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Denny Zeitlin: Balancing Act


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Denny Zeitlin is a true Renaissance man with many interests, in addition to balancing his careers in medicine and music. Although his medical practice and teaching have limited his abilities to tour beyond brief trips east or playing near his home in California, he has recorded regularly in recent years, releasing a variety of projects for Sunnyside. Well known for his composition "Quiet Now," which was recorded numerous times by Bill Evans, Denny remains a dedicated composer in his quest to create new and challenging music.

All About Jazz: You were exposed to music very early at home. Didn't both of your parents work in health care?

Denny Zeitlin: People have often asked me how I got involved in both music and medicine and it really began with my folks being involved in both fields. My father was a radiologist and played piano by ear, he couldn't read any notes but he had a good ear for music, he loved music. My mother was a speech pathologist and she was a fair to middling classical pianist. So from day one, I had music and medicine in my life. We had a Steinway piano in the living room and I remember when I was two or three years old crawling up in the lap of whichever parent was playing the piano, I'd put my little hands on their hands and go along for the ride kinesthetically to get a sense of what it was like to traverse a keyboard long before I could actually press down any notes. Then before long, I was crawling around the piano itself, playing on the strings and hammers, trying to pick out little melodies on the keyboard, so I got a pretty early start in music and it wasn't that many years after that I really began to get very interested in psychiatry and psychotherapy.

I had an uncle who was a psychoanalyst in Chicago and Howard used to talk with me about his patients, not revealing any names, of course, to this eight year old, who was so interested, but talking about the process of psychotherapy, what is was like ton talk to people and tune in to them, to find ways to help them with their lives. I was fascinated by that, before long, I was practicing psychotherapy on the playground without a license. Kids would come up to me at recess and start talking to me about things going on their home, their families, whatever. I would listen and try to be helpful. I had an idea very early on that somehow my life was going to be involved in these two fields. So I think I was lucky to get a start in that way.

AAJ: When did you begin formal piano lessons?

DZ: Well, I think my parents wisely intuited that I was more of a composer and an improviser than someone who was going to want to spend his life reinterpreting the written page. So they let me just play around in music at the piano for a number of years until about age seven, I asked to begin to get formal lessons. So in my grade school years, I studied classical piano, went through a fair amount of the classical literature and studied basic harmony with my teacher. It was in eighth grade that she brought a ten inch LP for me to hear, I heard this music and I felt like I was shot out of a cannon. It was an album called You're Hearing George Shearing, an MGM  LP that had him playing with his quintet and also some solo piano. I was just knocked out, it was like this was music I had been waiting to hear all my life, music that would have a drive, that would have pulse, that would have rhythm and have all this improvisation in it, it would have group interaction.

It wasn't just people reading notes from a page, they were making it up as they were going along, which was what I was enjoying doing at the piano myself anyway. So that really started me off in terms of really listening to jazz, I just voraciously ate up everything I could find to listen to and digest. When I got into high school, I started joining bands, I had a trio, I even had a sojourn with Dixieland as a freshman. I was restless with the basic nature of the harmonies, I wanted something farther out, because I was always drawn to twentieth century music. So I started playing modern jazz and joining groups that were playing that music, going into Chicago with a fake ID, going to these jazz clubs and staying out until four in the morning, just by osmosis trying to soak up this music. Gradually people began letting me sit in, so then I would get this informal apprenticeship with the music that really continued with Chicago jazz players all the way through high school and college years, because I was at the University of Illinois down in Champaign. I used to come in frequently on the weekends and play at jam sessions there. It was just a great way of getting into the music.

It was very different back then, I started high school in 1952. There were no jazz schools back then, the only way you could learn this music was by listening to records and practicing with fellow musicians and hopefully, getting informal mentoring from the established players. I found that the Chicago players were very gracious in showing me things and putting up with my fledgling attempts to play with them. I owe all of that generation of Chicago musicians a great debt.

AAJ: Are there specific Chicago musicians that people might be aware of through recordings who were particularly helpful?

DZ: Oh, yeah, people like Ira Sullivan, Johnny Griffin, Bob Cranshaw, Wilbur Ware, Wilbur Campbell, those were some of the major people. Victor Sproles, a wonderful bassist I played with, Nicky Hill was another great tenor player. Walter Perkins on the drums was terrific. There were just an awful lot of fine players back then, Chicago was in ferment with jazz back in the fifties, it was one of the hot places to learn about that music.

