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At 90, Tony Bennett celebrates the music of a life well-lived

Honoree Tony Bennett performs onstage at Keep Memory Alive's 20th Annual Power Of Love Gala at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 21, 2016 in Las Vegas City. | Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

He’s as timeless as the music he sings.

Tony Bennett chuckles amid gratitude for the compliment.

“Thank you for saying that. I really like that comparison,” the 90-year-old singer says during a recent phone conversation from his New York home.

TONY BENNETT

When: 8:30 p.m. Aug. 13

Where:Ravinia Festival, Highland Park

Tickets: $34-$101

Info: ravinia.org

It’s not just a compliment, it’s a fact. In a 65-year career Bennett has achieved what most singers only dream of, what precious few of his contemporaries have accomplished, and perhaps what no artist may duplicate any time soon. He has survived and thrived in the music business by delivering music that’s honest and vibrant and appealing to fans of all ages and races, of all backgrounds and creeds. And to paraphrase his old blue-eyed pal, he did it his way.

His love affair with jazz has fired his soul all these years. And he’s been no slouch when it comes to pop, either (he’s charted an album in each of the past five decades). In 2011 he became the oldest singer to hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 with “Duets II.” Three years later, “Cheek to Cheek,” his incomparable album of standards with Lady Gaga, debuted in the top spot on the same chart.

And the hits for Bennett are iconic: “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (1962), “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life” (1963), “The Shadow of Your Smile” (1966), “For Once in My Life” (1968). He sang jazz with a nod to some of the greats — Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney — but with a voice that was unlike any other.

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga perform during the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2015. |Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga perform during the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2015. |Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

“Jazz is so honest,” Bennett says. “It never becomes dated. You recorded something 25 years ago and play it now and it still sounds new and great. Take Benny Goodman. Listen to any Benny Goodman and his Trio albums and it sounds like he made it yesterday.”

These days, Bennett is busy making jazz cool to a new generation of fans; most notably, in his collaboration with Lady Gaga, and a tour that wowed audiences brimming with fans of both the old-timer and the funky newcomer. It was a match made in heaven.

“She’s quite a performer,” Bennett says, his voice lifting with excitement. “She’s such an all-around entertainer. She’s always doing the unexpected. She sings so beautifully. No, I’m not shocked by all the costume choices [she made during their tour]. She shows up in something different every time. It was very unexpected. I love that about her. What you see I what you get.

“By going on tour with Gaga they all found out who Tony Bennett is. She has my audience, too. All the parents of these teenagers who come to see her. [Laughs] So it’s a good combo. We found a way to entertain people of all ages.”

Next up for Bennett is a new book, “Just Getting Started,” co-written with Scott Simon of the NPR program “Weekend Edition,” due out later this year. While not a memoir proper, the book recounts the artists that helped shape the world and his career across the decades.

“It really talks about everybody in show business, the really big names I knew and worked with. These truly great performers. It’s really a little biography on each of them.”

His recollections about working with legends such as Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong shift the conversation to his deep-seated commitment to the civil rights movement (he marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama) and the ongoing struggles for equality.

“Someday everyone should forget about being prejudiced,” Bennett says. “Music knows no race. It’s universal.”

The other passion that fuels the Kennedy Center honoree and 19-time Grammy winner (his most recent being a 2015 statuette for best traditional pop vocal album for “The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern,” with jazz pianist Bill Charlap) remains the canvas.

“I paint every day,” Bennett says. Some of his work hangs in the Smithsonian, as well as hugely respected galleries across the country. “Music teaches you about painting, and painting teaches you about music. It’s all about feeling, learning what to leave in and what to leave out. How to simplify your state of being. Painting teaches you about life. With all due respect to the great Picasso, nothing competes with nature. You look at trees and every leaf is different. I’m fortunate because I live right outside Central Park. Early in the morning I paint the nature right in front of me. I get my greatest inspiration from a walk in the park.”

Bennett, who performs Saturday night at Ravinia (one of his favorite summer “homes,” he says), has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

“I’m never gonna retire,” he beams. “I’m very healthy. I’m in top shape. I exercise three times a week. I don’t feel like everyone expects a 90-year-old to feel. I feel blessed to be on this planet and it’s fantastic to be alive! I love life. When the audience reacts to what I’m singing I feel so good.”

As for his legacy, he hopes to be remembered for the creative arts education schools he and his wife, Susan, have established to foster art education for children of all economic backgrounds. But what about the music?

“I hope they had fun when they saw me,” he says quietly, of his audiences. “I tried to entertain them and make them feel good.”

Singer Tony Bennett poses with his wife Susan Crow on the 86th floor observatory after lighting the Empire State Building in honor of his 90th birthday on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Singer Tony Bennett poses with his wife Susan Crow on the 86th floor observatory after lighting the Empire State Building in honor of his 90th birthday on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)