National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of NEA Jazz Master Tony Bennett
It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of vocalist Tony Bennett, recipient of a 2006 NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. Called "the best singer in the business" by Frank Sinatra, Bennett performed for more than 70 years and was recognized with numerous accolades over the course of his career, including 19 Grammy Awards.
Accepting his NEA Jazz Masters award, Bennett said, “Jazz is one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture and it has been a love of mine for my entire life.”
Bennett was born as Anthony Dominick Benedetto in 1926 in the Astoria section of Queens, New York. By age 10, he had attracted such notice that he was tapped to sing at the opening ceremony for the Triborough Bridge. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts, worked as a singing waiter, and then performed with military bands during his Army service in World War II. After the war, he continued his vocal studies formally at the American Theatre Wing school and informally in the 52nd Street jazz clubs. His break came in 1949, when Bob Hope saw him working in a Greenwich Village club with Pearl Bailey, invited him to join his show at the Paramount, and changed his stage name to Tony Bennett.
Bennett's recording career began in 1950, when he signed with the Columbia label, with the number one hit "Because of You," followed by his cover of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." With a string of hits to his credit, Bennett was able to exert greater artistic influence over his recordings, allowing him to express his interest in jazz, notably The Beat of My Heart, on which he was accompanied primarily with jazz percussionists, and his work with Count Basie, In Person with Count Basie and His Orchestra.
In 1962, Bennett recorded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," the song that would become his signature, and for which he won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Solo Male Vocal Performance. Over the next years, while putting out singles and albums that were consistently among the most popular in the country, he continued to infuse his singing with the spontaneity of jazz and to record and tour with bands composed almost exclusively of jazz musicians.
In the 1970s, Bennett formed his own record company and made albums including two duet recordings with pianist Bill Evans. His 1992 release, Perfectly Frank, a tribute to Frank Sinatra, and 1993 Steppin' Out, a tribute to Fred Astaire, went gold and won him back-to-back Grammy Awards. Bennett received Grammy's highest award, Album of the Year, in 1994 for his live recording, MTV Unplugged, and was honored with the academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Also in 2001, he founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (named for his friend) in Queens, a public school dedicated to teaching the performing arts. Bennett was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2005.
Bennett continued to record music into his 80s, and at 88, he became the oldest living performer with a No. 1 album on the Billboard charts—Cheek to Cheek, the first of two Grammy Award-winning albums he recorded with Lady Gaga.
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