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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.

Tony Cennamo

Tony Cennamo

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.

Listen: Tony Cennamo On WBUR


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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  • http://mozellstudios.com Paul Mozell

    He had a rhythm. He had authenticity. He was cool, very cool. Let’s here more jazz on the radio, in his memory.

  • Steve Elman

    Just one addendum to my remembrance of Tony . . . In my list of DJs past, I never meant to omit the name of James Isaacs, but now that seems like a regrettable oversight. I was trying to dredge up some ancient history for those who might recall the rough and ready crew who constituted the first class of BUR jazzers. James came along a few years after all of us amateurs in the early ’70s, and in his more than twelve years on WBUR, he was sui generis. He adhered to a standard of excellence on the air that few of us ever achieved – including Cennamo, by the way. James was irreplaceable and irrepressible, and I remember his shows with as much (or more) fondness than those of any of the other DJs on WBUR.

  • Jeff Turton

    Tony was responsible for my being hired in 1978 to host the weekend morning Jazz on WBUR. He was my mentor and even though we ultimately parted ways in our approaches to radio he taught me more than anything else that it was respect for the music that was important and could not be compromised.

  • Andy Cook

    I was an eight year old kid who loved jazz and WBUR was my favorite radio station in the 70s. Along with Tony, Jeff Turton, Steve Elman and James Isaacs, I heard and loved the music that has also been a big part of my life. I wanted be a jazz DJ for the rest of my life. I got that chance, after college, WBUR hired me to produce and co-host Tony’s late night show. What a dream come true. What could be better than spinnin’ jazz with Tony All Night Long and work with the man I grew up listening to.

  • Lee Cohen

    Growing up in the 70s, while my friends were listening to teeny-bopper Dale Dorman on WRKO, I was learning from the master….Tony C on WBUR. He introduced me to the world a jazz in a way that no one else could. I will never forget that great voice and his wonderful sense of humor. I even had the privilege of sitting in his studio one rainy weekday morning while he spun some of my father’s old 9-inch 33′s from the early 50′s. Tony was the essence of cool. He will be missed. Tony Lives!

  • Mark Brenner

    In 1972 when I graduated from college and came back to Boston, I found WBUR, and I found and fell in love with jazz. I still vividly remember sitting in the front row of a Herbie Hancock concert hosted at BU by WBUR–I think Steve Elman was the host. But mornings with Tony Cennamo were the best–the live interviews (Horace Silver still stands out in my mind), the great sense of humor, his annual “sackbutt week.” Tony was my model then for cool, and as I fondly remember him, he is my model for class. Rest in peace Tony–I hope there are live jazz concerts, vinyl records without scratches and loads of other trombone players wherever you are.

  • Bill Falconer

    I will never forget the concerts he presented as part of the Globe Jazz Festival. Man, they were long as he knew everyone and they all played. He also introduced my wife and me to the COTA Festival in Delaware Water Gap where he emceed. We miss him.

  • james cennamo

    We really appreciate all the beutiful comments and condolences from Tony’s fans. My dad was a very interesting guy, who lived and breathed music, especially jazz.He brought the world of jazz to the Wbur audience with such passion. His knowledge was far beyond any other Jazz “DJ”, (he hated the term dj)I count myself very lucky to have worked with him for the last two years of his tenure at ‘Bur. After the 2nd stroke I volunteered to engineer the show.We had such fun together, the first time I really got to see what my dad did on the airwaves.Most of the time we we’re laughing…But I was also getting an education. I miss those times at ‘Bur…where we pilfered the instant hot chocolate packages and brought them home.Love to you all! James Cennamo

  • Michael Scott

    I too loved to listen to Tony and in fact to all the WBUR jazz folks, as mentioned by Steve Elman. One remembrance of Tony is that he would always play a concentrated session of tunes by a jazz great who had just died. I remember well the morning he played nothing but Paul Desmond, and hearing this on my drive in to work, I knew that all this lovely music by my favorite sax player was not a good omen. I was one of the very disappointed ‘BUR listeners who protested the move to all news and the loss of Tony C. in the morning was keenly felt by many of his listeners. Thanks for this wonderful remembrance, Steve.

  • kathleen mckenna

    You are missed, Mr Cennamo. He was ultra-coolness.

