A Blog Post by Bill Stevens, Fragile Beauty, vol. IV, No. 3 - Memories of Tony Bennett
I woke up today, Friday, July 21, 2023 to read the news in the New York Times that Tony Bennett had passed away. Although not unexpected, the news was truly sad to comprehend. There will most likely never be another person and performer like him. He was one of a kind in so many ways from his steadfast love of the songs from the Great American Songbook to his liberal political beliefs especially in regards to his activism toward the civil rights movement.
I knew Tony Bennett from my time as an Assistant Principal at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts from 2005 - 2015. He and his organization Exploring the Arts was instrumental in getting the school started and for the state of the art building that was created for it in Astoria, Queens. I have some distinct memories of my interactions with Tony over the decade that I spent at the school. There were conversations that we had where he shared many of his memories with so many prominent figures of Jazz history both on stage and off. However, my three most cherised memories were as follows...
During my first semester at Sinatra, he would often ask me about my own Jazz background and at the time I wasn't aware that he was also speaking to the Principal of the school, Donna Finn to see about my becoming the director of the school's Jazz program. Having just arrived at the school, I wasn't so sure that I would be able to add something else to my list of duties, but Tony could be very persuasive. I agreed to be the director of Jazz studies and it became the highlight of my career as a teacher. Directing a big band and developing numerous small groups while teaching improvisation classes through a study of theory and history was incredibly rewarding to me. Most of all, it was the students who made this a memory that I cherish and look back on fondly and I am eternally grateful to Tony for trusting me to lead this program, knowing that I had his full appreciation and support made it even more meaningful.
Around this same time, I had just released my Full Circle album with the quintet featuring Charlie Gushee, Elliot Honig, Colin Campbell and Eric Peters. There were a number of clubs that we played in, but one club in particular was a small, intimate space in Brooklyn called Puppets Jazz Bar. On this particular evening, in the middle of a set there was a murmur building in the room and upon looking out at the audience I realized that Tony Bennett had just walked in to hear the group. He was obviously recognised by all of the patrons in the room. I can't even begin to tell you what a surprise that was and needless to say what a thrill to know that he would take the time to come see us play.
In 2015, I made the decision to put my papers in and to retire from the Department of Education after a 25 year career as a teacher and administrator. It was not an easy decision, but I knew it was time. I also knew that the one thing I would miss the most were the students as part of the Jazz studies program. I made my decision public during the Spring Jazz Concert which was quite emotional for me. Near the end of the program, Tony and his wife Susan approached me on stage. After some words from Tony about my time at the school he presented me with one of his prints, an original Bennidetto of Charlie Parker. This meant so much, to hear his words and to be presented with such a personal gift. The print proudly hangs in our living room and I am forever thankful for the opportunity of a lifetime to have been at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. I thank the Principal, Donna Finn, Susan Bennett and Exploring the Arts, but most of all for the opportunity to know Mr. Tony Bennett.
Thanks for allowing me to share these thoughts at this time.