Tony Bennett: Musical Memories

Music is the universal language. Or, to be more precise, a universal awakener.

On the passing of Tony Bennett, it is good to remember that he was still performing well into his nineties and after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. While his short-term memory was limited or nonexistent, his ability to singhis hit songs, whether in his living room or on stage, remained vibrant. In a recollection by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who did a profile of Bennett for 60 Minutes, interviewing him was challenging, but when he took to the piano to sing, his personality and energy returned as he performed.

Lifelong pursuit 

Bennett’s roots in music ran deeply. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown on NewsHour in 2014, Bennet spoke about performing for his relatives as a ten-year-old. Having lost his father, Bennett’s family helped nurture his talent, enabling him to pursue his passion for music and painting. 

Bennett served in World War II, saw combat in Europe, and later saw the horrors of Dachau. After getting out of what he and men of his generation called “the service,” he attended art school. He also pursued his passion for painting and, in time, started singing in public. His career was respectable, garnering respect from his contemporaries and elders like Frank Sinatra. 

At age 70, his career seemed stalled. His son, Danny, helped him gain wider recognition in part by recording with women and men a generation or two or three younger than himself. These included Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, and, most notably, Lady Gaga. As Bennett said on NewsHour, part of his reasoning for working with younger artists was to keep jazz – America’s homegrown music – alive and resonant. Fans of the younger performers embraced Bennett.

Bennett’s passion for music keeps his spirit alive. As Anderson Cooper recalled on CNN, Bennett brought him to tears when he watched him perform in his own living room. Cooper said that he may not have known who Cooper was, but he knew he was Tony Bennett, an artist with something to say. His example has heightened awareness of dementia.

Music as connection

Bennett is one of many musicians whose talent did not diminish with his memory. A few years ago, I was playing piano as a volunteer in a cardiac care center, and an elderly gentleman approached me to tell me that his wife used to play piano; then, he gestured to his head, indicating that her memory was fading. When his wife returned from her visit, I invited her to sit down at the piano and play. Which she did. Masterfully. No sheet music, just channeling the piece from memory. 

When I glanced at her husband, I could see tears forming. He put his hand over his heart and said, “You don’t know how good this makes me feel.” I urged him to continue having his wife play since they still owned her piano. He nodded, and when the woman finished, she rose from the piano bench smiling. Moments later, after I had begun playing again, she approached me and, with a smile, slapped a crisp two-dollar bill on the piano headboard as “my tip.”

Music can reach those with memory loss by enabling them to return a semblance of themselves when they hear music, especially played live. When I ask for requests, I seldom get a response, but when I play a tune, I can see smiles appear, and after every song, there is a smattering of applause. It indicates not my performance (always sorely lacking) but their appreciation for music.

Music speaks to us and maybe even more as we age and our memories dim. Music reminds us of our humanity and our connectedness to the world.

First posted on 7.25.2023