The best is yet to come for jazz legend Tony Bennett (w/video)

  • Tony Bennett performs at the Governors Ball, the official after-party of the 84th Academy Awards, in Los Angeles, Feb. 26, 2012. The party, held at the Hollywood & Highland Center, featured guests such as Meryl Streep, Octavia Spencer and James Earl Jones. (Noel West/The New York Times)

Way back in the 1930s, when Tony Bennett was little Anthony Benedetto, the budding singer was enrolled in a New York City public arts high school before he dropped out to work and help support his family.

“I went to my music teacher and told him I was thinking about dropping music and just concentrating on art and he encouraged me to stick with singing,” he remembers.

That sage advice still resonates today as he and his wife, Susan, help support art programs at 17 schools in New York.

“It gives the students a reason to come to school that they enjoy,” he says. “And being exposed to the arts and expressing yourself through the arts makes you a better citizen.”

It’s his way of giving back more than 60 years into a career that has garnered 17 Grammy awards, NEA Jazz Master and Kennedy Center Honoree awards and the signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

At 87, his latest project is an unlikely jazz collaboration with Lady Gaga called “Cheek to Cheek,” due out later this year.

Before he belts out the classics at the Green Music Center next Friday, Bennett took time to chat over email about painting, cardiology and his unforgettable stint as a singing waiter.

Q: Ever think of changing back to Benedetto? Why the name change originally?

A: Well, Bob Hope actually gave me the name “Tony Bennett” backstage at the Paramount Theatre when I first started out. In fact, when he announced me to the audience as “Tony Bennett” that night, it was the first time anyone, including myself, had heard the name.

It was Duke Ellington who encouraged me to get serious about my painting, so when I started to show paintings in galleries and museums I decided to paint under my family name, Benedetto, which means “the blessed one.” So I guess I use both names now.

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