Denny Zeitlin: Nothing Halfway

Dan McClenaghan By

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San Francisco-based jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin—aka Dr. Dennis Zeitlin, Psychiatrist—boasts a music career that spans more than fifty years. He began, at a tender young age, playing professionally in the early fifties in his home town of Chicago. He was, very early in his life, interested in the fields of medicine and music, and he has been able to navigate career paths in both disciplines with great success.

He has recorded more than thirty albums, beginning with a series of four outstanding trio recording for Columbia Records in the mid-sixties, and scored the soundtrack for a classic 1978 remake of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a high water experience in his musical journey.

Zeitlin may be the king of multi-taskers. At 72 years of age, he still runs a full time Psychiatric practice in addition to his teaching duties at University of California, San Francisco, along with maintaining a vibrant jazz career that seems to be gathering steam. His interests include fly fishing and wine, and he is involved in a regimen of serious exercise, though he has replaced his twenty-five years of full throttle mountain-biking—in deference to the potential for a career-ending spill—with sixty to ninety minute running forays on Mt. Tamalpais, near his home.

Nothing Dr. Zeitlin does, it seems, is done halfway.

Chapter Index
  1. The Early Years
  2. The Columbia Albums
  3. Electronics: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  4. The Return to the Acoustic Sound
  5. Precipice
  6. What's Next?

The Early Years

Asked about his musical beginnings, Zeitlin says that at two or three years of age: "I do have some memories of climbing onto the lap of whichever parent was playing on the family Steinway, and I would put my little hands on their hands and go along for the ride, kinesthetically, and even before I could actually depress any notes on my own I already had some sense of what it's like to traverse a keyboard. And then in the ensuing years—three, four, five six—I was just an improviser and composer on the piano, I would just sit there sometimes for hours and just playing and climbing up and making sounds inside the piano, and I loved all the different timbres on the piano [created] by putting different object on the strings, and I was just very intrigued by the entire panoply of sounds that were possible with that instrument."

Though possessed of what are certainly prodigy-level skills, Zeitlin credits his parents with steering him toward the music.

"I think my parents, as a very special gift to me, a very wise gift, they protected me from the formal study of piano until I asked for it, around the age of seven. Then I started studying the classical piano literature, and went through a fair amount of that for the next years until I was in eighth grade. And it was in eighth grade when I first seriously heard jazz, and I did have the sense that I was shot out of a cannon."

That cannon blast was Zeitlin's introduction to jazz via one of the icons of the genre.

"I can still remember the day that my music teacher brought in this ten inch LP called You're Hearing [the] George Shearing [Quartet] (MGM, 1950), and it just knocked me out, because here was that pianist who had all this classical technique and chops, but he was playing this music that had all this wonderful pulse and drive, and he was making up music as he went along. This was so close to my heart and I just wanted to find out everything I could about this music, so I just started to immerse myself in it.

"And about a half a year later I was in high school, in a suburb of Chicago where I had grown up in Highland Park, and I started forming bands and hanging out with musicians, and I was tall and I could go down to Chicago and in a dark room with a fake ID I could pass for 21. I would stay in these clubs all hours—two, three, four even later—and my parents trusted that I wasn't messing up, I wasn't using any drugs, and I had a legitimate driver's license at fifteen, and I just was out there serving what really turned out to be an informal apprenticeship in jazz."

Though he'd enjoyed his early classical studies, Zeitlin says there was no formal jazz education at the time. "You learned it by going to clubs and trying to sit in and listening and wangling a chance to play and maybe falling on your face a bit. And picking yourself up and trying it again, maybe getting musicians to show you things. Hanging out and going to jazz sessions that lasted all hours, and again, I had the gift of having parents who understood how crucially important to me this was and they trusted I could handle it. It just allowed me, at a time in Chicago's jazz history, to participate in a tremendous amount of jazz ferment. It was a marvelous time to be a fledgling jazz musician. I really started out around '51 or '52. There were just wonderful players in Chicago, and I started gigging, and when I went to the University of Illinois, around 1956 to '60, not only did I find some fine musicians there to play with—people like Joe Farrell, Jack McDuff, and Roger Kellaway was down there playing bass at the time—and I got to play with Wes Montgomery."

Zeitlin continued to play in the clubs during his college days. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1960. With his desire to become a psychiatrist in his sites, he chose John Hopkins University Medical School for his next stop.

