At 86, Donn Trenner was too busy to rest on decades of laurels. He had a gig to prepare for—and a pupil whose sense of time needed straightening out.
Trenner left New Haven in the 1940s to perform in music halls around the world, play on over 100 records, lead orchestras on TV and in movies.
He has since settled back in the area. He’s still gigging once a week in Hartford with a 17-piece group, while shopping around a memoir entitled Trading Fours: My Life In Music. He has taken on a disciple and performing partner, harmonica player Chris DePino, whom Trenner recently cured of a case of “meter beating.”
Trenner will perform this Sunday as the featured guest at a brunch “recognizing New Haven’s Jewish Jazz and Swing musicians,” an annual meeting of the local Jewish Historical Society.
Animated and full of energy, Trenner (pictured) wandered back through that history—seven decades of American jazz history in which he participated—while seated Thursday morning at a Steinway grand at Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street.
“I tell people I’m 68, but I’m dyslexic,” he quipped.
And he recited his motto:
“Don’t just play notes. Tell a story.”
His music story began at 6 years old, when his mother got him started on piano. She recognized he had talent. By 16, he was leading his own big band—and watching his grades at the old downtown Hillhouse High School drop from “high honors” to just passing as he spent his time in school “writing charts.”
He did graduate. But his mom had to pick up the diploma. Donn had already driven his 1936 Ford Phaeton down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to sign up with a swing band.
A year later he was in New York playing piano for Ted Fiorito’s band, with which he traveled out West. He was the youngest member of the band until it hit Jantzen Beach, Oregon, and took on Doc Severinson, who would later appear on TV screens every weeknight as the leader of Johnny Caron’s Tonight Show band.
Drafted into the army during World War II’s final 15 or so months, Trenner led three orchestras for the armed forces. Once sprung, he returned to the West Coast, met his future wife (the late singer Helen Carr), and formed a jazz trio. He gravitated to Los Angeles soon after and found himself playing continuously for popular shows in TV’s infancy such as Nelson Riddle’s Route 66. Trenner began a fruitful career as a session musician; he would eventually play piano on over 100 albums, most of which he never ended up owning. He also played for films and landed a spot with Les Brown and his Band of Renown.
“It was the best orchestra there was,” Trenner recalled. Some summers they’d whip through 70 towns in just a few months, traveling in a chartered DC3 airplane. That provided Trenner with a taste of what would become a way of life—the road. In the ensuing decades he and his bands would place alongside the likes of Nancy Wilson and Lena Horne and Paul Desmond and Billie Holiday, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker and Tommy Dorsey.
He saw life on the road kill some musicians young, drown others in booze or heroin addiction. Trenner said he managed to avoid those temptations; he credits his upbringing. His dad, who worked first at Pearlin’s jewelers at Center and Church streets (now a Dunkin’ Donuts) and then Savitt’s (Trenner recalled the slogan: “Savitt and you’ll have it, POMG—Peace Of Mind Guaranteed), and his mom brought up their only son with conservative values. They didn’t drink, he said. When they lived on Eld Street, he used to attend Sunday school nearby at Mishkan Israel synagogue on Audubon Street (a building that today houses the Educational Center for the Arts).
“Musicians have a great capacity for stimulants. I just didn’t want it,” Trenner recalled. “A lot of people are dissipated. A lot of people like to feel good at any expense. I didn’t want to pay the debt. I don’t like to wake up the next morning say, ‘Why’d I do that?’ I was hanging out with junkies and didn’t know they were junkies.”
Trenner’s biggest break came in 1961, when the Steve Allen Show hired him to lead the orchestra. Five nights a week through 1965, he played intros and “bumpers” leading into and back from commercial breaks for a national TV audience. (Click on the play arrow for a sample.) His old bandmate Doc Severinson was playing in the band for another late-night talk show host, Johnny Carson, en route to becoming leader in that gig.
Trenner subsequently toured with the likes of Shirley MacLaine and, for 19 years, Ann-Margret. “I had a 37-piece orchestra with me. We went to Sweden three times.” He made his mark as a conductor, arranger, and musical director, and picked up an Emmy nomination along the way.
It wasn’t until the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994 that Trenner considered coming off the road. Two years after the earthquake, enjoying life with a young daughter (his first child), he moved back to the New Haven area. He stayed close to home after that.
But he didn’t stop playing, or teaching. Thursday morning he spoke with folks at Neighborhood Music School about possibly conducting an upcoming course on improvisation, an art form Trenner considers too little understood, too often mis-taught. It’s not about playing a lot of notes, he said. It’s not about knowing what notes go with what chords. “They’re not teaching [students] how to be composers when you’re improvising, how to use that harmony as a base for their compositions, which should come out of their brain instantaneously. You’re an instantaneous composer.” (Like this guy.)
Chris DePino, a local train conductor-turned-turned-politician-turned-lobbyist who developed a successful side career as a Chromatic harmonica player, ran into Trenner by chance at a party not long ago. He subsequently summoned the nerve to knock on Trenner’s door to ask him for lessons.
“I was in the midst of a piece of American musical history. All I could do was honor that. He began to teach me how to become a better harmonica player,” said DePino (at right in photo). For months the two have spent lots of time together, Trenner schooling his protege in how to overcome “meter-beating,” how to “play in time in a much more relaxed way,” as DePino put it. (Click on the video at the top of the story to watch the pair perform “Days Of Wine & Roses” and discuss their relationship.)
In March, DePino coaxed Trenner to accompany him to a harmonica players’ festival in Virginia Beach. There was a piano present, of course. And, of course, Trenner ended up sitting at it. The room was packed as Trenner and DePino played a set, DePino recalled.
“We slayed ‘em.”
Donn Trenner will perform with bassist Brian Torff and guitarist Tony Lombardozzi this Sunday, June 2, at the Jewish Historical Society jazz brunch at the Jewish Community Center, 360 Amity Rd., beginning at 10 a.m. Tickets cost $36 in advance, $45 at the door; more info here. Trenner will also perform with Chris DePino beginning at 7 p.m. on June 11 at Lyric Hall, a restored former Vaudeville house in Westville Village, as a fundraiser for mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez.