Jazz Legend Lifts The Green
Paul Bass File photo
When he was 13, back in 1940, Donn Trenner started his own jazz orchestra, the Donn Trenner Orchestra, at the old downtown Hillhouse High School in New Haven. The orchestra included 16 of his local classmates who played jazz arrangements that Trenner wrote for them.
“Now, there are jazz orchestras in a lot of schools and it’s become a definite art form and it’s very special,” Trenner said. “In my high school, that wasn’t the case. Mine was the only band,” he told the Eagle in an interview after a recent concert on the Branford Green.
Jazz took over his life, as it has been known to do. He managed to graduate from high school and then took off for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to sign up with a swing band.
A year later he was in New York playing piano for Ted Fiorito’s band, with which he traveled out West. He was the youngest member of the band until it hit Jantzen Beach, Oregon, and took on Doc Severinson, who would later appear on TV screens every weeknight as the leader of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band. He has performed in music venues around the world, playing on over 100 records, leading The Steve Allen Show house band in the 1960’s and appearing on TV and in movies.
Bill O'Brien Photo
On July 10 he brought the Hartford Jazz Orchestra, which he now plays with and conducts, to the stage at Branford’s Jazz on the Green. At 87 Trenner is still going strong. Click here to read an earlier story about him.
He is still “writing charts.” He also conducts the great Hartford Jazz Orchestra, and he plays often on Sundays at 7 p.m. at Jazz @ Ayuthai in Guilford, his hometown these days. He is a busy guy.
Throughout his life, Trenner has experienced the perpetual growth of jazz, playing piano with the greats, in the Les Brown Orchestra and then with Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. He also played for films and landed a spot with Les Brown and his Band of Renown. And last week he recorded his latest album.
As he looks back over a life time of evolving jazz, he observed that it isn’t easy for jazz musicians to make a living doing what they love to do.
“The struggle for many musicians is that it’s difficult for any musician to make a living once they become adults,” Trenner said. “The ability to be able to make a decent living is difficult, but I’m an arranger, a composer, and a conductor, so I have had a pretty busy career.”
Each week, Branford’s Jazz on the Green series presents a jazz band that performs a wide range of music, from personal mash-ups to classical pieces and even duets with vocal jazz performers. Hearing Trenner, who came up in the ranks of early bebop pianists, was a treat for the audience on the Green that night.
“The fact that you can be out there, have all these people assemble, sit and enjoy their families, and have the orchestra perform in a nice situation like that is a great thing,” Trenner said of the Branford venue.
Jazz as an American art form continues to grow within the United States, Trenner was happy to say.
One of Jazz on the Green’s founders, Charlotte Mattei, said in an interview with the Eagle: “I like the way jazz makes you feel,” “It’s a relaxed and cool feeling.”
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That it is, especially when Trenner is hitting the keys.