants life without work? Lots of people, actually!” He died just before the publication of “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety.”

Could there be a cooler cat than Les Paul, inventor of the solid-body electric guitar, who, at the age of 92, played Monday night gigs at the Iridium jazz club in New York City. Countless younger guitarists, such as Slash, showed up to jam with him.

Into his 80s, Tony Bennett had the same impulse to look at the artists who were performing late in their lives. He expressed admiration for the final work of Pablo Picasso, Jack Benny and Fred Astaire.

I have lots of such heroes, but of all of these, I believe that I am most inspired by the life and work of Tony Bennett.

Here are some of the values, virtues and habits I learned from him.

Attach yourself to something big, great and enduring, in his case popular jazz and the Great American Songbook, such as the work of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. He considered that great body of creativity to be “classical music.” For me, it means spending my life as a writer studying classic works of journalism and literature. Down the road, of course, I will pay attention to robots that can write, but my heart and soul will be filled by the words of Chaucer and Shakespeare, not to mention Sally Jenkins and Red Smith.

Tony Bennett never stopped learning, always challenging himself to get better and better. He paid special attention to jazz instrumentalists, like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He said he wanted his voice to have the timbre of a saxophone. He studied not only what notes to include, but, just as important, which ones to leave out. There’s a powerful lesson there for any writer, to keep studying the techniques of the practitioners who move you. And to learn which words you can leave out.

Creative people can have more than one shot. To think of Tony Bennett upon his death, one might be tempted to only celebrate the years of creativity, celebrity and glory. Those times have greater resonance if one comes to understand the dark aspects of his life and times. Bennett saw so much death in World War II, he decided to become a pacifist. I’ve read that because he fraternized with a Black soldier, he was demoted and ordered to dig up mass graves to be reburied.

His career took a nosedive during the rock ’n’ roll era, and he became addicted to cocaine, almost drowning in the bathtub. With the help of his sons, he healed, returned to his deepest musical roots and values, and began to influence new generations of fans and musicians. You don’t have to suffer to be an artist — but, if you have suffered, you can use it for enlightenment and redemption.

By the MTV generation and beyond, Bennett exerted his full musical influence. Part of his new act was intense collaboration with younger artists, producing albums of great duets with the likes of k.d. lang, Diana Krall, Amy Winehouse, and, finally, Lady Gaga. He stayed young and relevant by working with, and learning from, younger artists.

I remember my lunch at Pizza Hut with much younger colleagues Ellyn Angelotti and Mallary Tenore. These talented young journalists persuaded me that I could take my knowledge of short writing forms and apply them to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. I could be true to myself and avoid obsolescence. Ben Mullin, now a media reporter for The New York Times, spent a year editing my work for Poynter. One day we calculated that he was 43 years younger than me, one of the greatest such age differences of all time. It turned out to be a great duet. I am grateful to the corps of young Poynter workers with whom I have a chance to collaborate. They can count on me for institutional memory and a sense of place. I need them to help me understand technology, new definitions of news, new audiences and the direction of American culture.

Tony Bennett worked at being excellent at more than one form of creativity. I did not know until recently that Tony Bennett was an expert painter who worked almost every day on that craft. He found similarities between music and visual arts and used each to enrich the other.

I feel blessed to have both writing and music as my cross-pollinating creative expressions. I study the voice of the singer — and the voice of the writer. When I learned of his passing, I sat down at an upright piano that was older than Tony Bennett, and played a full version of his signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” I played it a second time and sang along as I did with my mom late in her life.

Will people be listening to Tony Bennett’s version of the Great American Songbook a century from now?

It’s a question that all aging creative artists should ask. Rabbi Harold Kushner argues that, even if you don’t believe in immortality, there are secular paths in that direction. If a life after death is what you are after, you can produce a child, plant a tree or write a book. Will anyone read my work — your work — after we’re gone?

I can think of no better ending, or hint of immortality, than the one imagined in one of Tony Bennett’s favorite songs: “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars …”

Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar. He contributes regularly to Poynter.org on topics such as writing, reporting, editing, coaching writers, reading, language and politics, American culture, ethics, and the standards and practices of journalism. He is the author or editor of eighteen books. His most recent include Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, Help! For Writers, How to Write Short, and The Art of X-ray Reading.

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