"I went out to John Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, and there I got very lucky again, because there was a local jazz club there called The North End Lounge. Gary Bartz was there, his father owned the club, and Gary was playing with some very fine players. Grachan Moncur III used to come down and play, Reuben Brown was the house pianist—excellent pianist—and Billy Hart was the drummer. So I would study to twelve, one o'clock in the morning, close my books, get in the car and drive down there and sit in for an hour. It was just a life-saver to be able to keep the music going that way at a time when I was so immersed in the very demanding program at John Hopkins."

The Columbia Albums

Zeitlin says that serendipity seems to have played a part, more than once, in his career as a jazz man. "I recorded five albums with Columbia. The first experience happened almost by accident. At that point I wasn't consciously aspiring to have a particularly public musical life or recording career, or [do any] touring. I was definitely convinced I was going to be a psychiatrist, and I knew I wanted to have music in my life, all my life. But how public that was going to be, that wasn't terrible important to me at that time.

From left: Buster Williams, Denny Zeitlin, Matt Wilson

"I had a fellowship at Columbia University in New York City in Psychiatry, in 1963, and Paul Winter was there at the time, and he had met me in Chicago, we had both grown up there, and he had always been very enthusiastic about my music, and he literally dragged me, almost kicking and screaming to meet this producer at Columbia, John Hammond."

John Hammond was the record producer/talent scout extraordinaire who furthered the musical careers of Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Teddy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie...and Denny Zeitlin.

Zeitlin continues, "I told Paul Winters, 'Well I don't want to get into recording, AR men telling you what to play, I just want to be able to play the music that's in my heart.' And Paul said, 'Come on and meet John Hammond, he's a beautiful guy and he's been wonderful to work with, and I just want him to hear you.' So I went with Paul and met John Hammond and he turned out to be this wonderful ebullient guy—I think he was about fifty years old at that time—and he just asked me to play for him and I played a couple of pieces and he said, 'I would love for you to come to Columbia. You record whatever you want, use whomever you want. I would just love to have you record for us.' Well, I was flabbergasted to have an offer like this, so totally carte blanche, so of course I said yes, and he said, ' I would love to get your feet wet in recordings by being the featured player on a young flautist I've discovered. His name is Jeremy Steig.' It was just a blowing date, it ended up being called Flute Fever (Columbia, 1963), and we just got together and I thought everything gelled. I thought we brought out the best in each other. It was a terrific album."

After this getting-his-feet-wet recording with the flautist Steig, Zeitlin went on to record four trio albums for the label, three in the studio—Cathexis, (1963); Carnival, (1964); Zeitgeist (1967)—and one live date, Live at the Trident (1965).

"Those [Columbia] albums really did open things up for me, to continue to record and play at major festivals and do concerts and continue to record and get a fair amount of press, and get some visibility in the jazz sub-culture, and it was a lot of fun for me, and I was grateful to have that opportunity, and still was able to continue with my medical studies because I graduated from Hopkins in '64, and then came out to California. That was the place I had decided I really wanted to live. I'd had a chance to do a fellowship in 1963 in San Francisco, and I fell in love with San Francisco almost the first night I was here."

Electronics: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

"And then I got a real hunger to investigate what was happening with the possibilities of electronic music and integrating it with acoustic instruments. I wanted to explore what was possible in this electronic area, but to do so I knew I would just have to withdraw from public performance for a while and find engineers to build me stuff. Back in those days there were no pre-packaged synthesizers you could take on the road. What there was around then was a Fender Rhodes, I had a clavinet, an organ and a melodica, and then a lot of sound-altering equipment that I had engineers build me—ring modulators and a doomsday machines, then gradually it was possible to get some synthesizers.

"Then 1978 rolled around and I got a call from Philip Kaufman, the filmmaker and director. Saying he would very much like for me to do the score for the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

The original 1956 movie of the same name was adapted from the novel Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. The movie's story line is one of alien plant-like pods taking over and becoming replicas of their human hosts. It is considered a science fiction/horror classic.

Zeitlin continues: "I met with him [Kaufman] and talked to him about it, I was very excited about the prospect, because for years I had hoped that I might get a chance to do a film score, but I thought that it would be very unlikely, because typically to get a film score you have to live in Hollywood, you have to knock on doors for years, finally, if you're politically adept enough you might get a chance at a movie, but it probably be something on a shoestring budget, and all you could afford is a kazoo player. So here I stumbled in once again, via the back door, a la Columbia Records, to a film that I sensed was going to be a classic of its genre, by a filmmaker I had admired for years."

Kaufman had previously directed Goldstein (1965), Fearless Frank (1965), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), and White Door,. Post-Invasion of the Body Snatchers he directed The Wanderers (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Henry and June (1990), Rising Sun (1993), Quills (2000), and Twisted (2004).