  • james kennedy

    I remember waking up to “New Morning”, (I think that is what his show was called) all through the time I was in going to college at B.U. and after. Tony had a real deep knowledge of jazz and and great taste. Where on the radio could you hear jazz starting at 6:00 am in the morning! It made my day. Sometime in the 80′s he changed his theme song and started each morning with “blues in a minute” by the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra. It was a long cut, starting very gently, then slowly building in intensity with each solo and ending in a blast. Man, if you weren’t awake after that! I miss that show, I miss those times. Rest in Peace Tony, and thanks for all the beautiful music.

  • jeannie

    Tony, Norm Nathan, Ron della Chiesa, Ray Smith – singular talents- and their shows were great. Imagine: an option of listening to Jazz in the morning(!) or in mid-day(!) instead of waking up to cacophany of our modern world repeated 50 times a day. Not that one was ignorant, of course we listened to the news, but jazz was just a better way to wake up – made folks happier, and that’s no small trick. I miss them all like crazy.

  • Anne Cennamo

    Thanks Adam… I live in Arizona I didn’t get to hear this live due to the time difference… anyway.. I have been keeping my cool… saving my tears for his memorial service… but the minute I heard his theme song… the tears rolled down… the memories refreshed… Grateful for all the great musicians I was able to listen to and meet and all the times Dad let me tag along to all those music venues (loved the Jazz boat!) always got great tickets to shows and could bring my friends… I also spent a great amount of time at WBUR, running to the (i forget the name of it) the news printer… it spit out reams of paper with the latest news and info… I’d bring it to him so he could get it out immediately. I volunteered at all the fundraising telethons for WBUR… loved the donuts and the socializing… and loved the “Fame through association!” haha! I also spent many years attending BU Metropolitan College so basically I was on campus from 1972 until 1993! My partner Dawn and I to Arizona in 2001…. It’s quite a huge difference not just in temperature and political climate…. but also because no one cares if I say Cennamo with a soft C or Cennamo with the Ch sound…. Most people don’t know my father but believe it of not I have met people who have heard his show because they went to school in Boston or they lived there at some point in their life… that’s always “Cool” for me to hear. Jazz is not as prevalent here in AZ as in Boston… though in my town they have a “Jazz in the Hills” program… Anyway, Thanks for the memories! Peace to all… and please everyone keep Jazz alive!

  • Steve Schwartz

    I met Tony in 1974 when I took my three kids to see “Blazing Saddles” at the Central Square Cinema. The guy at the window asked me how many tickets I wanted and I replied, “You’re Tony Cennamo!”
    I had been playing jazz at the MIT radio station, on a volunteer basis, for a couple of years and Tony was someone I listened too, learned from and subconsciously tried to emulate. We chatted until the kids and I went into the movie and he gave me his number and told me to call him so we could talk some more. I did call him and visited him while he was on the air and eventually Tony started using me to sub for him. That was thirty-five years ago.
    Last Friday night I was featuring Oliver Nelson’s work on the radio to commemorate his birthday. As I was ending my 4 hour program on WGBH-FM, 8 minutes before midnight, I played “Stolen Moments” and thought of Tony with great love and remembrance. I had no idea that I would get a message from a mutual friend two days later that Tony had died. I know he was listening then and he will continue to do so.

  • Irving Smolens

    I am an 85 year old D-day veteran and Anne was my neighbor in Melrose before she moved to Phoenix. She knew that I knew her father and was a very long time Jazz fan so she would keep me up to date on his health problems.

    When I was working I worked split shifts. When I did not have to be at work until 2:00 PM I would visit Tony in studio and meet such people as Johnny Hartman and Eddie Heywood. When I first started listening to Charlie Perkins and later to Tony the WBUR signal was so week that I could barely pick it up as I drove past the studio on Comm. Ave. The Jazz listeners paid for the 50,000 watt transmitter by donations and fund raisers. I was in the studio when George Garzone donated the income from a gig that his trio had played for the new transmitter. That was indicative of our love for the music and for Tony for keeping it alive. Often I would have lunch with him. At times he would want to showcase an artist or vocalist and I would loan him LPs there were no CDs in those days.