AAJ: When you were in medical school at Johns Hopkins, one of your classmates, Dr. Clift Cleveland, said to me that, "The rest of us would be prepping for exams and Denny would absorb this material and be out until all hours playing in Baltimore clubs, then make top grades. We were all amazed."

DZ: That's nice of him to say (laughs), I really remember studying very hard, there was an awful lot to try and absorb. What would happen sometimes, I'd spend a good part of the evening studying and then to decompress and find that other part of myself, I'd go down to the North End Lounge in Baltimore, where Gary Bartz had a jazz group and he was a wonderful saxophonist and gracious young man and he always invited me to come and sit in any time I wanted. I took advantage of that invitation, I would go down there and they were just wonderful players he had in the band. For a long while,  Billy Hart was playing drums and a great bassist, Grachan Moncur was playing trombone for a while. It was a great band and Gary just played his ass off. It was a great pleasure to sit in with him, it was a musical life-saving place for me for four years while I was in medical school at Hopkins.

AAJ: Have you crossed paths with Gary over the years since then?

DZ: I had lost touch with Gary over the years, I had followed his music and heard his records and loved what he was doing. It was in 2016, I remembering the date because it was the date of a solo album that's coming out in May on Sunnyside, it was a concert that I did at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, a place where I have been doing annual solo concerts for many years now. In 2016 I was focusing on music that was associated with Miles Davis, either things he had written or were attributed to him, or sometimes he had appropriated. At this concert I was getting ready to play and somebody walked backstage and I looked at him and thought, "This guy looks familiar, who is it..it's Gary!" We just hugged, it was wonderful to see him. He came with his wife and stayed for the whole set and loved the music. The subsequently we played together at a special day that was commemorating Keystone Korner and was raising some money for Todd Barkan, because he was starting a new jazz club, which I understand is opening in Baltimore in a matter of a few weeks.

AAJ: You spent some time during one year in med school with George Russell.

DZ: Well, I had first heard George Russell's music on an album that came out in 1956, it was called Jazz Workshop on RCA. It was the first time I had really heard his writing, the first time I ever heard Bill Evans was on that album, there were a host of other fine players on it. I just loved George's concept, it was so fresh, unusual and modern. So when I had a fellowship at Columbia University as a medical student in my third year, it was 1963, I decided to try to reach George Russell and see whether he would be willing to do some teaching during the ten week fellowship I had. I called him up and he was willing to get together. What happened was we just ended up hanging out for ten weeks. I think he sensed that I was a kindred spirit, that his Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization was something that felt very intuitively familiar to me, that in many ways I was moving simultaneously in vertical and horizontal directions in my playing. I would just get together and improvise for him. He would make comments, point things out, he would suggest a little bit of this or what about that. So it wasn't a formal rendering of his theory but more of an informal mentorship and association that was very, very important to me at that point in my life. His belief in my music, which persisted up until the time of his death, meant a tremendous amount to me.

It brings to mind the whole concept of mentorship and how often it turns out, I think, for any artist, certainly for musicians. There are often pivotal figures in your life that came along at a certain point in your development whose encouragement and excitement about your work was just a tremendous impetus for continued growth. I would say the first such experience had happened with Billy Taylor, when I was in high school. I was in my second year and he was playing at a club in Chicago called the Streamliner with his trio. I went to hear him and I was just so drawn to the wonderful spirit of his music, the impeccable swing, the taste, the way he touched the piano, the way the trio developed their music. He was very encouraging from the beginning after a year or so when I was going down to see him every time he came into town. My mother said, "Well, Denny, you love Billy Taylor's music so much, those guys are on the road, I bet that on a Sunday they would love to come out to our house, I'll fix dinner for them, you can play for them, they can play for you and just have a different kind of a day off." I said, "Oh, mom, they would never want to do something like that," but she encouraged me and I ran it by Billy Taylor and he was delighted. The whole trio, Percy Brice, Earl May and Billy Taylor came to our house when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, spent the day on a Sunday, I played for them with my fledgling high school trio, they played for us and they had a great dinner with us and a hang. Billy was just great, he was so complimentary and encouraging about my music and encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing, which was to plan to be a physician, as well as trying to keep music in my life. He talked about the rigors of life on the road as a musician, which certainly affected me then.

