© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I’m never certain as to why I get into a listening mode that focuses on the music of one musician, but I often do and lately the center of my undivided attention has been the music of pianist Denny Zeitlin.
What I like best about Denny’s approach to Jazz is that I know he’s always going to give me an honest rendering; his compositions and improvisations are unmistakably his own. Cue Magazine [circa 1965] even went so far as to say that “Denny Zeitlin was the most inventive pianist in at least two decades.”
Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Earl Fatha Hines, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Nat King Cole, George Shearing Lennie Tristano, Oscar Peterson, as well as, Denny’s contemporaries including Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, all have an instantly recognizable “voice” on an instrument that’s not known for its individuality of expression.
And yet, it doesn’t take long before Denny’s unique style to manifest itself. He’s such an honest player who rarely falls back on licks and tricks and hardly ever repeats himself.
I’ve been listening to Denny’s music for a long time, having first become familiar with his work through three recordings that he recorded for Columbia in the mid-1960s under John Hammond’s supervision: Cathexis, Carnival, and Zeitgeist. Another of my favorite recordings by Denny on Columbia from the same period is Shining Hour: Denny Zeitlin Live at The Trident [a Jazz club that was based in Sausalito, CA just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco]. It was recorded in performance at the club in 1965.
Bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jerry Granelli join Denny on most of these recordings with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Freddie Waits accompanying him on Cathexis.
While researching a lengthier profile on Denny that encompasses his 50+ year career in the music, I came across the following piece by the eminent Jazz scholar and author Grover Sales which appeared in the May 1986 edition of Gene Lees Jazzletter.
While I continue my research into the ever-evolving music of Denny Zeitlin so as to do it justice from a career perspective, I think you’ll be in good hands with Grover in the meantime.
"The good thing about being famous," quipped the late Howard Gossage [an advertising innovator and iconoclast during the ‘Mad Men’ era who was also sometimes referred to as ‘The Socrates of San Francisco’], "is that you don't have to explain yourself." Though famous in two divergent arenas, jazz pianist-composer and psychiatrist Dr. Denny Zeitlin has been forced to "explain himself since he first pursued his dual career.
"Some musicians I work with," he says, "feel threatened that I'm trying to psych them out; some are envious that I'm making a comfortable living as a psychiatrist while they're scuffling. Some doctors wonder, “What is he doing with this Jazz? — still a dirty word to some people. Some in both music and medicine doubt I can be good at something I'm not doing full time, and even get angry about it. But there are many who can see that the dual career enriches both my medicine and my music — which I know to be true — mainly in Europe where the pursuit of a double career does not seem as bizarre as in America. And it's always been a problem in American that you should be having fun with your work.
"On both sides there's been a tendency to suppose that I do psychiatry primarily for the money and music mainly for the fun. Actually, I get equal pleasure and fulfillment from each, and couldn't imagine not dividing my time this way. Also, music and psychiatry are not as afield as some assume. One of their many similarities is perpetual newness. I know a lot of doctors who become bored and burned out with their three-hundredth appendectomy, and many musicians drugged with recording repetitive jingles and schlock movie scores. Even though many psychological themes are common to many people, each individual's mode of experiencing and expressing is unique; and in music, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pick and choose projects that are challenging and exciting."
Tall, athletic, bearded, and with a rabbinical cast, Zeitlin combines the seeming incompatibles of seething intensity and relaxed grace. Reflecting his diverse trades, his professorial speech is laced with staples of the jazz argot. A radio announcer's voice resonates with untempered enthusiasm for his multiple interests. This associate clinical professor of psychiatry has played the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals and has recorded nearly a dozen albums of his own works, as well as standards, all raptly acclaimed by jazz critics. In the recent Jazzletter poll of forty-two pianists, Zeitlin garnered as many votes as Count Basie, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Rowles.
