Denny Zeitlin: Balancing Act

Ken Dryden By

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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.
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