I think the really next pivotal figure was George Russell in 1963, when we had this period of hanging out together.Then the way he encouraged me when I got my first opportunity to record for Columbia, he just loved what I was doing, so George was another figure that came along at a very important time. I would say that the third major person was Bill Evans. I really loved the recordings he had done for Riverside. My first recording for Columbia had been as a featured pianist with Jeremy Steig, a wonderful young flautist, an album called Flute Fever, which was released on Columbia in 1963. Bill Evans was in a blindfold test for Downbeat and heard a track from that and made a very complimentary comment about the pianist. So when I finished my first trio album for Columbia, which was called Cathexis, in 1964, I felt emboldened to pick up the phone and call Bill Evans and see whether I could bring the album over, play it for him, maybe get a critique, suggestions from him. I called him and he was absolutely welcoming and said, "Please, come over, I'd love to hear the album." He listened to the whole album and he was so encouraging and basically just told me, "Denny, just keep doing your thing, man. You've got your own thing, don't let anybody tell you what to play." That was just really, really important to hear from someone who I really respected. Of course, it was very flattering to me that he took a liking to one of my ballads and just continued to record it year after year, a tune called "Quiet Now." He must have recorded it eight or nine times and kept it in his nightly repertoire, so I was tremendously touched that he would want to play a composition of mine that endlessly.  I would get tired of anybody's tune, including any of my own (laughs), playing it for a few months, let alone the years he continued to have it in his repertoire.

So I feel a tremendous kind of developmental debt on a psychological level to Billy Taylor, George Russell and Bill Evans, in that way.

AAJ: What led to your signing with Columbia Records? Did you audition with Teo Macero?

DZ: No, I didn't. I really got into Columbia through the back door. This was the 1963 spring period when I was in New York on the Columbia University fellowship. Paul Winter, who was a friend I had made in Chicago, had begun to record for Columbia and I was hanging out with him at his apartment and he had always really loved my music. He said, "Denny, you've got to meet my producer John Hammond, I just want him to hear you play. I know that Columbia would love to record you." I said, "Oh, Paul, I don't want to get into recording, I know you're doing it and your records are great, but I've heard stories about  A&R men telling players what to play and I just don't want to get into that. I'm happy just playing music and sitting in with people and doing some concerts here and there. He said, "Come on, man, you've got to meet John Hammond." So eventually he literally dragged me by the ear to John Hammond's office and Hammond turned out to be this wonderfully, brilliant, alive guy who asked me to play a little piano for him. I played a few pieces and he said, "I love what you're doing. Please come to Columbia and I'd love for you to record. You can record whatever you want, you can use whomever you want. I just really want you to be a Columbia artist." So that's how it started, I hadn't really been looking for it, it just fell into my lap, it was a tremendous, lucky break, because through Hammond and Columbia it brought my music to national and international attention that never would have happened without an opportunity like that. He got me on The Tonight Show  several times, it was their influence that got me into the Newport Jazz Festival and the Monterey Festival and things built from there, so the Columbia association was a tremendously lucky break for me to be able to do five albums for them back in the sixties.

AAJ: Have any of those appearances on The Tonight Show turned up, are they in your library?

DZ: I've never even looked for them, I don't know if they are on YouTube.

AAJ: I read that Steve Allen's kinescopes were tossed by NBC, but I think that Johnny Carson had something in his contract about getting videos of his shows, so they may be in storage in his family's hands. It would be interesting to see a collection of them come out in some form, but it seems like the market for DVDs is getting tougher.

DZ: It's abysmal, nobody wants to buy a DVD anymore. Nobody wants to buy CDs, everybody wants to go to YouTube and have free music. I'm guilty of it as a consumer myself. Economically, it has been quite devastating to musicians.

AAJ: There's something more satisfying about having something physical. After all, you can't have an artist autograph a download.

