Interviewed by Cal Fussman, August 21, 2014, originally published in the November 2014 issue of Esquire.
I've been very fortunate. I'm doing what I love and I'm getting away with it, you know?
Fame comes and goes. Longevity is the thing to aim for.
If music sounds dated, it means it wasn't very good in the first place.
Music teaches my painting and painting teaches my music.
I was sketching in a slit trench, hiding out, waiting for the Germans. All of a sudden, I heard a whistle. I knew immediately that it was coming right at us. The noises that it made were unbelievable. It overcame me. So I ran as fast as I could from that trench. I was twenty-five feet away when the shell hit exactly where I'd been sketching. What did it teach me? it thought me to be against war.
Sing like it's an opening night.
Never open with a closer—that comes from Count Basie.
Emerson wrote about how ignorant it is for people to be religious and say My God is better than yours. That was 1841. We still haven't learned.
Respect eliminates hate.
I did a show once with Louis Armstrong—a television show. and It was one hell of a show. All of a sudden, as Louis was playing, a fly landed on his nose. So he blew it off. He kept singing, and the fly came back on his nose. So he blew it off again. It was being taped, and everyone in the audience was holding their stomach, laughing. They didn't want to let their laughter out and ruin his performance. When Louis finished, everybody broke up. And then the director came out and said: "Let's do one more take without the fly." But that was the take they should've put on TV.
When the uncreative tell the creative what to do, it stops being art.
When I was starting out, I used to stay onstage too long. Instead of criticising me, Fred Astaire told me, "What I've learned is when you get a set together that's absolutely perfect, go in and pull out fifteen minutes of it." That was his way of telling me that less is more.
I can't live in San Francisco—I'd never have an ounce of privacy. When I go to San Francisco, I know how the president feels.
Jazz is so fabulous, because you do the same song you did the night before differently than you did the night before.
My mother was a dressmaker. We were very poor. But she said: "Always have a clean suit, a white shirt, and a black pair of pants and you'll be always dressed."
You can go anywhere in black and white.
Ella Fitzgerald used to say "We're all here." Three words. That really says it all. That's the way to treat people. "We're all here."
Luck is something that happens at the right time.
Any great performer I've ever met has been frightened to go on.
If the artist doesn't give a shit, why should the audience?
I got that from a cabdriver years ago. He said: "You singers, you're all losers compared to the singers I grew up with." I said: "How come?" He said: "Years ago, Al Jolson and Ethel Merman and people like them came out onstage and they hit the back of the house! They didn't have a microphone." He said: "You guys are faking it." So I said to myself: Let me try it. When I'm in an acoustical hall, let me sing a song at the end a cappella. At first, I didn't know what was gonna happen, but then I saw the reaction. This is good! So I left it in.
My father used to sing on a mountain in Italy, and the whole valley would hear him. I have a photo of me singing "O Sole Mio" in the same exact spot. My son Danny was talking to some people and he came up with this idea: What do you think of Tony and Lady Gaga singing "O Sole Mio" in Italian? They went crazy. Having your kids involved in your career like that is very satisfying.
Everything old becomes new again.
I'm not trying to be bigger than anybody. My game is just to be one of the best.
I'm eighty-eight—I have an awful lot to learn. My dream is to get better and better as I get older.
Lately, I can't believe it. I'm getting four or five standing ovations a night.