Review: A CELEBRATION OF TONY BENNETT Was a Starry Night at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Jazz at Lincoln Center's annual gala was a gallery of glorious music

By: Apr. 23, 2024
Review: A CELEBRATION OF TONY BENNETT Was a Starry Night at Jazz at Lincoln Center
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The adjective “tony” can refer to something that is posh, elegant, fancy, and sophisticated.  Well, that described Jazz at Lincoln Center’s special concert in memory of a “Tony” with a capital T. Celebrating Tony Bennett was tony, with the classy entertainment on stage and many dressed-to-the-nines attendees dining, drinking and mingling before and after for the annual gala fundraiser on April 17th, 2024 at JALC's Rose Theater.  The late singer was a major supporter of the organization and speakers on stage recalled his early and ongoing dedication to their mission, also emphasized in an opening film presentation.  There was more to the man than the music, as was well noted in mentions of his involvement in the civil rights movement, being instrumental in the creation of a school named for his friend and peer Frank Sinatra, his military service during World War II, and his work as a painter.  Among others, Tony was tributed by three Tony Award winners –  Bernadette Peters, Kristin Chenoweth, and Adriane Lenox — as well as three Tony nominees: Norm Lewis, Jared Grimes, and Josh Groban, the evening’s host.

With the splendid 16-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, playing exciting arrangements, some by its own members, the music was dynamic and varied.  Although we were in a house of jazz, the approaches were appropriately accessible to those who are not strictly hardcore jazz fans, keeping one foot in that genre and one in a broader 20th century popular music style — quite like Tony Bennett’s wide-appeal tradition.

If one wants to read about the life and long career of Tony Bennett, The Good Life and All the Things You Are are two titles to look for among the books. He favored the Great American Songbook, as reflected by those two titles that are also names of songs he did in concerts and recorded more than once over the decades.  (They’d also served as album titles).  Both numbers were included in the set list.  “The Good Life” was strongly presented by a commanding Adriane Lenox (a late but welcome addition to the bill, not listed in the printed program or early publicity). “All the Things You Are” was performed on piano in a medley with “Long Ago and Far Away,” sublimely, by Bill Charlap, representing the CD of Jerome Kern songs which he recorded with Tony Bennett.  The pianist shared some warm memories of planning the project and being in the studio together. He was presented with an award himself for his work that includes mentoring young musicians, and two of them came on stage for the presentation and praise.  Honors were also given to Tim Jackson, former artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and  Randall Kline, founder of SFJAZZ; both received the Ed Bradley Award for leadership in jazz.  Wynton Marsalis brought them out as he “trumpeted” their contributions in keeping the music and musicians in front of audiences.        

A little research reveals that the date of this event, April 17, figured in Bennett history in past years.  It was on that date in 1950 that the singer stepped up to the mic to start recording “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” his first disc for Columbia Records.  On that date in 1999 he shared the Carnegie Hall stage with Elton John and other stars in a benefit for the Rainforest Foundation.  On that date in 2015 he performed in concert, sharing the stage with another vocalist: his daughter Antonia (who was at the gala, but did not appear on stage). 

Review: A CELEBRATION OF TONY BENNETT Was a Starry Night at Jazz at Lincoln Center Josh Groban was a gracious host.  He spoke of the memorable experience of being in the studio with the legendary Tony Bennett, encouraged by the veteran to abandon the headphones-in-an-isolation-booth approach and get among the orchestra.  Fans will know they combined their voices on “This Is All I Ask” for the Duets II album and “Christmas Time Is Here” on a holiday collection. At the concert, he sang a thoughtful and emotional rendition of "Smile," radiating sincerity, helped by Wynton Marsalis’s arrangement.

Two Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh collaborations were impactful, too, with the upbeat, driving  “The Best Is Yet to Come” and the introspective “It Amazes Me” captivatingly capturing their moods by, respectively, Ekep Nkwelle and Norm Lewis

Review: A CELEBRATION OF TONY BENNETT Was a Starry Night at Jazz at Lincoln Center One of the most enthusiastically received numbers, acknowledging the Bennett album full of standards famously danced and sung by Fred Astaire, was “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” with the dazzling dancing steps of tapper Jared Grimes and a pleasing vocal by Shenel Johns.  

Rubén Blades was persuasive with the urging to be open to romance in “Watch What Happens.”  In a more downbeat mode, Kristin Chenoweth gracefully glided through the classic mix of mourning and denial in the confessional “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes),” keeping the notes quiet and restrained (except sometimes).  Unlike some star-packed concerts with each artist getting one shot to out-belt the others, this one had a mix of energy levels, wisely reflecting the Bennett versatility. (This sad piece may cue more sympathetic tears if you know that Hoagy Carmichael adapted the lyric from a poem he came across, written by Jane Brown Thompson in reaction to her husband’s death – and that she herself passed away the same week the finished song was unveiled.)        

Jerome Kern was the most prominent composer of the night.  In addition to the aforementioned Charlap medley, pianist-singer Robbie Lee charmed big time with the sly, serene “Nobody Else But Me,” added by Kern and Oscar Hammerstein to the 1946 revival of the classic musical Show Boat.  And Bernadette Peters offered a slow-tempo, tender treatment of the standard “The Way You Look Tonight” (Kern & Dorothy Fields) with notable vibrato, serious rather than cozy, aptly suggesting clinging to soon-to-be-memories as much as her glittery gown clung to her.  

The inclusion of Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” would seem to be obligatory, of course.  But, except for a small part of it via the sound of the voice of the honoree himself in the film piece at the start, it was not sung in this program; instead, it was played by the orchestra at the end. Perhaps trotting out the whole company and giving each vocalist a few lines and then having them all join in would have seemed trite…. although a part of me would have probably enjoyed hearing it handled by one of the talented guests or the originally announced Kurt Elling (absent due to illness). But listening to the melody, absent the lyric, made the recent absence of Tony Bennett hit home.  Long live his legacy and the music championed by Jazz at Lincoln Center!     


See the full set of Conor Weiss's photos from the evening.

Find more upcoming shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center and learn how to support them on their website at


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