DZ: It's a good point, Ken. Even the difference between watching a video of a live performance, which is certainly worth doing, it's not the same thing as being in the room. There's an electricity, a sense of participation and being part of an audience where you're reaching out to the musicians on the stage and they're reaching out to you and somehow you're meeting each other half-way and that's what ignites the spark of creativity, such a big part of it is being in that kind of merger experience with the music. You can't really have that watching a video, even though I love watching videos. But it's not the same thing as being in the venue.

AAJ: I've watched a number of your Mezzrow performances on line.

DZ: I am delighted that at Mezzrow they have the streaming because it does allow me to share the music with thousands of people who would not be able to get into this very intimate space of this jazz club in New York. So I think it is a lot better than not being able to hear the music.

AAJ: Your upcoming performances include two nights of solo piano and two nights with your trio.

DZ: That's right. I've been playing with Buster Williams and Matt Wilson since 2001. It's been a wonderful association with them. They're in such demand as players, both leading their own groups and as featured people with other groups, that they're playing all around the world and all around the calendar. So I don't get a chance to play with them all that often, if I can hook up with them once a year, that's great to have that connection. At this point, we've made four albums together and this May, it looks like we're going to be recording  the trio again and I'm very excited about getting some of our newer music documented. So that's going to be an extra treat for me, to be able to record this May when we get together.

AAJ: What led to your parting ways with Columbia Records?

DZ: After Zeitgeist, which featured two different trios, we parted company, because I really wanted to get into electro-acoustic music at that point and understandably, they weren't interested, because they had no established conduit for marketing that kind of thing.

AAJ: What drew you to electronic music?

DZ: I think it began with my being restless with what seemed like the limitations of the acoustic piano sound.  As much as I loved the piano, the piano is an orchestra in itself, there's still things that you can't do on a piano. You can't bend notes, you can't sustain notes beyond a certain period just holding down the sustain pedal and there was a limit to the nature of the sound that you could create, even though for some time I had been into doing prepared piano, putting things on the strings, which would certainly get altered sounds and unusual pitches. But I wanted to go beyond this, there was a galaxy of music somewhere that I wasn't able to tap into yet. So I began to experiment. Back around 1966 or 1967, you couldn't go into your corner music shop and come back with a synthesizer under your arm. The only synthesizer around was a Moog synthesizer, which was a modular machine which you had to use cords  to go through a laborious series of patches to even create a single bleep.

There was no polyphony back then, it was quite limited and music like that would have to be made very painstakingly with lots of overdubbing, like the Switched On Bach that was an example of an early, brilliant use of meticulous, monophonic synthesizer work, building up sounds of an orchestra through multiple overdubbing. Back then I was looking for something that was more performance oriented, so I found some people who would build me some sound-altering modules. I got myself a Fender Rhodes electric piano, I got a Hohner clavinet, I got a Farfisa organ, then I eventually got an ARP Odyssey synthesizer when that came out. I began to get more and more gear together and the peripheral devices that would echo, distort, delay and reverb. I finally ended up with a rig that would take six hours to pack up, put on a truck and when you'd get to a venue where we would concertize, it would take another six hours to set it up, six hours to tear it down, six hours to bring it back to my studio. It was exhausting, but for about ten years, I performed in a trio setting with this rack of keyboards and an acoustic piano, with George Marsh on drums and for most of that period, Mel Graves on bass and eventually Ratzo Harris took over the bass chair. We performed up and down the west coast, playing what was really an integration of jazz, rock, free form, classical and avant-garde music, with all the electronics and it was a great adventure, I just loved doing it, since there was no really easily established conduit for the record label, I put out the first album of it, which we called Expansion, on a mail order label, sold enough of it to interest a very small  but classy label in Berkeley, California called 1750 Arch Records, which was willing to take on that album and I did a couple of projects for them, another one in the electronic-acoustic domain. Then that whole period ended with my getting involved in doing the soundtrack for a very wonderful science-fiction horror film that was a remake of a classic 1956 film, this was Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Phillip Kaufman was a Chicago native who had heard me play back in the day when I was sitting in and he had heard some of my early albums. Apparently he had it in his head that someday he wanted me to do a score for a movie of his. At that point, I hadn't been making any effort at all to get a movie score gig with anybody. So it was another back door entry for me, I got a call out of the blue from him, asking if I would be interested in doing the score for this new film that he was in the process of making. So after a lot of talk with him and his producer and a lot of resistance from the producer of bringing in a person who had no credentials in writing a film score, they finally agreed to take me on, so that was the last major time that I was involved in bringing electronic and acoustic together for a number of decades. Because after that, I had a hunger to get back to the purity of acoustic music. But it was an amazing experience to write, for the first time, for a symphony orchestra and have a chance to put all this electronics. By that time there were polyphonic synthesizers around and ones that had digital controls. I had the very prototype of the Prophet synthesizer that's very famous in musical circles and was using it for the score. I had an amazing adventure doing it, so that really brought to bear everything I'd ever done in music, my classical background, my love of symphonic music, the electronics, there were opportunities to have small jazz groups play on that soundtrack.