"The lead male, Donald Sutherland," Zeitlin continues, "was to be an avocational jazz man, and Kaufman wanted a jazz score. But the script morphed. Donald Sutherland's character became a deputy public health inspector, and the jazz score receded into the background, and now Phil [Kaufman] and his producer, Bob Solo, wanted a 20th century symphonic score with lots of electronics.

"The electronics I could supply with ease, and I had plenty of credentials for that, but I had never written for a symphony orchestra, even though I think I had thought orchestrally all my life. So I had to convince both Phil Kaufman and Bob Solo that I could do this, and after some arm twisting, they accepted me on the team, and I began one of the most intense musical adventures of my life."

At this point, Dr. Dennis Zeitlin, closed his psychiatric practice for the first time in his career, and had his psychiatric colleagues cover for him to take care of his patients. For someone as committed to medicine as he is his music, it was not an easy decision. Speaking with Dr. Zeitlin about this juncture in his career, it becomes obvious that Psychiatry is not something he does halfway; it was/is not the "day job" that allows him to do his art, but rather it was/is a consuming passion for him, as is his music.

"I was so immersed in this music I was spending 18, 19, 20 hours a day in the studio working on this score, and my wife would have to come down and scrape me off the piano stool and plunk me in the hot tub to reconstitute me, put me in bed for a few hours, and then I would get up and do the whole thing all over again. And what was making it so complex, other than my naïveté, was writing for a symphony orchestra and working with the Profit Polyphonic Synthesizer that had just come out, and all the electronic keyboards, to try to produce a music that was often weird and scary but also organic, because what was happening was not an invasion of metal ships from outer space, but an invasion of another alien life form, so Philip Kaufman wanted the music to have an organic feel. So it was complicated."

After five weeks of working non-stop in his studio, the moment of truth arrived.

"Finally we got to the point where I'm down in Burbank, on the sound stage with a full symphony orchestra, and I got the chance to hear the symphony orchestra explode into the music I had been working on all those weeks. It was one of the high points musically of my life. I was exhilarated by the experience, but also utterly exhausted, having been pulled away from everything I hold dear in my life—music, psychiatry, my wife—we've together now forty years—I saw so little of those sectors of my life during that [ten week] period."

The entire project turned out to be a huge success. The 1978 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers met with near-universal critical acclaim. Philip Kaufman was named Best Director by The Academy of Science Fiction and Horror Films (Saturn Award, 1978), and the movie received a coveted Hugo Award as Best Dramatic Interpretation. The project was, Zeitlin agrees, a near perfect work of art: the acting, directing, the script, the special effects, and, though he doesn't say so himself, the soundtrack, that captures the eeriness and grim gathering dread, and even, in the case of his perfect composition, "Love Theme From the Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a wistful, tender moment of beauty in the face of impending doom.

In light of the success of the project, Zeitlin replies to the question of why he has not done another soundtrack with: "Well, it was one of the high points of my life to have that experience, to see that both Bob Solo and Phil Kaufman were delighted with the music, but knew I could never get a situation as remotely as good. I had some offers but I said to myself: 'I'm quitting while I'm ahead.'"

The Return to the Acoustic Sound

After the satisfying but intense and all-consuming experience of composing the electro-symphonic work for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Zeitlin had a desire to return to his roots of the acoustic sound. His Soundings (1750 Arch, 1978), a solo piano record, went back to what the pianist calls "my earliest musical roots, when as a young child I would sit at the family Steinway and improvise music from moment-to-moment, without any preconceived structure."

Time Remembers One Time Once (ECM, 1983) found Zeitlin in an intimate duo outing, recorded live at the Keystone Corner in San Francisco, with bassist Charlie Haden.

Several more albums followed, all critically well-received but slipping under the radar, perhaps, on smaller labels, until a profile revival of sorts came about in the new millennium, when Zeitlin began recording for the MaxJazz label.

Slickrock (MaxJazz, 2004), featured Zeitlin's in a trio setting with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. All About Jazz's John Kelman       called the disc ..."one of [Zeitlin's] strongest recordings to date." Zeitlin's second MaxJazz release, 2005 's Solo Voyage, mixed solo piano tunes with an electric/acoustic suite of piano backed by synthesizer orchestration.

