J13: Worcester/West Coast connection of Bill Tannebring

On the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Website there is a new feature called Gone but not forgotten, in which you can submit your memories of growing up in the area. One recent submission was by pianist Bill Tannebring who reminisced about playing music in town back in the early 1960s with Howie Jefferson, Barney Price and Reggie Walley.

Though jazz piano has been a major part of his life since his teen years, Tannebring spent most of his career in television, working as a producer and broadcaster here in Worcester, then Boston, New York and L.A. At 70, Tannebring can be found these days gigging around Huntington, Beach, California where he now hangs his hat. In fact, he recently worked at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach with flutist Sam Most.

Tannebring grew up in Worcester, but he was actually born in Bermuda. “My dad was a musician playing in a band. My mother and father lived in Bermuda. I was born there. We settled in Worcester when I was four or five.”

His dad was the highly regarded saxophonist, Roland “Rollie” Tannebring. “He was more of a legitimate musician,” Bill says. “He played big band, but he also played concert bands and theaters when they had pit orchestras at Loew’s Poli and the Plymouth Theater. They used to have shows in the afternoon, like stage shows, he’d be there in the pit.”

Bill was born in 1937. He grew up in Greendale around Norton’s. Then at 12, the family moved to Park Ave. and Maywood Street. He went to South High.

Here’s one of Tannebring’s postings on the T&G site: “I worked at Denholm’s in the ’50s while I was in High School. And what a job I had… helping create the window displays that looked out over Main Street. I remember the wonderful stores and activities that surrounded City Hall; Richard Healy, getting the bus in front of McGinnis’s Department store, the smell of the Planters Peanut’s Store on S. Main Street; catching a movie at the Loew’s Poli.

“I took piano lessons in the Day Building and had a dentist in the Park Building. It wasn’t until I traveled throughout the country that the experience of growing up in Worcester impacted me. It was a truly wonderful city and the memories it inspires continue to enrich my life.”

Bill says he started playing professionally when he was 15 or 16. “There were steakhouses downtown, the Polish and Italian American Clubs. The Speedway Club on the Lake. I had a band in high school.”

Tannebring was introduced to the world of television in high school. He worked in the prop department doing sets at WWOR-TV. “That was like the first local TV station in Worcester,” he says. “They opened sometime in the ‘50s. One of the kids I went to school with was a Steve Allen wannabe named Dick Volker. He talked them into giving him a teenage show five nights a week. It was called ‘Teen Style.’

“They hired me to do the music. So we had a little jazz trio on TV in Worcester. I was 16 and that was my introduction to TV production. When the show went off the air after a year or so, I decided I wanted to be in television. That’s how I started my TV career. It was great fun.”

The teenage trio consisted of Tannebring, bassist Nick Peroni and drummer Paul Westerback. Tannebring says the Worcester jazz scene in the 1940s and 1950s was quite memorable and he was well aware of the tradition. He mentions the names of pianist Don Asher, trumpeter Don Fagerquist and drummer Frankie Capp.

“When I was a kid, the pianist I remember was Jaki Byard,” Tannebring says. “He was a hero of mine. He wasn’t living there then. He would come back and forth. Tony Zano was around when I was there. The Holovnia brothers Fred and Joe. Fred had a big band. Joe played bass. There was like 16 of us. George Thurman on drum. Larry Monroe on alto. He and I were best friends. I was the best man at his wedding. Emil Haddad, of course. He was working on Park Ave. with Johnny Rhines and those guys. He and my dad were friends.”

Tannebring was a member of the local 143 musician’s union and worked a parade of jobs with and for the Conte Brothers. “I worked with Perry and his brother Jerry. They owned a tuxedo rental business and had the commercial scene sewed up,” he says. “I remember Perry would say, ‘$14 a night, plus $1 for gas.’ He was the big booking guy at that time. He used to have all these bands play at proms and clubs.

“He put together a Herb Alpert copy band. I was in that band for about a year. We traveled all over Worcester, Millbury and Westboro.”

There was another guy that I played with as well, his name was ‘Oakie’ Menard. He was a funny guy. His neck was always bent, cocked to one side. It was like the saxophone, the head and the neck were all one unit. He was the nicest guy. I remember Ray Starr, the tenor player as well.”

