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Paul “Doc” Tenney Obituary – passed away this evening (9 Jun 2013)

It’s with a heavy heart that I relay the news of the passing of a good friend and long-time business partner Paul “Doc” Tenney. Doc passed away this evening around 7PM peacefully at home with his loving wife, Jan, by his side.

Doc was born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1932. While Doc is best known in our circles as a saxophone mouthpiece specialist, he was also a doctor, pilot, jazz musician and hobbyist auto racer/mechanic (Alpha Romeo). His major influence on saxophone was Frankie Trumbauer. Doc once told me a story of how he met Trumbauer in 1948. Doc was 16 and fascinated by aviation just after WWII. He was working as a “rag boy” (cleaning airplanes) at an airfield in Iowa City, Iowa. He recognized Frankie Trumbauer as one of the pilots working on a B-25 Mitchell bomber, which was a rare airplane in 1948 as most of these had been decommissioned after WWII. Doc said as soon as he mentioned saxophones, Frankie stopped working on the aircraft and they spent the rest of the day talking about music and saxophones. Doc said this chance meeting was the best and most influential “impromptu” sax lessons he’d ever received.

I first met Doc some 25 years ago in 1988 or ’89 when my wife and I were freshmen at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). He was our University doctor. He was also active in the music department and has always been a huge supporter of the UNI jazz program. He could be heard on campus playing with a faculty Dixieland band organized by chemistry professor, Dr. Paul Rider. He also sat in with us students at the Uptown Jazz and Blues Club in Waterloo, Iowa.

As a player he had a BIG powerful sound and could put a ton of air through the horn. Although he was able to get twice the volume of your average player, his sound was lush and resonant and he was a champion of melody. He believed that an improvisation, even when using lots of notes, should still encapsulate a melody. He was also a fine clarinetist.

As Doc got more heavily into mouthpiece refacing, he coined the phrase “Chops in a Box” as a metaphor for something that he insisted he did not sell! “You can’t buy chops in a box” he would often say! More than once a young local player would come over to buy “chops in a box”; Doc would instead give them a free hour long lesson and send them on their way without a mouthpiece telling them to hold onto their money and come back after some more practice. Doc was certainly opinionated and was not shy about expressing his opinions. He was generous with his time and talents and I’m grateful for the sessions we had at the bench together where he introduced me to the craft of mouthpiece refacing. I learned so much from these times together.

Doc was a perfectionist and had the best finish work of anyone in the trade. His work on metal Bergs was brilliant! His “revirgination” of an Otto Link Florida slant or Super Tone Master was without parallel. He constantly stressed “cut once and measure twice”. If a reface job took an hour, half an hour of that time was spent measuring and re-measuring. “Take off as little material as possible to achieve the maximal benefit”. It was this philosophy that enticed Doc to attempt and perfect the “butt cut”. Instead of taking material from the tip and thus thinning the tip and perhaps even shortening the mouthpiece, Doc envisioned, and taught himself, a technique of taking material from the table-side and then reworking the facing curve; thus preserving the original tip and baffle configuration but effectively increasing the tip opening. It’s an incredibly challenging operation requiring patience and skill. In mastering this technique, Doc could offer something no one else could!

While saddened by Doc’s passing. I know he’s in a better place. Over the past few years, his health continued to deteriorate at both an age-predictable and unpredictable pace due to some unexpected “slippages” which seemed to occur without warning- and all-too-frequently.  Doc always did his best to deal with it all as gracefully and productively as possible. Although his work slowed down his quality never strayed. When his health began to negatively impact his work he had the grace and dignity to put down the file. His high standards were uncompromising to the end. Never would a mouthpiece leave his bench with the Tenney or “10E” stamp without it being an example of his “best work”.

Doc, I’ll miss you but I’m so happy that you have finally found peace!!!

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4 Responses to Paul “Doc” Tenney Obituary – passed away this evening (9 Jun 2013)

  1. I met Doc when I was a graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa and used to jam with him every Tuesday at Poor Richard’s with Bob Washut’s Band. He was also the Uiversity Doctor. Once I went to him for a sinus infection or something and he asked why I was walking funny. I explained that every Tuesday I woke up with a stiff neck & left shoulder from tension acquired at Monday night orchestra rehearsals when I had to play through “busy dark spots”. Being an Osteopathic Doctor, he said “hop up on the table”. He cracked my back & I walked away feeling fine. From then on, I went to see him every Tuesday and have been hooked on Chiropractors every since. Thanks for the tip Doc.

  2. Doc had a love of the Boxer breed of dogs. In the course of visits there in his home and trying out his modified pieces we reminisced about these wonderful animals. Doc had so many stories- had the true sense and feeling for what “custom” meant and he exemplified his work with a wondrous, eccentric perfectionism. When one was in his presence the sense of professionalism, sensitivity and enthusiasm neverd faltered.

  3. It was quite a surprise to know this news, actually shocking. I had been wondering just recently why “Tenney custom” disappeared from the new mouthpieces listings…

    I’ve been using your perfected Otto Link with “10E” stamped. I always wondered what the meaning of 10E was, but Now I know!!! It’s been my main mouthpiece, I use it almost everyday to practice so I remember you all the time, Tenney.

    Thank you and… Rest in peace, Doc Tenney.

    From Rocky – Japan

  4. I had the privilege of talking extensively to Doc and purchasing a mouthpiece he had faced. He did superb work and was sp passionate and thorough-just a wonderful experience and an inspiration. He will be greatly missed

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