Remembering Tony Cennamo, Voice Of Jazz In Boston
Tony Cennamo, who spun jazz on WBUR for 25 years, passed away Tuesday after a lengthy illness. He was 76. Cennamo’s tenure at WBUR coincided with a fleeting period in which Boston was a national center for jazz. Another former jazz voice from WBUR, Steve Elman, offers this remembrance.
In 1972, he was already here.
The one music sorely neglected by local radio was jazz. So, for a shining decade or so, jazz became a major part of WBUR.
Tony Cennamo was one of the jazz DJs on 90.9 in the 1970s and 1980s, along with Wylie Rollins, Rhonda Hamilton, Ted Boccelli, Jay Brandford, Rob Battles, Jon Garelick, Steve Schwartz and me. When Charlie Perkins moved on to New York in the mid-seventies, they gave Cennamo the morning seat, the golden throne of radio.
He had been Tony Sennamo before, a news director in New York City in the early ’60s, and then program director at WCAS, when that station was the voice of Cambridge.
He always embraced his Italian-American heritage, but by the time he took over as WBUR’s morning man, he adopted the old-world pronunciation of his last name.
He woke Boston with jazz until 1982, and then went back to nights, where he continued to talk and spin, through two strokes, until 1997.
Cennamo’s listeners heard Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” — the tune that he made into his theme — thousands of times, in versions classic and obscure.
There seemed to be a dozen jazz clubs in the area in the ’80s, and a hundred working bands. There are even more great players in Boston today, and there are just as many venues for the music, but in those years, it seemed like The Workshop, and Lennie’s on the Turnpike, and Sandy’s, and Wally’s, and Michael’s, and all the rest, were part of a jazz renaissance.
There were jazz soirees at the Emmanuel Church on Sunday Evenings, all-night concerts produced by the Jazz Coalition at the Church of the Covenant.
There were giants among us, like George Russell and Phil Wilson, Sam Rivers and Ran Blake. There were young monsters like John Scofield and Ricky Ford, Joe Lovano and George Garzone and Steve Slagle — and you could hear them for a nominal cover and a beer or two.
Cennamo was the only person in Boston broadcast history to host a jazz show in morning drive time. He conversed with hundreds of players on the air, often at a far greater length than his listeners would have liked. He played new music and old with equal enthusiasm.
He was outspoken — to say the least — off the air and on.
When you listened to Cennamo, you got an honest show — hard shots, love letters, mistakes and all — but you always knew that jazz came before anything else, that the music was his passion.
Not a bad legacy.
Steve Elman was part of WBUR on and off the air from 1972 until 2004. He is the author of “Burning Up the Air” and a board member of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame. A memorial service for Tony Cennamo will be held at BU’s Marsh Chapel on June 26 at 2 p.m. In lieu of flowers, his family is directing donations to the National Stroke Association.
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