2009 found Zeitlin with a new label, Sunnyside Records. His first CD release for Sunnyside that year was Denny Zeitlin Trio in Concert, Featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson. It is a live recording that opens with an extended workout on John Coltrane's "Mr. PC," then moves into an aching beautiful ballad, "The We of Us," (written for his wife Josephine), followed by one of the most vibrant and in-the flow pieces of music imaginable, a magically rousing take on Cole Porter's "All of You" "That was a lot of fun," Zeitlin enthuses. "I think that really is an example of that particular trio at its best. The way the interplay goes, and the sort of breathing as one organism. That's something I really love about playing with Buster and Matt is that it's wide open; the music can go where it wants. There's no ego involved in it; we're all just into in serving the music and allowing it to emerge and be just delighted with what happens, and we often have that sort of merger experience where I don't know who's playing what. I'm hearing sounds and I don't know if it's coming from the bass or piano or the drums. We're just immersed in music. It's almost like we're a part of the audience listening."


In 1978, Zeitlin had the good fortune, moxie and requisite skills to participate in the very collaborative creation of a masterpiece of its genre, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 2010, after seventy years at the piano, and many excellent albums, Zeitlin has created his personal masterpiece with Precipice (Sunnyside Records, 2010). It is a solo outing that begins with a wandering "Free Interlude" that slips into an inspired take on Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" which morphs into John Coltrane's "Fifth House"—over twelve-plus minutes of unalloyed, in-the-flow creativity. He revisits "The We of Us," and explores Wayne Shorter's "Deluge" and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," before offering up the 24-carat beauty of "Love Theme From the Invasion of the Body Snatchers," then closes out with two of his own energized tunes, "Pulsar" and "Precipice."

The recording of the live set was, according to Zeitlin: "A night where I felt everything did come together. All the things you can't always control. You don't know how good the acoustics will be like in the room, you don't know how good the piano's going to be. You don't know if it was expertly tuned for that day, you hope for a good crowd that will reach for and meet the music. You don't always have that. And then if you record, you don't know how good the recording's going to be. But on this particular night I thought it all of that came together, and it really did bring out the best in me. I'm very pleased with that concert album, and just delighted that Sunnyside liked it and wanted to put it out. I'm even tickled with the cover, which I think is one of the most perfect covers I've had for an album ever. I really wanted to get the sense of that on the edge sense of danger, and I think that almost Dali-esque illustration is just terrific."

A perfect cover for a perfect solo piano album.

What's Next

Now in his seventh decade, Zeitlin seems to have no intention of slowing down his creative process.

"I have another solo album in the can, but haven't made any move to place it with anybody yet. I'm really enjoying my relationship with Sunnyside, and I'm hoping that we will do more projects together. I don't know whether the next one will be a solo project, but what I would like to do would be an album that would come out of my studio. I'm getting interested in reactivating my electronic music studio."

Recalling an earlier release, Zeitlin says: "In 2005 I put out a solo album on MaxJazz called Solo Voyage, which was a combination of solo acoustic piano, and then on about half of it, solo acoustic piano with synthesizer. And it was a lot of fun for me, getting back into using the synthesizer again, even though it was a sort of a sad event in life that got me doing it. It was the dying of a very dear friend that prompted me to do the part of that album with the synthesizer in it. It was designed really as a very peaceful, contemplative series of tunes that would help my friend to make a graceful exit. It turned out that the music got to him barely in time before he slipped away into his final coma, but his wife told me that the music had meant a lot to him.

"The positive thing about that sad project was it got me immersed in the synthesizer again. So I'd like to do some more work in that area in the next year or so. And I wouldn't be surprised if there would be an album coming out of that, maybe in the next year or so, that would really have some in depth of an exploration of electronics and acoustics."

And it will surely be amazing, as Denny Zeitlin does nothing halfway.

Selected Discography

Denny Zeitlin, Precipice (Sunnyside Records, 2010)

Denny Zeitlin Trio, In Concert (Sunnyside Records, 2009)

Denny Zeitlin, Mosaic Select: Denny Zeitlin (Mosaic Records, 2009)

Denny Zeitlin, Solo Voyage MaxJazz Records, 2005)

Denny Zeitlin Trio, Slickrock (MaxJazz, 2004)

Denny Zeitlin, As Long As There's Music (Venus records, 1998)

Denny Zeitlin/Charlie Haden, Time Remembers One Time Once (ECM Records, 1983)

Denny Zeitlin, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (United Artists, 1978)

Denny Zeitlin, Syzygy (1750 Arch Records, 1977)

Denny Zeitlin, Expansion (1750 Arch Records, 1973)

Denny Zeitlin, Zeitgiest (Columbia Records, 1967)

Denny Zeitlin, Live at the Trident (Columbia Records, 1965)

Denny Zeitlin, Carnival (Columbia Records, 1964)

Denny Zeitlin, Cathexis (Columbia Records, 1963)

Jeremy Steig, Flute Fever (Columbia Records, 1963)

Photo Credits

All Photos Courtesy of Denny Zeitlin

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