    Anne, I hope you read this posting. You know where I live and my phone number is in the book. It would be great if you contact me. I am hoping to attend the Memorial Service and hope to see you there. I have been attending Memorial Services lately for WWII veterans and I am grateful that I am still able to do.that

  • Cal Kolbe

    Hey Steve — I concur fully with your addendum; James I. remains sui g. And you became a very gifted “amateur,” indeed. (Also non pareil, Nat Hentoff on WMEX in the real long ago.)
    When I first became a regular listener of Cennamo’s morning show,I called in a request one day and learned that Tony was not the B.U. student I assumed would be on college radio. He got a good laugh out of my asking how come he knew so much about jazz at his young age.

  • Tom Lucci

    Thanks to BUR for this apreciation and the great comments. Too often it takes something like Tony’s death to bring back fond memories of the Boston jazz scene and beloved jazz on the radio. To add (hopefully not a self-serving plug): WICN 90.5 in Worcester is still all-jazz, all day. Recent signal work has improved coverage in MetroWest especially.

  • Kathy Cahill

    I also grew up and learned about jazz by listening to Tony on WBUR. I loved hearing Stolen Moments at the top of his show — it was the harbinger of special things to come. Thanks, Tony, for all your great shows and all you taught us. May you rest in peace.

  • Hank Bolingbroke

    To Steve Elman: Great story. What was that string piece near the end?

  • Adam Ragusea

    Hank: Listen again. Every piece in this story is an arrangement of “Stolen Moments.” I’ll see if I can get the specifics on the string arrangement from Steve today.

  • Beverly Wolf

    During bouts of insomnia in the late 70s, I began to listen to Tony’s all night show. We’d met when he was working at the cinema in Central Square and his radio show there. We talked on the phone about jazz in the middle of the night. We often met at the concerts at the Charles Hotel ballroom. He taught me alot about jazz, about surviving and living well after his strokes. He was a great guy and a great promoter of jazz in Boston. I’ll miss him but treasure his memory.

  • Adam Ragusea

    More from Steve Elman on that string version…

    “The track is from an interesting CD of contemporary remixes of Impulse jazz classics.

    It’s called ‘Impulsive: Revolutionary Jazz Reworked’ – it’s on the Impulse label (natch), released 2005.

    The Stolen Moments ‘remix’ is a complete deconstruction and reassembly, with considerable new musical material added. Only a tiny hint of Oliver Nelson’s Impulse recording (from his album ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’) remains.

    The complete credit:

    Oliver Nelson: Stolen Moments – Telefon Tel-Aviv Remix. Arranged / conducted / manipulated by Joshua Eustis; with strings from the Chamber Orchestra of Loyola University, New Orleans, and violin soloist John Vajner.

    Amazon shows this CD as still in print, though they unfortunately credit George Russell as the only artist. It is in fact an anthology. There is a sensational (no lie) remix of George’s ‘A Helluva Town’ on it, along with very good remixes of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Swing Low Sweet Cadillac,’ Archie Shepp’s ‘Attica Blues,’ and Gabor Szabo’s ‘Mizrab.’ About half of the CD is worthwhile music. The other tracks, not so much.

    For those who care, and if you want to post the info, here are the other two recordings I used:

    Oliver Nelson: ‘Stolen Moments’ from ‘Swiss Suite’ (1971), on RCA. Recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

    Mark Murphy: ‘Stolen Moments’ (with lyrics written by Murphy, from 1978) – This track has been issued a number of times. All the versions are officially out of print, but the reissue on Murphy’s ‘Timeless’ CD (Savoy) is probably the easiest one to obtain – used dealers have it.

    It’s also on ‘Stolen . . . and other Moments,’ a very good 2- CD anthology of Murphy’s work (32 Jazz), and on the original release, just called ‘Stolen Moments’ (Muse)

    The version that Tony used most often on the air is from Oliver Nelson’s ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’ (Impulse), which is widely available.”

  • james

    I got married in 1974, and WBUR was on in our house every morning listening to Tony doing his New Morning show. To us it was more than a morning radio show. It was a part of us. I first fell in love with jazz in 1970, and I can only say that Tony Cennamo was one of the all time great DJ’s. Later in the 80′s, I was fortunate to work the overnight shift and to listen to Tony again. Now I have to listen to jazz on my computer.(except for Eric Jackson). Those were the days.

