CHICAGO -- It's a question I've been hearing for decades, applied to any number of seasoned performers I've covered:
Why are they still working?
I heard it plenty when Frank Sinatra was deep into his 70s, still selling out arenas around the world. Also when Cab Calloway was in his 80s, joyously strutting up and down the stage snarling "Minnie the Moocher." Ditto septuagenarian jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, nonagenarian jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham, and 89-year-old Arthur Rubinstein and 96-year-old Mieczyslaw Horszowski, both eminent classical pianists.
And, of course, now regarding singer Tony Bennett, who will turn 93 in August. The implication is that after a certain age, musicians no longer sound as they did in their "youth" or "prime" – two loaded terms that, in this context, seem designed to diminish artists of exalted age and experience.
So why do these legends sustain careers for so long?
"I didn't try to do that, but it's happening," says Bennett, who has few peers or precedents when it comes to pop/jazz singers flourishing in their tenth decade.
"So I'm thrilled about it. I've had a wonderful life doing what I love to do, and the public accepts me for it."
The turnouts Bennett draws around the world suggest he's right, yet more than one skeptic has said to me that the old master should have yielded the spotlight years ago. How wrong they are.
When a performer of Bennett's vintage takes the stage, we're encountering more than just how they sound on any given night (though Bennett's command of a large repertoire, remarkable accuracy of pitch and inextinguishable sense of style defy the passage of time). Because these legends have been in our lives for so long, their very appearance onstage calls forth memories richly worth treasuring.
Better still, elder performers represent eras that without them simply would slip into the history books and, then, into obscurity. So when Bennett, for example, sings "Because of You" or "Rags to Riches" or "Street of Dreams" or "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" – tunes he helped make famous – he's showing us how this music ought to sound. Younger performers, of course, will invent their own worthy interpretations, but Bennett, Sinatra, Fitzgerald and other innovators set a standard against which the rest will be judged.