At the age of 15, Donn Trenner was already leading his eponymous big band orchestra. While still a teen, he rented a bus, loaded it up with the 15-piece Donn Trenner Orchestra and a full complement of acts, and hit the road to make his mark in the world of music. He’s been at it ever since.
For the past 73 years (and counting) this noted jazz pianist, conductor and arranger has worked with the best, and the best have come knocking. A deeply humble guy, Donn’s not a name-dropper—he’s just shared a lifetime of music with plenty of famous people, from Tony Bennett to Josh Groban.
Through the decades, Donn’s talent has landed him on stage with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Oscar Pettiford, to name but a few music legends. With perfect pitch and a water-tight memory for detail, Don’s creative arrangements and laser-true music direction opened up lasting friendships with Ann-Margret, Bob Hope, and Steve Allen, among other huge stars.
On March 10, Donn plans to celebrate his 89th birthday by doing what he loves—working in music. But, thanks to the persistence of trombonist, educator, and writer Tim Atherton, Donn also has given his fans (and anyone who loves a good story) the gift of his highly enjoyable memoir, Leave it to Me...My Life in Music. With Atherton, Donn authored the new book, published in October 2015.
Donn surely has more stories to tell than a single book can hold, but those he shares are fabulous. Still, he wishes he’d squeezed in some more, such as when Sammy Davis, Jr., hired Donn’s quartet to play at his controversial wedding to Swedish actress May Britt in 1960. But many, many stories are shared, from Donn’s experiences co-writing an Emmy-nominated nightclub act for Shirley MacLaine to his time entertaining troops overseas with Bob Hope.
“I did five or six of those Christmas tours,” says Donn. “It’s really something to sit out there, in the middle of Korea or Greenland or Iceland...and see as many as 5,000 GIs sitting in the snow, just waiting to see something from home.”
His book includes vintage and modern photos reflecting his experiences on the road, in early television, recording studios, and on world stages, as well as candid shots, such as bombshell Jayne Mansfield helping Hope entertain the troops.
Donn is really enjoying sharing his stories and has been wowed by the great reception his book events are receiving, including a recent signing at Guilford’s Breakwater Books and a talk and signing at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.
“At R. J. Julia, there were over 100 people—I couldn’t believe it!” says Donn. “I didn’t play, I just spoke. And at the end, I got a standing ovation. They clapped for so long, I wanted to say, ‘Sit down, already!’ I was really getting embarrassed.”
Believe it or not, despite pleading and prodding from many in recent years, this gentle music giant didn’t think folks would be interested in a book about his multi-layered musical life. Atherton approached Donn soon after the Connecticut native moved his family from California to Guilford in 1996 (Donn left the West Coast behind for good, after experiencing California’s devastating Northridge earthquake of 1994). Atherton and Donn began discussing the book idea, but Donn was slow to move it forward.
“It was not my idea in the beginning. I went along and had trouble finally letting it happen, and I’m glad it did happen, now,” says Donn of his memoir. “I was just thinking the other day, there are a lot of stories, and people are reacting, so I guess maybe I was okay! I’m so pleased. It’s wonderful.”
Without giving too much away, Leave it to Me...My Life in Music leaps into gear with its first sentences; about Donn’s eye-witness account of the famed MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas in 1980. Locals from this area can relate, at least geographically, to Donn’s recollections of his early family life. Born in Connecticut in 1927, his family soon moved from Hamden to New Haven. Donn’s parents’ dysfunctional marriage is also discussed. His mom tended the family clothing store in New Haven and his dad labored under several efforts which fell just short of real success. Money wasn’t flowing, but, Donn says, “there was always enough money for piano lessons, and my mother took me to Woolsey Hall to see the concerts.”
Spurred on by his own desire to succeed, young Donn translated his musical talent and ambition into the Donn Trenner Orchestra. He finished high school at 17 and passed the Juilliard entrance exam, but turned himself away at the door on the day he was to play for a scholarship.
