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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."


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