At times I'd have a big symphony orchestra performing,  then I would take overdubbed electronics on top of that, it was quite an adventure. Then I just wanted to take a deep breath and I got back into purely acoustic music for a couple of decades. That film was made in 1978 and it wasn't until the turn of the century that I really began to get interested in getting my finger back on the pulse of electronic music. Then about 2013, George Marsh and I got together and started doing totally free improvisations in the electro-acoustic domain. He would set up his drums in my studio in my home, that's where I've got all of my keyboards and things. It was a huge step up from what I was doing back in the sixties and the seventies, because now synthesizers, instead of living in boxes, most of them are living in computers, with just exponentially more potential of what they can create. So I have, I guess it looks like mission control in Houston, Ken, my studio with these multiple monitors, multiple computers, a stack of five different keyboards, all these foot pedals and peripheral gear that modify the sound, so now it's really possible to be an orchestra in real time. This has been my dream since I was a child, when I was crawling around on the piano, I was thinking, there must be a way to be a whole orchestra at once.  Now you can do it in real time. So George Marsh and I have released two albums of this totally free improvisation, it begins from ground zero, we can't even see each other when we play, because of the necessity of having acoustical baffles so there's no leakage of sound onto the individual tracks. We have earphones, we can certainly hear each other well, but we can't see each other. What happens is just the spur of the moment and the germ of creativity of two people that share an esthetic and many years of playing together can bring.

There are two albums on Sunnyside of this music, one called Riding The Moment and one called Expedition and I'm hoping that a year from this May that Sunnyside will be interested in bringing out another album of the newer things that George and I are doing, because this association keeps developing and it's one of the more exciting projects musically I've got going. At this point in my life, there are three main areas that I seem to be using as a platform for developing new music. One is with George doing this electro-acoustic duet, one is the trio with Buster and Matt, then the other is playing solo piano. I'm having a ball with it.

AAJ: I know that there's that famous solo piano Berlin concert on YouTube, but when did you start concentrating on playing solo piano in concert?

DZ: I would say probably some time in the sixties, but the first all solo piano concert album I did was for 1750 Arch, it was called Soundings, it came out in 1978. Since that time, I've been very interested in developing the solo aspect of piano playing, as well as the trio. I had almost fifteen years of doing a lot of duo playing with David Friesen, a very marvelous bassist.  We did quite a bit of touring together, nationally and internationally as a duo. That was a very intriguing and challenging experience. We did a number of recordings together also.

AAJ: How did you end up working with David?

DZ: He just called me up one day and said he was interested in playing together, that he felt we would be kindred spirits, would I be interested? We got together and really clicked, it was very easy from the very beginning to play together. He's a very original player, he's got his own concept and he has radar ears, he listens extremely well, I think we had a very excellent interaction.

AAJ: I really enjoyed that duo concert broadcast in Berlin that I shared with you. You played "Slick Rock" in that 2000 show, when did you write it?

DZ: The first time it was recorded was for a MaxJazz album with Buster Williams and Matt Wilson, that was around 2005.

AAJ: I heard your trio play "Slick Rock" in 2003 in Toronto at the IAJE Conference, because it hadn't been issued yet. You finished your set with the full suite and brought the house down.

DZ: I guess I wrote it while playing with David.

AAJ: I'm so glad you've kept it in your repertoire and I think it's great that you've included David's "Signs And Wonders" in your trio book.

DZ: That's my favorite composition of his! It is just a wonderful vehicle for the trio and it's a great piece.