“I went in to do my piano recital and I heard someone playing incredibly well, and I walked out of the building,” says Donn.
Instead, Donn’s orchestra work took over. At 17, he was on the road.
“I made the world my university,” he says.
By the early 1960s, he was conducting the Donn Trenner Orchestra on television’s The Steve Allen Show, where he made lifelong friends with Allen and many show regulars, including Tim Conway .
“Steve Allen wrote 5,700 songs. I know—I wrote them down for him!” says Donn, laughing. “One of the things that Steve Allen used to do was imitate a nighttime disc jockey, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here we are [at] the top of Hilton Hotel with the music of Dire Tramplings and his orchestra.’ He would make up names with my initials. ‘Dump Truck’ was one of my favorites. Once, a guy called me in the middle of the night and said, ‘Dip Theria, how are you?’ And another guy, years later, called me and said, ‘Donald Trump’—I’m going to use that one next time I speak!”
Of all forms of musical expression, orchestra is Donn’s absolute favorite. Each Monday night, he leads the legendary Hartford Jazz Orchestra at the Arch Street Tavern in Hartford.
“I inherited that orchestra from a man who died 16 years ago. When he was sick, he called me and asked me to take it over,” says Donn of renowned arranger Chic Cicchetti.
Since then, Donn and the Hartford Jazz Orchestra have gathered gratis at Arch Street Tavern to play on Monday nights, simply for the privilege of playing Cicchetti’s arrangements every week. Once a month, a female vocalist joins them, in a nod to one of Cicchetti’s favorites, the late Bobbi Rogers.
“It’s such a wonderful orchestra, and the reason it is, is that he was a very advanced arranger for big bands,” says Donn of Cicchetti. “He wrote a library that’s second to none.”
Donn also contracts orchestras for musicians performing at Mohegan Sun Casino (he’s currently planning a gig for Johnny Mathis this fall). At home in Guilford, he often works at his piano with vocalists, polishing upcoming shows and recordings. Donn’s currently collaborating on three new recordings. As a performer, orchestra leader, and/or composer, Donn has 110 recordings to his credit, to date.
One singer Donn’s accompanying these days, Sylvia Mims, has him back performing at the famed Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. Donn met Mims after agreeing to help out an old friend—and the world’s most famous cabaret singer—Marilyn Maye. At Maye’s request, Donn agreed to give a master class a few years back, where he heard Mims sing.
“I told her she reminded me of Nancy Wilson. Now, we’re doing a tribute” to Wilson, says Donn, who has performed with Wilson, one of America’s best-known jazz singers.
Accompanying a singer on piano is another of Donn’s best-loved musical moments.
“A lot of pianists really don’t like anything except being out front and being a soloist,” says Donn. “My favorite thing to do is to accompany a good singer, and I’ve worked hard at that. It comes out of my arranging, because I’m hearing what an orchestra might play.”
Above all, Donn values the friendships he’s formed, such as his lasting friendship with actress Ann-Margret, an innately talented singer and dancer, he says. In fact, Donn was working with Ann-Margret at Caesars Palace at the time of the MGM Grand Hotel blaze.
Ann-Margret wrote a charming note to include with the publication of Leave it to Me...My Life in Music.
“Donn, my musical director for 21 years, always made me feel so safe and secure as a performer. I would stand on stage, he would lift his baton, the music would begin, and I was home,” she shared.
“I don’t think there’s anything better in your entire life than friendship,” says Donn. “The quality of friendship is so important. I honor that much more than anything else. It’s a really high priority for me.”
Leave it to Me...My Life in Music by Donn Trenner with Tim Atherton, is available at Breakwater Books in Guilford and other local and online outlets. Learn more at www.donntrenner.com or find Donn Trenner on Facebook. To contact Donn Trenner regarding speaking engagements or playing engagements with his trio, quartet or orchestra, email firstname.lastname@example.org