  • Hal Korstvedt

    So many memories… Morning after morning of wonderful music… Opening day at Fenway Park (in 1976?) – Phil Wilson had organized a pre-game parade of 76 trombones, the musicians all nattily dressed in crisp white shirts, and there was Tony near the head of the parade, looking a bit like an unmade bed, playing an antique instrument… Answering the phones for Tony during ‘BUR fund raisers… Exchanging birthday wishes on our common September birthday… Visiting Tony’s show to promote an upcoming concert for the Boston Jazz Society (Sonny Stitt at Berklee, 1981)… A lecture somewhere in Boston on the music of Duke Ellington… Tony emceeing a concert at the DeCordova… and I still have an initialed copy of Tony’s list of 33 albums for a basic jazz library… He truly set the gold standard for jazz radio, and I boycotted ‘BUR for years when they went all news. Thank you, Tony, for enriching my life.

  • Ron Della Chiesa

    I first met Tony when he was doing his morning show on WBUR sometime in the early 70′s.
    At the time I was doing classical music on WGBH in a rather conservative format to say the least.
    Tony’s unique radio persona and his rapid fire on air delivery reminded me of my early days attending those legendary Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts at Symphony Hall.
    It just so happened that he was playing Lester Young from one of those concerts when I first called him.
    We hit it off right away and shared some wonderful times together.
    We talked about our many other mutual interests.
    Our love of Italian Cinema, the Operas of Verdi and Puccini,Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, the Paintings of Picasso, Rembrandt,and Titian.
    Those were the days when Tony would come over to GBH to help with our fundraising and I in turn would delight in doing the same on his show.
    After his stroke we continued to see each other.
    Tony was an excellent mimic and we would break each other up with our movie impressions.
    We did disagree on some of our musical choices and he would let me know it.
    “Della Chiesa….why did you play that…it’s just awful.”
    But later we were always able to laugh it off and pick up where we left off.
    Most of all I’ll always be grateful to him and singer Marty Elkins for introducing me to my wife Joyce.
    He told me once….” I helped bring you and Joyce together…that’s one of the things in my life I’m most proud of.”
    Thank you Tony…Rest in Peace my friend.
    Ron Della Chiesa

  • Cj Kelley

    Tony was my dear friend throughout the seventies and eighties.
    He and Al Julian got me a gig writing about jazz for the short-lived “Nightfall Magazine”.
    He supported and encouraged my efforts to present live jazz when I took over the Boston Jazz Coalition, and promoted, consulted on and hosted many of our concerts.
    This wonderful man made me feel like I belonged in the jazz world.
    Thanks, Tony – I owe you plenty.

  • Adrian F

    I just found this notice today. How very sad! 35 years ago, I had no interest in jazz. It is now a passion of mine. I hold two BUR mainstays responsible for this: Tony Cennamo and Ray Smith. Ray Smith had the easier task: he got me listening to trad jazz. Cennamo (as he used to refer to himself) got me to appreciate Mingus, Monk and a whole host of players whose music I would never have appreciated without his guidance. Thank you Tony!

    Now I learn that both of them have passed this year. I miss them both.

  • Sarah Jasmin

    I stumbled upon this notice today. When my family moved to Boston I would listen to his show whenever I could. Thanks to him I was able to learn as much about jazz as I could absorb. Stellar coolness. And Mr. Cennamo, I did finally get to see “King of Hearts”-thanks for the recommendation.

  • http://www.suekelman.org Sue Kelman

    Tony was a preservationist and an archivist of jazz voices. He preserved the jazz that others had forgotten, and gave recognition to those that had been overlooked. Tony was a passionate man both inside and outside the radio booth, championing local musicians, quietly working to ensure that Boston remained a strong jazz city. He was valiant in his later days, hobbled by the strokes that weakened that terrific voice. It remains in my ear today…warm, gravelly, intimate, and quite simply irreplaceable.

  • David

    I was a regular listener in the 80s right up till i moved to nh. Had many talks with james isaaks and tony they were the jazz duo who taught me about jazz and i won many tickets to concerts by calling in ……. learned all i know about jazz from them .Its killing me that i can’t remember the name of the radio show it was every night and it was either tony or james
    James all ways ended the show with “peace” played by George cables” on the piano. Plus george cables inbetween. I remember doing a request of Pat matheny and tony getting mad at me . that was funny : he was doing a class at Emerson at that time. He played the trombone and said he sat in with Coltrain once . ………….. Got my great Jazz education from you guys THANKS still have some great record
    James turned me onto the GREAT record he did the liner notes for Tony Bennett Jazz……plus i have another great tape i recorded from the show when they did a special on Chuck Wayne the great guitarist … who played with george shearing and tony bennet …i learned this all from those guys and more .. james new me by name when id call in .

