Donn Trenner

Donn Trenner (at the piano) in his youth, backing vocalist Helen Carr. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress / May 29, 2013)

Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven Annual Meeting and Brunch Honoring Musician Donn Trenner

10 a.m. Sunday, June 2 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge. $36. (203) 392-6125,


You can find Donn Trenner playing piano every Monday evening at the Arch Street Tavern in Hartford with the 17-piece Hartford Jazz Orchestra, a band he's led since its previous leader, trombonist Chic Cicchetti, passed away 14 years ago. He also occasionally joins a combo led by guitarist Tony Lombardozzi at the Ayuthai restaurant in Guilford, the town where the New Haven-born Trenner has lived for over a decade. At one point during a phone interview last Tuesday, Trenner had to take another call; when he got back on the line, he said, "Huh. I just booked another show."

Here's another place you can find Donn Trenner: at the Jewish Community Center in Woodbridge on Sunday morning, June 2, where the veteran jazz pianist/arranger/bandleader will be given an award at a Jewish Historical Society luncheon.

"They're honoring me for being alive, I guess," Trenner chuckles. Naturally, he'll be performing at the event, sitting in with the duo hired to play at the catered lunchtime event, guitarist Tony Lombardozzi and bassist Brian Torff.

Playing three or four times a week, on average, seems like a busy life for a guy in his 80s, but Trenner says it can't compare to his time as bandleader for "The Westinghouse Show," a syndicated daily TV talk and comedy series hosted by Steve Allen from 1962-64. Trenner coined the phrase "talent incinerator" to describe how a variety show can burn through guests. Remarkably, Trenner was able to keep the show's house band together with just one lineup change in two years. The band was required to play intro and theme music, back the guest performers, jazz up the comedy sketches, and do their own special numbers. Asked if Steve Allen, a pianist and songwriter himself, ever played along with him, Trenner responds "Several times a week, he would want to play duets!"

On the Allen show, Trenner played with guests ranging from Andre Previn to Miles Davis. He remembers a historic time when Lenny Bruce appeared. "We played him on, and he told the audience he was going to say a dirty word — a four-letter word that began with 's' and ended with 't.' He said 'It's so dirty I can't even say it to you. I'll turn around and tell the band.' So he pretended to say the word to us, then he turned back. The word was 'snot.' He did a whole bit about snot, how hard it was to get out of suede." Despite the hilarity, Trenner remembers the entire experience as tense. "Westinghouse, the sponsor, had lawyers there, Lenny had his lawyers there." Westinghouse wouldn't let the episode air. "It was very daring, but we couldn't use it, of course." The show now exists in the archives of the Glaser Foundation First Amendment Collection of the Paley Center for Media.

"The Steve Allen Westinghouse Show" lasted until 1964. Trenner would likely have worked with Allen on another project had the bandleader not already been offered a different TV gig. His career in the 1960s and beyond found him recording and/or touring with Nancy Wilson, Maynard Ferguson, Ann-Margret, Vicki Carr, Rod McKuen and many others. He was part of the band Nelson Riddle put together to score the TV series "Route 66." ("You can hear me a lot" on the album version of the show's theme song, Trenner says.) He was nominated (as conductor) for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction for the 1976 Shirley MacLaine TV special "Gypsy in My Soul." He co-hosted the first Stockholm Jazz Festival in 1980. Earlier in his storied career, he did seven USO tours — not to mention TV and radio shows and Christmas parties — with Bob Hope, an association which began while Trenner was with Les Brown's band. He still keeps in touch with many of his famous friends, saying he called Ann-Margret on her birthday last month and frequently sees Steve Allen's son Steve Allen Jr. He also says wistfully that he's been virtually "commuting" to funerals of old colleagues with whom he worked in the '60s.

Donn Trenner was born in New Haven, growing up in the Whitneyville and Morris Cove parts of town and attending Putnam Avenue elementary school and Hillhouse High School. He ran his own big band when he was just 17. "I used to take the trolley car downtown and would see Major Glenn Miller on the street." (The legendary bandleader/saxophonist was at Yale during World War II, leading the 418th Army Air Forces Band.) Trenner later was drafted into the Air Force himself, where he joined Special Services as a musician, co-producing weekly comedy shows for the troops.

When Trenner moved back to Connecticut in the 1990s after decades of living and working in California, he didn't know he'd be inheriting the Hartford Jazz Orchestra. He was working with lots of musicians in other ways, however. He was contracting jazz players for Mohegan Sun whenever the casino needed them, for performers such as Frank Sinatra Jr. and Ringo Starr. He taught music for nine years at Guilford's Adams Middle School.

Now Donn Trenner is recognized not just for his place in jazz history but for being a stalwart member of the Connecticut jazz community. Give this man an award!