'The Songs Never Die': Tony Bennett And Bill Charlap On Staying Power The two powerhouse musicians are teaming up to interpret the work of Jerome Kern. They join NPR's Scott Simon to discuss what makes a timeless pop song.

'The Songs Never Die': Tony Bennett And Bill Charlap On Staying Power

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Why waste words on introduction?


TONY BENNETT: (Singing) Someday, when I'm awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight.

SIMON: It's a little hard to go on after hearing that. Tony Bennett has a new album. It's called "The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern." And it's a partnership between perhaps the most enduring interpreter of the American popular song and Bill Charlap, the jazz pianist and scholar. Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap join us from New York. Thanks so much both of you for being with us.

BENNETT: It's our pleasure.

BILL CHARLAP: We're delighted to be here.

SIMON: Bill Charlap, Jerome Kern wasn't just "Show Boat," was he?

CHARLAP: No, Jerome Kern was the angel at the top of the tree for American popular songwriters and writers of the theater. He influenced George Gershwin. He influenced Richard Rogers. He influenced all the songwriters.

BENNETT: And he was the one who introduced all the great songs that we love today, songs that'll never die. And it's a great thing that the United States has given the rest of the world. No other country has given such great popular music that will last forever to the Far East and Europe. When I play those great countries, a lot of times the audience starts singing the songs with me. They know them. They love them. And the songs never die, and they become more and more beautiful as the years go by.

SIMON: Let's listen to a song from this album, if we could. This is Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are."


BENNETT: (Singing) Time and again I've longed for adventure, something to make my heart beat faster. What did I long for? I never really knew. Finding your love, I've found my adventure.

CHARLAP: You know, what I was thinking as I was listening to Tony sing is Tony's a painter. But when Tony sings, the fact that he's a painter is also part of everything that he does. The way that the lyrics and the harmony and the texture meet each other between us when we're playing together - all of those things are extemporaneous. We're making them up as we're going along. But there's really a sense of value that's like a painter choosing the colors and choosing the way that the lyric and the story of the song is told.


BENNETT: (Singing) When all the things you are, are mine.

SIMON: Let me pick up the tempo a bit. Let's play another song.


BENNETT: (Singing) I won't dance. Don't ask me. I won't dance. Don't ask me. I won't dance, madam, with you. My heart won't let my feet do things they should do.

In America, at the beginning of talkies, with films, they automatically pulled out Fred Astaire from the theaters and put him on the screen and had all these great composers write songs for him. They call it the Great American Songbook; I call it the Fred Astaire Songbook because they were written for him. And he was the one who introduced all the great songs that we've loved today.


BENNETT: (Singing) I'm like an ocean wave that's bumped on the shore. I feel so absolutely stumped on the floor.

SIMON: When did you first hear this song?

BENNETT: Well, just listening to wonderful jazz artists, they gravitate to songs like that. When I heard that one, I just said oh, that's one of them - that's one that'll last forever.

CHARLAP: I know what Tony's talking about. When I was a little kid, I asked Jule Styne once a very auspicious question...

SIMON: Do you realize what a sentence that is? Not even - it's a half sentence. When I was a little kid, I asked Jule Styne once - sorry, I just wanted to remind you of the fact most of us don't have childhoods where we can ask Jule Styne anything, but go ahead.

CHARLAP: (Laughter) Well, I wasn't trying to flash my credentials. It's just it so happened to be true. And I remember wanting to ask just the right question. I was about 11 years old and I was getting very interested in these songs. And I asked him, what's the secret of writing a great popular song? And he said, it should be melodically simple and harmonically attractive. Now, I love what he said. He didn't say that it should be harmonically interesting or harmonically innovative, but attractive. And that's what Tony's talking about with a song like "I Won't Dance."


BENNETT: (Singing) I know that music leads the way to romance. So if I hold you in my arms, I won't dance.

SIMON: You know, Tony, I was struck by something I think I read in the New York Daily News that quotes you recently, where you say you're still trying to find yourself.

BENNETT: Yeah. I was possessed with a wonderful example of my Italian-American family. They would come over and join us every Sunday, all my aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces. And I would sing for them, and they'd say oh, we love the way you sing and we love the way you paint flowers. I was 10 years old, and I was just saying who am I? What am I supposed to do? And they told me that they loved the way I sang and the way I painted. And it created a passion in my life that exists to this moment as I speak to you. And they really created a passion in me that is stronger now at 89 than in my whole life. I still feel that I can get better somehow, and I search for it all the time.


BENNETT: (Singing) Look for the silver lining whenever a cloud appears in the blue.

SIMON: The great Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap. Their latest album "The Silver Lining: The Songs Of Jerome Kern." Thanks so much for being with us.

BENNETT: Thank you for having us on.

CHARLAP: Thank you very much.


BENNETT: (Singing) And so the right thing to do is make it shine for you. A heart...

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