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Remembering The Old Bebopper Of Boston

June 9, 2010, 10:41 PM

Boston’s NPR News Station wasn’t always. For a fleeting decade, Boston was an American jazz center, and Tony Cennamo was at the center of that center. Cennamo was a WBUR jazz announcer for 25 years, starting in the early 1970s, continuing, on nights, in the 1980s, when WBUR became an NPR station, and into the late 1990s.

Tony died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 76. His wife, Carine Kolb, wrote and sent us this obituary:

Tony was born on September 30, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y., firstborn to Louis Cennamo and Marie (Esposito) Cennamo. He played stickball, took tap dancing lessons and as a teen, sang in a band. He attended Catholic schools (including a year at St. Francis Seminary in Lowell, where he first picked up the trombone.) Young Tony took advantage of his proximity to Manhattan, skipping out to the clubs to hear Duke, Dizzy, Bird, Billie and countless other greats.

At 18, Tony joined the Air Force, stationed first in Biloxi, Miss., and then Omaha. (His friend incorrectly told him he was going to Alaska, instead of Nebraska!) Tony went to Creighton University on the GI Bill, where he got into radio, becoming a program director for KOCU. He also led the Jazz Seminar All-Stars. Showing up for a gig, the club management was unhappy that the band was integrated, but Tony pitched a fit, showing them the signed contract, and the band played. Tony cared about talent, and had no use for prejudice unless it was directed at the untalented. He worked for a time at Boys Town, among other pursuits. In Omaha he met and married his first wife Doris (Steffen) Cennamo. His first son, James, was born in 1955 and his daughter, Jeannie, in 1958.

In 1961, Tony moved with his family back to Brooklyn and ended up working for WCBS Radio, first in the library, then becoming a producer of the Jack Sterling Show and later a producer for Pat Somerall; he even worked on an early folk music show, meeting many of artists that passed through CBS. Tony was an active part of the scene in New York during those years. His daughter, Annie, was born in 1961.

In 1967, WCAS Cambridge offered Tony a position, and he and his family moved north. He was called “the golden voice of radio station WCAS” for his show, The Sounding Board, which gave a voice to common citizens. Among many other controversial issues of the day, he was instrumental in getting exonerating a Somerville teacher suspended for commenting against the war in Vietnam. He was there to document the student unrest at Harvard, interviewing SDS members, and rumor has it that his radio activism led to an FBI file on him.

In the early 1970s, Tony was involved in the emerging communications revolution of cable TV, working under a HUD planning grant for the city of Somerville to make sure that people had a voice in the outcome.

In 1972, he began at WBUR as the Old Bebopper of Boston, doing the Jazz Gamut on Friday nights. In 1974 he started his show New Morning, a popular drive time jazz show that was even featured in a Robert Parker mystery, with Spenser listening to Tony’s show while casing a house. In 1981, WBUR became an NPR station and Tony’s show was moved to nights, where he stayed until 1997. He interviewed local, national and international stars, played the music he loved and freely shared his sometimes controversial views with his listeners.

From 1975-1996, Tony taught jazz history and radio programming at Emerson College, where he would eventually teach thousands of students. He was able to persuade his friend, the great Dizzy Gillespie, to miss his favorite soap opera, General Hospital, and instead come lecture Tony’s class, doing what he could to promote his love of jazz to young adults.

Tony was also on other stations, including WMEX. He MC’ed and promoted local musicians at countless venues around town, was a member of the Sackbutt Ensemble (he led 75 other trombonists at Symphony Hall in 1979), co-produced the Boston Globe Jazz Festival for many years, taught at the Boston Center for Adult Education, wrote articles and liner notes, tirelessly advocating for jazz and jazz musicians. He enjoyed collaborating with others immensely, sharing his talent and knowledge with so many. And his contributions extended beyond jazz, whether it was a prison program, or narration for Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf, or the Central Square Cinema, or so many other interests.

In 1977, Tony was presented the Outstanding Achievement Award in Jazz by the Boston Jazz Society, an honor he deeply appreciated. Also in 1977, he was awarded a Cultural Leader Grant from the Partners for the Americas to teach jazz history in Medellin, Columbia. In 1986, Tony was selected to represent Boston in an exchange program with sister city Melbourne, where he appeared on radio and TV, sharing his passion for jazz with Australians.

Sports were another passion, starting with the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers of his youth, and included doing interviews with the Celtics at the old Garden, doing a play-by-play of an early Head of the Charles Regatta, attending Red Sox games, or playing catch with pals.

In 1986, Tony suffered the first of two major strokes, after his return from Australia. He returned to WBUR and to teaching at Emerson College after a few months of rehab, and still took on additional gigs, even trying to learn the valve trombone. A number of young engineers helped him out in the booth at WBUR during this time, including some former students. His son James became his engineer and producer from 1995-97, and father and son relished their time together.

In 1989, he married his widow, Carine Kolb, and in 1990 their daughter Julia was born. By 1997, his health forced Tony to retire. He was honored by a tribute concert at the Berklee Performance Center. He became a stay-at-home dad, passing on his great love of movies to Julia, as he had his older children, indoctrinating her with Marx Brothers, Hollywood musicals and Woody Allen.

A litany of his accomplishments does not portray the man, who had brilliance, wit, charm, boundless energy and quite a bit of the Brooklyn rascal in him. He was many things to many people over the years, and he will be greatly missed.

Besides his wife and four children, Tony is survived by his younger brother, Jim; nephew, James; and five granddaughters, Justine, Tiffany, Kate, Emily and Sonya. He is preceded by his mother and father and sister, Dolores.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to:

National Stroke Association
9707 East Easter Lane
Centennial, Colo. 80112
(800) 787-6537, ext. 917


890 Commonwealth Avenue, Third Floor
Boston, Mass. 02215

A memorial will be held June 26 at Marsh Chapel, Boston University, at 2 p.m.

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  • I send my deepest sympathies to Tony’s loved ones for your loss. I will miss Tony, who handled his illness with grace and grit.
    He will always be an important part of Boston jazz radio history.
    I am sorry that I will be out of town for his June 26 memorial.
    Rest in peace, Tony.
    Justin Freed

    Posted by Justin Freed on June 10, 2010, at 2:42 PM
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