Tannebring also worked with a slew of singers. He recalls Gretchen Morrow. He says he played in a score of places up and down Rte. 9 all the way out to Framingham and Natick — “The Driftwood, the Meadows, Monticellos, the Maridor, Bonfire — all those places.”

He says his gigs with Reggie Walley, Howie Jefferson, Barney Price, and the bassist Judy Wade were especially memorable. “I played with Reggie a lot. He and his wife [Mary] were like the dynamic duo. They always had something going. They were a great couple. That was the jazz scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can’t remember the names of these clubs, but there were so many. The Elks – there were just so many clubs on Summer Street and Water Street.”

Though Worcester had its share of notable pianists, Tannebring says most of his influences were coming out of Boston at the time. “I was a big fan of Dave McKenna,” he says. “My favorite pianist was a guy from Natick named Danny Camacho. He used to play with Boots Mussulli. He was about 10 years older than me. We ended up being in a band together for about three or four years. I played vibes and he played piano. It was one of the highlights of my life. He had been my childhood piano hero. To play in a band with him when I was 19 was really a big kick for me.”

Occasionally, Tannebring would get to work with some of the emerging players on the Boston scene. “I was in a band that played the Bonfire, a little club on Rte. 9. It was with John Abercrombie on guitar, George Mraz on bass and Peter Donald on drums. These guys were like 19 years old. Now they are world famous,” he says.

Tannebring left Worcester in the late ‘50s to go into the Air Force. He came back in the early ’60s, worked the clubs before heading to Boston in 1966. According to the bio notes on his Website, Tannebring moved to Beantown with the intent of making his career as a jazz musician. He says, Boston was a musical Mecca at the time, “the Berklee School made Boston one of the most exiting jazz environments in the country attracting talented musical artists from all over the world.”

As mentioned he got to perform with the likes of John Abercrombie as well as bassist Miroslav Vitous. For years, he was one of the house pianists at Paul’s Mall. He says it wasn’t unusual to find him in the club working with his trio, while John Coltrane or Mongo Santamaria performed next door at The Jazz Workshop. He also notes that Boston was the home of other great pianists at that time including McKenna, Chick Corea, Alan Broadbent, Hal Galper and Jan Hammer, among others.

Utilizing his TV production talents, Tannebring became the force behind the first ever weekly jazz television program in the nation. It was called “JAZZ on WGBH” and hosted by the great trumpeter and band leader Herb Pomeroy. For three seasons, Tannebring, as the program’s producer, attracted some of the worlds greatest jazz musicians including Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins, Gary Burton, Hampton Hawes, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Mann, Wynton Kelly. The show aired every Wednesday night and the performers appeared live, Tannebring said. Critics have hailed the show for its visual style, unique feel and musical excellence. Tannebring is said to have also produced the first ever television broadcast of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Tannebring stayed in Boston until 1973 before moving to New York City. “I was working for ABC television and I was doing gigs as well,” he says. “I was always doing both. I didn’t really book work for myself. I usually got hired to work with somebody. I was not part of the New York jazz scene but I would play some cool gigs in lounges and hotel lobbies.”

Tannebring says he spent three years in New York City producing a television series with Lloyd Bridges but still found time to join a band led by Lou Levy, backing singer Peggy Lee that toured the East coast, and work jazz gigs around the city.

After leaving New York, he relocated to Dallas Texas where he became the Executive Producer of KERA TV. Still working as a musician, he found time to perform regularly with saxophonists James Clay and Marshall Ivory. He says he spent an exciting year playing piano and vibes in a quintet led by David “Fathead” Newman.

As mentioned, Tannebring currently resides in Southern California where he continues to work as a television producer/writer, teacher. (See his online reviews here.) However, his lifetime love affair with jazz is what really drives him. “There are a lot of great players out here,” he says. “I’m out once or twice a week doing something. I love it.”

Tannebring says although there have been a lot of notes played across the bridge between the east and west coast, his developing years spent in Worcester are never far from memory. “I have great memories of Worcester,” he says. “My sister lives on Martha’s Vineyard and my other two sisters live in Worcester. So I’ll be back.”

Let’s hope he gets a gig next time he’s here.

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