Tony Cennamo (1933-2010)

Boston jazz loses a great
By JON GARELICK  |  June 16, 2010

BLUE NOTE Cennamo, a fixture on WBUR for many years, was outspoken and outrageous — and knew his jazz.

Tony Cennamo is synonymous with jazz radio in Boston. A fixture on WBUR from the early '70s to his last late-night show in 1997, Cennamo — who died on June 8 — was lively, outspoken, even outrageous. But his depth of knowledge was irreproachable. Besides playing music and otherwise reporting the headlines of the day ("hassling the discs and data," as he liked to say), he conducted hundreds of live on-air interviews. In his between-song commentaries, he extolled his heroes and dispatched those he felt didn't measure up.

Away from the mic, he was even more outspoken. Asked about the latest jazz-rock hero, he might sniff, "Shorty Rogers was doing that in the '50s." The latest tome of jazz history was "Swiss cheese — full of holes." If an avant-leaning listener (okay, me) were to call him up ecstatic about something he was playing on the air, Cennamo might purr, "I knew you'd like it — it's out of tune."

Cennamo also worked for years at Emerson College, teaching jazz history, advising young broadcast students. (Emerson grad Jeff Turton, who was brought to 'BUR by Cennamo and hosted WFNX's Jazz Brunch for more than 25 years, credits him as a mentor.) Colleagues describe Cennamo's preparation for class as sometimes frighteningly "spontaneous" — grabbing an armload of records. There were plenty of anecdotes (most of them firsthand, from his own interviews and experiences with musicians), but Cennamo — a sometimes jazz trombonist — also knew the music. And Emerson doubters were silenced when he would show up with a surprise guest, such as Dizzy Gillespie, whom he'd just dragged from his morning 'BUR show.

Jazz at 'BUR is now gone. But Cennamo's legacy — among journalists, former students, and the many musicians he helped — survives. A memorial service is planned for 2 pm on June 26 at BU's Marsh Chapel.

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