Zeitlin came by both music and psychiatry honestly. He was born in Chicago in 1938 to a radiologist father who could play any popular tune on the family Steinway by ear and a speech pathologist mother who was a classically trained pianist. "At two and three I started doodling at the piano, climbing on mother's or father's lap and putting my hands on theirs while they were playing. I started studying music at six, but was always more interested in composing and improvising than playing. A comment on my parents' remarkable sensitivity is that when I was nine, they rejected my teacher's advice that I start grooming for a concert career to the exclusion of all other interests. They knew that, as much as I loved Bach and Chopin, my object was not to include them in a concert repertoire but to learn how their music was constructed, and use this knowledge in my own compositions.
"I first heard jazz in the eighth grade when a wonderful piano teacher brought me an early George Shearing album that just knocked me out! Here was a pianist with all the technical chops, playing this marvelous new music. And that rhythm! Then she brought me Art Tatum records, and I was totally blown away by his technique, but even more by his incredible ability to reharmonize pop tunes. In high school I played with Dixieland bands that were popular at that time, but my heart wasn't in it; this music never spoke to me emotionally like Debussy or Ravel. Then I got into Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg and Berg, who knocked me out, man! Galvanized me! And when I first heard Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano I immediately moved over to that. Because I was tall and looked lots older, I started going to jazz clubs in Chicago in the mid-1950s, digging major players, and again, my folks were so sympathetic and so trusting because here I was at fifteen, and often the only white cat in these clubs, sitting in, coming home at five in the morning, and my folks never batted an eye, even though they knew nothing of jazz.
"My medical career also started early, in the fourth and fifth grade. I became a spontaneous playground psychotherapist, interested in the kids, their problems, and they'd ask me, 'Why do the other kids pick on me?' or, 'Why can't I get along with my father?' 'Why does the teacher have it in for me?' And a leader would talk to me about how he felt lonely at the top. From my mother, who was a marvelous listener for me, I seemed to get this intuitive radar about people. I was a member of a peer group, not the neighborhood four-eyes, which I could have been if my folks had let that piano teacher suppress every urge in me but a concert career. My uncle was a psychiatrist and I felt in the playground that I would become one, as well as a musician.
"At the University of Illinois I took four years of pre-med with a major in philosophy, mainly existentialism, and again lucked out running into top jazz players like Wes Montgomery and Joe Farrell, who was a classmate of mine, and played gigs with them. The same thing happened at Johns Hopkins med school from 1960 to 1964 when I ran into the great reedman Gary Bartz, whose dad owned a jazz club in Baltimore.
'Then I got a fellowship in psychiatry at Columbia, a period that shifted my whole life. Paul Winter dragged me kicking and screaming to John Hammond. I grew up believing that to record was to put yourself at the mercy of some soulless megastructure, prostitute your music and give away artistic control. I heard all the horror stories from other musicians, so why should I bother with this? But Hammond was such a marvelous, exuberant, open guy, and so genuinely excited about my music. He said, ‘I’d love to record with you! What do you want to do? Play whatever you want! How would you like to record with Jeremy Steig?' And he played me tapes of Steig's wonderful, wild flute things, and I said, 'Sure!' So 1963 saw my first album with Steig, Ben Riley and Ben Tucker, just a blowing date — we'd never played together before — and in the studio everything clicked. Six months later, with Hammond at Columbia Records, I cut Cathexis, my first record date as a leader, and then Zeitgeist - - they had to come up with something cute for a title, but it was nothing as horrendous as Group Therapy, which is what they were going to call the album until I threw a fit.
"I moved to San Francisco in 1964, having fallen in love with the place, and never applied for an internship anywhere else. I was at S.F. General on a tough one-year rotating internship. One night, I had a woman on the verge of delivery and her baby conveniently came an hour before I was due to play at the Trident in Sausalito. The Trident experience was fortunate because I was part of the woodwork there every Monday night for two and a half years, an incredibly long time for a steady gig, with a chance to develop. And manager Lou Canapoler was such a warm, utterly sympathetic boss. At the Trident I was playing what I call 'acoustic modern jazz piano trio music,' but augmented with unusual time signatures and more extended compositions, which hadn't been done much at that time.
