Born on Edouard Charles, just off Park Avenue, raised on de la Peltrie in Côte des Neiges, educated at the Jewish People’s School, Northmount High, McGill, and the University of London, became a much appreciated philosophy teacher.
Rate My Teachers may not be the most scientific measure, but this appreciation from one of his former students at Dawson College is typical of the plaudits he gets: “A hypnotic philosophy teacher. His humour and unique ideas about philosophy are unparalleled, but don’t be too shy to talk and ask questions. The best way to learn in his class is to be incredibly critical, and get lost in the works and all its criticisms. He will change the way you look at philosophy, as well as it how it relates to all other studies. Also, incredibly hilarious.”
But that’s not why we’re writing about him – Tannenbaum retired in 2009 after 36 years at Dawson. The news is that at 68, after 50 years in the music business, he is releasing his first CD, with a concert at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill June 9. He’s performing with Joel Zifkin (violin) and Tom Mennier (accordion, piano), part of the McGarrigle extended family.
Tannenbaum is a mainly self-taught musician, singer and multi-instrumentalist, whose feel for folk music, distinctive high tenor, and fiddling skill fit right into the McGarrigle Sisters mold. He was a significant part of that musical family and toured the world with the late Kate, Anna, Rufus and Martha Wainwright and its unique Quebec-country-folkie sound and quirky/contemporary lyrics.
Now living in New York in an affordable Harlem apartment and reveling in the vast musical kaleidoscope The City has to offer, a friend suggested and he agreed to record a CD, his first in a life filled with making music.
Music was part of the family fabric – “My father sang enthusiastically with no regard for pitch, my mother sang in choirs, she had a good strong soprano voice – and there was opera and cantorial music in the house. My parents met at the United Jewish People’s Order Choir.”
They were progressives, “far to the left of the Communist Party. The party left them, so to speak,” Tannenbaum said.
When he was 12, Chaim persuaded his father to buy him a $27 banjo. “I didn’t know how to tune the thing, had no idea there were such things as finger picks. My best friend at the time, David Chuchem bought a guitar and we amused each other. He became a nuclear physicist.”
“We recognized in no time that with three chords – C, G, and D – we could cover the folk repertoire. And we both could sing in harmony.”
They learned songs from LPs by The Weavers and Pete Seeger, songs of peace and protest.
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Folkie Jerry Goodfriend taught Chaim how to play banjo – “eight lessons at $3.25 a lesson, plus streetcar tickets.” He then taught himself to play guitar and violin.
“I’m an emergency fiddler – if there’s a song in D, and a lot of racket, I can do it.”
Chaim first met Kate McGarrigle when she and her sister Anna were part of the Mountain City Four folk group, with Jack Nissenson and Peter Weldon.
“By 1965-66, I was playing with the group and that continued until the McGarrigle Sisters emerged on their own.
“I toured with Kate and Anna – they took me all over the world. I played mandolin, banjo, guitar, saxophone, harmonica, I sang. I’m no virtuoso – it’s folk music, after all.” He also sang with Loudon Wainwright.
After graduating at McGill, Tannenbaum moved to London, started auditing philosophy courses at University of London, and was invited by the departmental chairman, “As long as you’re here you might as well register.”
“I said ‘I just graduated from McGill, I’ll register next year’.”
He completed his M. Phil. (Phd equivalent), focusing on the foundations of mathematics, taught for a year in London and returned to Montreal in 1973 “because I was homesick” and began teaching at Dawson’s Lafontaine campus. All of which brings us to his first album under his own name.
“I met Dick Connette in New York, who produced Loudon Wainwright’s grammy award winner, and he asked, ‘do you wanna make an album? I said yes’.”
Tannenbaum’s songs did not fit easily into any genre. They are of varying length a mix of the traditional, old blues, old black showpieces, some originals, and some “orchestrated in a way that is antithetical to folk music.”
Guitarist/fiddler David Mansfield is on the album along with other studio musicians.
“It’s not as folky, not as political as it would have been had it been under my own direction. But I am satisfied with it.”
His Upstairs gig is shaping up as one of those not-to-be missed gatherings of the faithful.
For reservations or information, call Upstairs at 514-931-6808. It’s at 1254 Mackay. Sets at 7:15pm and 9:30pm.