What I Learned Touring a NYC Arts School With Its Founder, Tony Bennett

The 74’s Greg Toppo remembers the ‘utter enjoyment’ of visiting the Queens high school in 2009 with the legendary singer, who passed away Friday.

The 74’s Greg Toppo with Tony Bennett in 2009 at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which Bennett championed to teach students “quality.” (Courtesy of Greg Toppo)

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In nearly 30 years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people. A few stand above the rest, each for their own reasons.

For sheer adrenaline, it’s the time in 2005 when I scored a brief phone interview with Paul McCartney about his education work. The call began, as these things do, with me sitting on hold for a long time — long enough for me to believe McCartney had changed his mind. Then the line clicked and my soul briefly left my body as the operator said, “Hold for Sir Paul ….”

For sheer terror: In 2013, I suggested a bit of on-camera improv with Cookie Monster and he agreed to it.

But for utter enjoyment, it’s got to be the time I wandered through the halls of a brand-new high school in Queens, New York, with Tony Bennett.

The legendary crooner, who died Friday at his home in Manhattan at 96, was a fierce advocate of public education, and for years urged his fellow celebrities and other wealthy Americans to underwrite the arts in schools.

Tony Bennett with students at Frank Sinatra School of Music on Oct. 5, 2006. (David Corio/Getty Images)

I stumbled upon the chance to interview him in September 2009, when a project he’d long championed, the $78 million Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, opened its permanent home in Astoria, Queens, just blocks from Bennett’s boyhood home.

The school had actually debuted in 2001, mostly in borrowed space in other schools. But Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, pushed for a bigger space and successfully lobbied both the city and their well-heeled friends for funding.

Classes in the gleaming new building had already started in fall 2009, but someone from the PR department called me at USA TODAY to invite me to a ribbon-cutting and celebrity gala that would serve as its official opening. Tony, she said, would really love it if I could be there.

I had zero interest — and no tux. But as I listened, I began to wonder: Would Tony be interested in an interview? Maybe we could, you know, skip the party and tour the school?

To my utter astonishment, the PR person said she’d make a call.

A few days later, I was standing in the lobby of Bennett’s Central Park South building, waiting for him to drive me across the Queensboro Bridge.

After just a minute or two, Bennett and his wife Susan emerged from an elevator and greeted me warmly. Bennett was dressed in a crisp blue suit with a sky-blue tie, and I immediately felt underdressed in the obligatory journalist’s costume: worn khakis and a faded blue Oxford shirt. I sheepishly thanked him for meeting with me, then we climbed into his massive black SUV: Bennett and his driver in front, Susan and me in the back.

I watched as Bennett and the driver exchanged small talk, baseball scores and inside jokes. Then they fell into silence and I thought, Has the interview begun?

My photographer was meeting us at the school, so I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. And besides, how many interview subjects drive you to work? What was the protocol for breaking the ice with the greatest living American singer?

We were headed just across town and into Queens, four miles tops, and it was after rush hour. But 59th Street that morning was gridlocked. I realized that if I didn’t speak, we might sit in silence for half an hour before we reached the school.

So I leaned forward and asked him about his music.

I’d been a casual fan of several of Bennett’s dozens of albums, but two of them were ‘Desert Island Discs’: A pair of stripped-down studio recordings he’d made in the mid-1970s with the jazz pianist Bill Evans. Just three years after the second album’s release, in 1980, Evans died at age 51.

I was haunted by the albums, and by Bennett’s voice on them, and I told him so. He turned in his seat and smiled, then told me those were some of his favorites too. There was something so vulnerable and a bit scary about being so exposed, he said, just the two of them, track after track, with nothing but Evans’s piano for guidance. The albums were especially loved by his fellow musicians, which meant a lot to him.

I asked him the secret to staying in the music business for what was then 56 years – his voice was still as clear and strong as in his debut in 1952. “I had good training,” he said.

Actually, that was one of the reasons he’d wanted to open a school for artists. “We want to teach the students quality, and to do things that will last forever,” he said.

The school’s name was a nod to Sinatra, an old friend from back in the day — he once called Bennett “the best singer in the business.” But it also invoked the sensibility that produced the everlasting music of the 1940s and 1950s. In a way, he said, it was a tribute to contemporaries like Nat King Cole and Jo Stafford. “It was really the Age of Excellence,” he said. “It wasn’t just hit music, but quality music.”

At the school, the “official” interview began with a bit of an oversized entourage, as these things often do. But as we walked and talked and dipped into classrooms, the entourage largely disappeared until it was just us, my photographer, and, on occasion, Bennett’s wife, when she wasn’t stepping into side conversations.

As soon as Bennett appeared in corridors and classrooms, students swarmed around him, vying for autographs and selfies. Everywhere he went, they wanted a moment with him. Bennett produced a black Sharpie and began signing whatever appeared: T-shirts, plastic notebook covers, and endless sheets of looseleaf paper, hastily ripped from binders. One student handed him a self-produced CD and Bennett promised he’d listen when he got home.

When they’d auditioned, many had no idea who he was — one student told me that she knew who Sinatra was, but that after she earned a slot, she looked up Bennett on Wikipedia and understood what the big deal was.

Fourteen years later, what stays with me most about the interview was how relaxed and at-home Bennett seemed, how patient and generous he was with his time. He answered all my questions — and even a few from my photographer — and was still game to talk. After a while, we’d spent so much time roaming the school’s hallways that the sheen of celebrity wore away, and I found myself listening to the diminutive Bennett tell stories of Astoria as if he was one of my Italian uncles.

I told him about my family’s history in the arts — my great-grandfather, an immigrant, published New York’s first Italian language magazine and was a well-known patron of the arts. The great operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, before his death in 1921, gave him the rights to hundreds of caricatures he’d produced on the fly over the years.

That delighted Bennett, himself a prolific painter who’d come from modest means. During the Depression, he recalled, his mother was a seamstress who sewed dresses for a penny apiece, but she had high standards. “Once or twice a day, she’d throw one over her shoulder and say, ‘I’ll never work on a bad dress.’ She believed in quality, and I’ve never forgotten that.”

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