This continued until the mid-'60s when I began to get restless and feel limited. Synthesizers were then at their primitive, unwieldy state, so I dropped out of public performance for several years to do research and development in synthesized and electronic keyboards, integrating jazz, electronic and avant garde classical with some things in rock that many in jazz were too contemptuous of — a lot of rhythm 'n blues, Muddy Waters and Chicago, a dynamite group. I loved Frank Zappa, the Band from Big Pink, and the Stones, which had a fantastic rhythm section, and of course I adored the Beatles. But when I started to expand into this new territory, the record companies said, 'How can we sell it? What is it? We have no established conduits to market this kind of music.' So I put out the record on my own mail-order label, Double Helix records. It sold well enough and got good reviews, so a small, classy label in Berkeley, 1750 Arts, took it over. I did two more albums for them, one of the few labels that truly care about music, but sadly, it looks like they're disbanding.
"Then in 1978 my career took a shift when Philip Kaufman did a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and hired me to write the film score because he dug my records; he wanted a contemporary symphonic acoustic-electric mix, big stuff, and I had never written for a symphony orchestra before. I had to sell producer Bob Solo, and frankly, if I had been him, I never would have hired someone with as few credentials. I only got the gig because Phil Kaufman twisted his arm. I closed my medical office for five weeks to undertake the most exciting and exhaustive experience of my life. The thrill of hearing my music performed by the very best of L.A. musicians was a gas! Overwhelming, man! During a break, the first violinist said, 'I love your music, but of course, you have done many scores.’ When I told him no, this was my first, his eyes widened and he said, 'But you should be doing this all the time!' After Body Snatchers I got a lot of movie offers, but shied away now that the mystery was gone. There are too many extra-musical considerations in sculpting music to fit a producer's and a director's concept of what the film is about, and if you can do this and still please yourself, that's rare. Film composers have told me that I could do a thousand films before lucking into a unique situation where, thanks to Phil. I could hire the best conductor, the best musicians, the best studio, the best sound engineer absolutely unheard of!
"After the tremendous musical congestion of Body Snatchers I had the urge to return to the simplicity of the acoustic piano. and recorded Soundings for 1750 arts, and then a duet with bassist Charlie Haden, Time Remembered One Time Once, live at Keystone Korner for the German label ECM. followed by Tidal Wave for Palo Alto Records, mostly my own compositions. Herb Wong then included me in a potpourri 'twofer/ Bill Evans — A Tribute in the exalted company of John Lewis, Teddy Wilson, George Shearing and Dave McKenna. Almost anyone playing acoustic piano today owes a debt to Bill Evans, but I started early enough so that my first influences were before Bill's time, which I'm glad about because his influence on younger pianists is so formidable that it's hard to get from under. But I'm grateful for the exposure to his early work on Riverside, which I feel is Bill's best, and thankful that I had him for a friend. He was rare in that he was so comfortable with his talent that he never felt the need to be competitive, and took great delight in encouraging other players, like me.
"To get back to medicine, I did a psychiatric residency at Langley Porter [a hospital in San Francisco] from 1965 to 1968 when the human potential movement was burgeoning and studied a broad range of psychiatric disciplines, including many Esalen workshops with Fritz Perls. Later my training and orientation became more psychoanalytic. My feelings about groups like est are mixed; est is a blunt instrument that has proved its unquestionable value for some people, providing them with a genuine breakthrough experience; for others it was a form of adult recreation. But serious studies have found that among est, and most encounter groups of this kind, a disturbing rate of casualty exits, in some cases as high as ten percent.
"During the '60s I worked with the drug study unit at Langley Porter, the first unit to deal with the ravages of the 'flower children.' Drugs have never been part of my life. Apart from the legalities, I don't condemn it for others who seem to function better on judicious amounts of drugs, but I do condemn it when it gets out of control like cocaine, which is the major problem today among middle- and high-income people. Cocaine is totally destructive, far more than LSD, and is incredibly addictive, psychologically; it's worked its murderous way into every sector of society.
