An immodestly gifted musician yet extremely modest gentleman of the old school, the noted pianist, conductor and arranger Donn Trenner, an 88-year-old New Haven native, has performed with such jazz giants as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Pettiford, and Ben Webster.
Because of his musical savvy, the then young perfectionist (a word he loathes) was also the pianist of choice for such big band barons as Buddy Morrow, Charlie Barnet, and Les Brown and His Band of Renown.
Most famously, this virtuoso of versatility and dizzying diversity served distinguished stints as the musical director, empathetic eminence grise, and sometimes good pal for a galaxy of showbiz stars including Bob Hope, Steve Allen, Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine, Lena Horne, and Nancy Wilson.
Trenner’s star-glittering resume as performer and orchestrator/composer includes more than one hundred recordings, posh TV specials, and innumerable appearances in Vegas clubs and elite concert halls around the world, including stateside appearances ranging from Caesars Palace, to the White House, and the Apollo Theater.
Besides having a warehouse full of memories about his colorful, industrious career, Trenner has a good sense of humor, is an excellent storyteller and a sagacious autodidact who -- although he never went to college-- has, as he says, “used the world as my university.” Blessed with a photographic memory -- along with perfect pitch -- he’s addicted to words and language and has a novelist’s eye for even the smallest yet telling detail. All these qualities would seem to make him a natural to write a memoir of his life and times in show business.
Despite pleas over the years from friends, family, and fans, he had -- at least until recently -- summarily rejected all suggestions of ever doing a book about his career.
“I thought that would just be a too highly egotistical project for me,” he said by phone of his years of resistance to compressing his protean life’s story between two hardbound or paperback covers.
But thanks to the persistent persuasion of the writer Tim Atherton, Trenner finally relented and, with Atherton, co-authored his recently published Leave It to Me…My Life in Music. Despite his long bout with memoir-phobia, his book is an informative, entertaining chronicle of the modest maestro’s life and career.
“I fought it for a long time,” Trenner said, who had lingering self-doubts about the project's worth even after it was well underway.
Much to Trenner’s pleasant surprise today, however, he has been thoroughly enjoying a cycle of book-signing events, including one at the prestigious RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison.
An easy read, Leave It to Me is graced with candor, a conversational tone, and two personal Trenner hallmarks: humor and humbleness. Along with amusing anecdotes, his memoir is packed with insightful reflections on the showbiz world as seen from his privileged perch at the piano bench.
Among refreshing oddities, there’s Trenner’s tale about bandleader Charlie Barnet’s collection of pet monkeys, including one exceptionally bright, upstanding primate who was toilet-trained, preferred an upstairs john, and even flushed on his own -- potty humor that would be right at home in the Hollywood comedy Meet the Parents.
For a more literary laugh, there’s Trenner’s funny, Terry Southern-like recounting of a surreal command performance at the Gerald Ford White House where he accompanied Ann-Margret, whose appearance had been specifically requested by the President’s guest of honor, the Shah of Iran.
Outside the White House, a mob of angry protesters was shouting, “Down with the Shah! The Shah is a Murderer!”
A blood-curdling Greek chorus, the raging cries against murder and Middle East, jackboot tyranny provided a bizarre accompaniment for Ann-Margret’s upbeat, wholesome fare in the White House’s Blue Room. What sounds like a comically dark, satirical scenario concludes with a Gerry Ford blooper-- a verbal pratfall recalling Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live skits spoofing Ford as the Commanderklutz-in-Chief.
Trenner’s narrative unfolds from boyhood days when he took the trolley to Hillhouse High School and attended symphony concerts with his mother at Yale’s Woolsey Hall, right up to the present when the globe-trotting music man has come full-circle in his odyssey back home to Connecticut where he has lived in Guilford since 1996.
Along his epic journey, there are close-ups, snap-shots, and thoughtful reflections on the great and famous, including high praise for sentimental favorites like Rosemary Clooney.
Not everyone gets away unscathed, including the comedian Jack Carter who, Trenner said, had “a well-earned reputation as difficult, coarse, and abusive.” Similarly, Frank Sinatra’s lawyer Mickey Rudin is icily dismissed as “one of Sinatra’s henchman.” There’s even a surprising face-to-face clash with Raquel Welch in which Trenner, most uncharacteristically, used blunt, critically harsh words about the sex symbol’s blatantly stagy mannerisms and glaring vocal deficiencies.
Generally, however, Trenner’s critiques are balanced with praise, embracing the Golden Mean, abstaining from the more typically mean-spirited, contemporary memoirist’s bloodlust for the jugular. In fact, he’s actually at his best when praising people he likes, such as Ann-Margret and Steve Allen, a witty, jazz-loving kindred spirit.
Life today is, of course, light years removed from the excitement of showbiz limelight and the sound and the fury of the Vegas entertainment scene, or all those wonderfully wacky road trips with Hope entertaining American troops worldwide.
Nonetheless, the word “retirement” doesn’t exist in Trenner’s literate lexicon. Indeed, the peripatetic pianist stays busy with gigs in Connecticut, and has even recorded several new CDs over the past couple years. As a musical contractor for Mohegan Sun, he’s lined up mega-orchestras that backup casino headliners like Frank Sinatra Jr.
For almost 16 years, the pianist/conductor has led the Hartford Jazz Orchestra at its remarkable, weekly Monday night run at Hartford’s Arch Street Tavern. Trenner was handpicked to be musical director of the venerable orchestra by its leader, Chic Cicchetti, a revered arranger, who, shortly before he died in 2000, selected him as his apostolic successor.