Paul Tanner died Wednesday at the age of 95.
A lot of our younger readers will have no idea who I’m talking about. There’s a chance even most people my age may not know who he was. Some of you “older folks,” hopefully, are saying that the name rings a bell.
Perhaps Tanner’s name brings back the sliding notes of a trombone to their ears. Or, perhaps, the odd, electric “human” sound of an equally odd-named deviced called an electro-theremin.
Let me try a few song titles: Moonlight Serenade, Pennsylvania 6-5000, In The Mood, Danny Boy, Chattanooga Choo Choo. How about Good Vibrations or Wild Honey?
If you’re starting to think, on one hand, of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and, on the other hand, the Beach Boys, you’re on the right track.
Tanner was the Miller orchestra trombonist from 1938 to 1942. That’s how I knew anything about him, although I must admit, I hardly knew anything. While attending Memphis State University (now, the University of Memphis) in the late 1980s, I served as the program director for the school’s -- indeed, the city’s -- only all-jazz radio station. We played everything from the big bands of yesteryear to modern “New Age” music.
One of those big bands was, certainly, the Miller orchestra. As part of the station’s mandate to play all forms of jazz, we dedicated at least one, if not two slots in each hour to mainstream and classic jazz while focusing most of the hour on contemporary and fusion jazz.
Never a complete source of information, Wikipedia’s entry on Tanner is skimpy, to put it mildly. It mentions he was born Oct. 15, 1917, in the wonderfully named Skunk Hollow, Ky. After playing with Miller, Tanner worked as a studio musician in Hollywood, served as a professor at the University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA), and authored or co-authored several jazz histories.
Tanner was an inventor, too, developing the electro-theremin. Which is a weird name when you consider that a plain-old theremin was already an electric device. But they work and sound differently, so I guess they have to have different names. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it or the sounds it could make. I invite you to search out the old 1960s “My Favorite Martian” TV show -- apparently Tanner “played” the electro-theremin for the show’s theme song.
Anyway, the Beach Boys came calling, and he agreed to use it on their recordings of Good Vibrations, Wild Honey and a third song, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.
Wikipedia claims Tanner only made a single prototype and later donated or sold it to a hospital for audiology purposes. Why would he do that? Apparently he realized it was quickly becoming obsolete thanks to keyboard synthesizers. OK, probably a smart move.
If you’ve ever followed the musical world of jazz, you’ve probably heard of Leonard Feather. Not only was the British-born Feather a jazz pianist and composer, he was the jazz journalist of at least one generation.
In 1979, he wrote a great article for the Los Angeles Times I found through Google News as printed in the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard. It had to do with UCLA students packing in to Tanner’s jazz history classes.
“He has not appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records, but Paul Tanner may yet make it,” Feather wrote. “His claim: the history of jazz classes he gives at [UCLA] are the largest in the world (averaging 1,600 students weekly) and the longest lasting. Over the past 15 years, the enrollments have passed 65,000. There is a continuous waiting list.”
Isn’t that just amazing?
Feather wrote that Tanner would alternate between two courses, one focusing on jazz prior to World War II and one from after the war. Oh, to have been in those classes! Tanner even wrote a book used in the class, “A Study of Jazz.” I must find a copy, along with another book, “Jazz,” by Tanner, David Megill and Maurice Gerow.
It turns out Tanner didn’t consider himself a leader when it came to playing the trombone.
“I was never a potential Jack Teagarden or a J.J. Johnson,” he told Feather, “but that wouldn’t stop me from sitting and listening to some giant soloist with my mouth open and my ears open. I had always been deeply interested in jazz and I’ve studied -- not just read, but really studied -- just about everything that’s been written on it.”
Some other Feather tidbits on Tanner: at age 6, Tanner’s family moved to Delaware where he spent 11 years in reform school -- his father was headmaster; he studied piano first, switching to trombone at 13; as of 1979, Tanner was one of the few white jazz history teachers, where most such courses were given as part of Black Studies programs.
“I’m well aware, and tell my students constantly, that all the real pioneers of jazz were black, and that without them we positively would not be where we are today,” he told Feather. “I also stress that every major change has been effected by black Americans.”
Being a fan of all forms, I would agree wholeheartedly. Tanner also believed, as I do, that there really aren’t separations between pop, rock and jazz -- they all have common denominators, most especially the Blues.
With Tanner gone, the last vestige of the legendary Glenn Miller Orchestra has passed. Thankfully, we still have the recordings, and the lessons he taught to generations of jazz fans.