Tony Cennamo: Jazz Lover, Teacher and Mentor

This week saw the passing of Tony Cennamo, a legend in the Boston Jazz and Radio scenes.

Tony was a lot of things to a lot of people: jazz expert, music lover, family man, veteran, Brooklynite, baseball fanatic, Jeopardy! addict, stroke survivor, teacher, combatant (or debater, if you prefer, but remember he was from Brooklyn), and more…

To me, he was a mentor, a source of definitive knowledge about jazz, my 5 am ride home. Tony was my teacher at Emerson, co-worker at WBUR, and a friend (though I will admit I could have been a lot better the last few years).

For a more formal obituary of Tony, see the Boston Globe, and there are two nice remembrances at WBUR-FM’s website  by former colleague Steve Elman and his wife, Carine Kolb.

Photos? Alas I have none I feel I can rightfully use, but there are a few good ones at the MySpace page maintained by Tony’s son, James.

Marvin Hamlisch, Go To Your Room

It never occurred to me to wonder what it was like to know Tony before he had his stroke in 1986. I first met him in 1988 when I was a student at Emerson College. Tony was teaching Jazz History, and I wanted in. I heard he was cantankerous which was intriguing and a little intimidating,, but I love jazz music and wanted to learn. I was already a jazz DJ at WERS-FM, Emerson’s student radio station, so I figure I had a good start.

Tony came as promised: uncompromising, demanding respect (for the music more than for himself) from the students, but also with a great facility for storytelling and a sharp sense of humor. He wove many stories of the history of jazz- including rebukes to musicians who got things wrong.

My favorite: when talking about Scott Joplin and ragtime music as a precursor to jazz, Tony, brought up the film the “Sting” and its use of Joplin’s music. The problem? The film was set in the 1930s, and Joplins music was written 30 years or more earlier, creating an unforgivable anachronism. Tony’s comment? “Marvin Hamlisch (who won an Oscar for his travesty), go to your room.”

I’m Wearing A Cardboard Belt

A couple years later, I found myself working at WBUR-FM, manning the overnight shift as the board operator for Tony’s “All Night Long” program. As an on-air person myself, I enjoyed filling in for Tony when he took nights off, but it was the nights we were there together that were the best. On air, he called me his “aide de campe” (and I assume those who followed me got similar sobriquets). If I liked the Emerson class, then my nights with Tony were a Masters Degree in jazz history. He taught me to appreciate big bands (which I had gotten snobby about), particularly emphasizing the genius of Duke Ellington as a composer and bandleader. He also further defined for me his uncompromising attitude towards quality. I will never forget, for example, his apoplectic response to a caller who asked him to play Earl Bostic. Let’s just say Earl Bostic was not on the top of his list.

I also got to learn more about the past so factually laid out in the above-linked stories: his days in the Air Force, including his integrated band and his work with Boys’ Town; his time at CBS in the 60s, and WCAS in Cambridge a little later; and of course multitudes of stories about jazz legends past and present that Tony came to know, such as Bill Evans and Charles Mingus, but more importantly many lesser-known great musicians.

A few I got to meet, which exposed me to some of the lifelong friendships Tony had formed: singer Mark Murphy, for example, as well as the vocal duo Jackie and Roy, to name two (well, three) off the top of my head. I also got to know one of the most generous spirits out there, Rebecca Parris, and legendary alto sax player and longtime friend of Tony’s, Phil Woods.

We also shared a love of baseball and movies- to my delight, I discovered Tony was fond of throwing out lines from the film “The Producers” (a favorite of mine from a young age) at randome moments: “I’m wearing a cardboard belt!” Is one I still use frequently.

Later, I was lucky enough to be among the people Tony would call (just don;lt call him when Jeopardy is on) and occasionally meet with, a highlight being his taking me to a concert by the Gil Evans band led by his son Miles.

So how starstruck was I? That’s not the point. It was Tony’s world, and for a time at least I was living in it.

While I was unforgivably terrible about keeping in touch the last few years, he is, and will be, missed.


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