  • Bob Covington

    I was a freshman a BU when I met Tony as a result of being a fan of his show. He was the one who suggested that I, as a journalism student, might be interested in reading news at WBUR. Through Tony, I met Steve Elman and through Steve’s wife, I got a job at WEEI and moved into a long journalism career. Tony made a lot of what I have experienced in journalism possible. I’m saddened to hear of his passing.

  • Jefferson Smith

    I was thinking about Tony yesterday while I was listening to some Duke, he was my history of Jazz professor at Emerson College. I remember the class vividly as it was one my favorite classes from my time there. He and I used to quote “The Producers” all the time to each other, and it was a lot fun. His knowledge of jazz music was amazing and I definitely appreciated all his anecdotes about the people we listened to. He definitely had strong opinions about a lot of the music and the musicians themselves, and I appreciated it. I’m very sorry to hear of his passing. He definitely made a difference in my life and I can only imagine how much he is missed by his friends and family.

  • John Callarman

    I have a different image and a different set of reminiscenses of Tony Cennamo as a friend and fellow information person on WCAS-740, Cambridge, 1968-1970. Kaiser-Globe Broadcasting inherited the li’l 250-watt daytimer when it purchased WXHR AM-FM-TV from Harvey Radio. FM became WJIB, a legendary beautiful music station, TV became WKBG-56. AM became Wickus Island Radio, serving the five suburban communities of Watertown, Cambridge, Arlington, Somerville and (sorry about that) Belmont.
    After a couple of false starts, we wound up doing news blocks from sunrise sign-on to 9 a.m., noon to 1; and 4 to sunset sign-off. We dud extensive local news coverage for those five communities in the news blocks, and in the two three-hour sets, we did telephone talk, dealing with local issues. Tony Cennamo was the 9-noon talkmaster; Richard Wood from 1-4. Kaiser’s executives were called managers, and Tony was program manager, I was news manager (a title I that was never quite comfortable for me.) Our primary emphasis was local politices … and we built an audience that actually moved rank and file listeners to get involved in local politics.
    We had no producer to screen the calls … it was first come, first serve. Cennamo and Wood answered the phones themselves, on the air, our only protection 7-second tape delay … As a direct result of our talk shows and, to a lesser extent, news coverage, citizens action groups sprung up in Somerville … my favorites were the Ward Two Civic Association and the appropriately named Franklin Avenue Neighborhood Group. People in Somerville were fed up with local government and, in a municipal election in 1969 or ’70 ousted 9 of 11 incumbent aldermen and chose a Republican Presbyterian Minister, S. Lester Ralph, as mayor over the Italo-American Democrat challenger and the Irish-American Demicrat incumbent.
    In Cambridge, where the legendary Al Vellucci had tried several times to become mayor, our listeners convinced the council that they should, at long last, pick Boston’s most famous drum-and-bugle-corps maven to run the city for two years.
    Unfortunately, we had carved out a market that was only one-tenth the size of the entire Boston market, tried to sell mainly to ad agencies when we should have been out on the street selling to the “Mom and Pops” that were still in business 40 years ago. We were an artistic success but a financial failure, morphing into folk music as I slunk off to Southern Illinois, becoming eventually a small-town newspaper editor. Tony was the heart and soul of Wickus Island Radio … and I’m proud he found a niche he loved and where he was beloved. It thrilled me to read, in one of the great Mr. Parker’s Spenser novels, that Spenser was a Tony Cennamo-WBUR fan.
    John Callarman, Krum, Texas

  • Bertolucci

    in addition to his duties on WCAS and WBUR Tony also hosted a Saturday evening jazz sow on the old 1510 WMEX in the mid 70s. At the time ‘MEX was a station with no clear direction. They had Red Sox baseball and late night talk. They also had “Woo Woo” Ginsburg back doing Sunday night rock oldies and Alan Dary doing his long running Sunday morning request program of Great American standards. Alan also did a Red Sox pregame show “From the Bleachers”.                In the 1980s Tony Cennamo on WBUR and Ron Della Chiesa afternoons on WGBH made Boston a special place for radio. We were blessed. Tony was a special talent. I was especially moved to see Tony host a jazz show at the Berklee School of Music.

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