AAJ: How did you end up working with Buster and Matt?

DZ: I always loved Buster's playing. I remember first hearing him on a Herbie Hancock album called the Prisoner, there's a piece on there called "I Have A Dream" and Buster leads it off and the warmth, quality of the pulse of the drive of the bass is a knockout. I had it in my head that someday I want to play with this guy. So there was a project that came along around 1998. Todd Barkan was producing a fair amount of projects for Venus Records in Japan called me and said, "How would you like to do a trio project for Venus? You can have whoever you want on bass and drums, let's do it." I said, "You know, I love to do something with Buster Williams." He said, "Who would you like on drums?" I replied, "Well, I've never played with Al Foster, but I love Al's playing." So that album, As Long As There's Music, was with Buster and Al. In 2001,

I had the opportunity to tour on the west coast. Originally I thought of Al Foster, because we played at the Jazz Standard following this album's release, but he was not available for the tour. I asked a trusted friend who knew the New York scene who I could get on drums, since he knew how I played and what would be good for me. He said, "There's this young cat, he's great and I think he would really fit with you and Buster, this guy named Matt Wilson." I did a little Googling around and heard his guy certainly could play, I called him up and he was excited about coming out. He was a fan of both Buster and my music. We got together and the way it worked out, the leadoff for the tour was the San Francisco Jazz Festival and I had played with Buster a couple of times, once at the record date and at the Jazz Standard,

I never played with Matt, he came in the night before, so Matt and I went over the tunes that I wanted to play in our set at the festival. So when we walked out on the stage, for the festival performance, the three of us had never played together as a trio. It was just like hands in gloves, it just fit so effortlessly, we had such a ball. The tour was terrific, we ended up at the Jazz Bakery for a week and recorded that album then, it got released a couple of years ago on Sunnyside as Stairway To The Stars and that's the first experience of the trio on record. It's been a great association with those guys, they're beautiful cats and they learn things so quickly, they're so open to new ideas, they contribute so much creativity and direction of their own that the music feels very much like an equilateral triangle.

AAJ: Since you are on the west coast and they're on the east coast, it's not like you have much time to rehearse.

DZ: That's the way it is, they are very quick studies and we get the shape of some things together, but really what we're depending on is the magic of the moment, our willingness and ability to tune into each other and allow something to happen. So much with this music, I think the task is to get out of the way of the music.

AAJ: You're still practicing psychiatry and teaching psychiatric residents. I imagine each day is plotted out and extremely organized.

DZ: I've historically been very organized. It has been a necessity to keep two careers parallel, percolating and growing. Now I'm at an interesting point in my life, I'm approaching my eight-first birthday (which was April 10), I've been blessed with good physical health, I've been blessed with a marriage of over fifty years with Josephine, she's at the hub of everything that I do. I've allowed myself to cut back on the number of hours that I'm spending each week in music and in psychiatry. I'm still very involved in both fields, but I don't see the same number of patients per week and I don't do as many hours of teaching as I used to. In music, I'm still enjoying doing a few concerts a year, I love being able to put out an album every year and I'm with music in my own studio virtually every day, but I've got more time for some other interests that have been orbiting but I didn't have the opportunity to let them flower as much as they would like.

I'm an avid fly fisherman and I'm spending much more time now studying fly casting, studying aspects of fly fishing and planning exotic trips to usual locales to fish for different species of fish. I'm going to the Yucatan to fly fish for tarpon, then in May I'm going to Baja, Mexico to fish for sailfish and marlin. At the end of the summer, I'm going to the Aleutian Islands to fly fish for silver salmon. I'm trying to take advantage of being in good physical health, I'm still running up on the mountain four or five times a week, so  I want to have a chance to have these fishing experiences. Also, Josephine and I have recently taken up ballroom dancing, something I hadn't done since I was in seventh grade. I remember Miss Kinney's dancing class and the various kinds of dances, but subsequently I was in the band playing for dances, I wasn't on the dance floor, so it had lain dormant for decades. Now picking it up, learning how to dance with her and taking lessons, we're having such fun. So at this point in my life, I'm broadening the range of interests to allow these things to have a little more of my time. I'm really enjoying it tremendously.

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