"In more recent years I've become increasingly interested in the creative process. Many of my patients are involved in creative pursuits, and not necessarily people labeled by society as 'artists,' but entrepreneurs, business people who are feeling blocks to the flow of their creativity. I conduct workshops and lecture-demonstrations on 'unlocking the creative impulse: the psychology of improvisation.' All creative pursuits share a common task of entering an ecstatic or merger state where the artist can tap into the wellspring of his emotional and unconscious life, while simultaneously, in some subliminal way. bringing to bear everything learned, felt and believed about his or her art. There's a parallel between playing Jazz and doing psychiatry because the deepest kind of creativity and communication is involved in both fields. Ideally. when I'm playing with a group, a state of subconscious merger exists between me and my fellow musicians, just as it ideally exists between me and my patients; a complete immersion and a state of genuine trust allows something special, musically or psychologically, to emerge. When that state is reached, whether in music or in therapy. I give up all sense of my physical body, or the positional sense of self.
"One of the reasons drug use is often prevalent among Jazz musicians is so they can achieve this state despite the distractions of noisy audiences and bad amplifying systems, and also deal with the internal noise which is potentially much more insidious and disruptive. Like. I’m playing a concert in Edmonton. and am going to Japan the next day. and in the middle of a phrase, suddenly I think. "Where did I put my plane tickets?'and get pulled out of the music. Being a professional. I'm still moving my fingers and maybe haven't made an actual mistake, but I'm no longer centered in the music. Another common kind of internal noise is self-doubt, and self-flagellation for making a mistake. My fascination with Bjorn Borg's tennis experience - I'm a wild tennis nut and an avid player - is that Borg is able to get into a state of total concentration, playing at the moment, that no other player has been able to achieve in quite this way. This is what I try to do at the piano and my medical practice; I try to merge with my patients, their dream and fantasy life, leaving a part of myself free to observe and comment and help the patient understand what they are experiencing. I try to merge in this same way with the other cats on the stand.
"One of my patients, an extremely gifted Jazz musician, had this tremendous block about performing in front of people, so severe that he began to withdraw from playing entirely. What he was consciously aware of was a fear of failure, of humiliation, and on the surface he chronically undervalued his own playing. But alter we worked for a while, what at first seemed a fear of failure slowly emerged as a tremendous guilt over success, which is what he was really afraid of, that he would get up on the stand and blow the other cats away, show them up, knowing himself to be supremely gifted. For him, the act of performing was the recapitulation of an important childhood conflict, wherein he felt he had always outdistanced his younger brother, crippling him, and his brother never had as good a life. And as he became more consciously aware of this dynamic, and could re-live early experiences, he began to feel less guilty, more free to perform, and went on to become extremely successful. Without giving any clues as to his identity, let's just say he was able to actualize his talent. This took many months, there was no sudden Hollywood breakthrough. Certainly there are ‘Ah-Hah' experiences in psychotherapy, but the bulk of change occurs as a result of slowly working these things through."
One night at the Trident in 1967. in mid-performance, Zeitlin experienced "an external distraction of the most delicious kind" when his future (and second) wife, Josephine Shady, entered the room: "The hell with the merger experience … who is this woman? I couldn't wait for the set to be over. We've been together ever since, and she's the hub of everything in my life. Josephine's one of the most creative people I know, as a professional landscape and garden designer, as a photographer and as a gourmet chef. She can look at a recipe and instinctively sense how much to add and what to leave out. just as she can see a client's disaster-area backyard and get an immediate physical impression of what can be there. When we went on a restaurant safari in France, very few of these three-star outfits came up to her level."
As a guest at the Zeitlin table. I can attest that Denny's enthusiasm goes well beyond routine husbandly pride: Josephine Zeitlin is indeed one of the world's great cooks. Since 1973 the Zeitlins have occupied a captivating house in wooded Kentfield with a rare Egyptian Pharaoh dog and three exotic cats. A gleaming grand piano dominates the living room, but the household centers around the kitchen. Spacious gardens and orchards provide "live" fare for sublime lunches and dinner. Downstairs is Zeitlin's suburban office; he has another across from Langley Porter in the city. Adjoining the home-office is a studio crammed with an array of electronic keyboards, plus a cavernous temperature-controlled wine cellar. Zeitlin approaches wine and food with the same breathless rapture that marks his passion for music, medicine and tennis: "I got interested in wine in high school, not drinking it, but reading about it. Then as an intern I got started collecting great French vintages in those days you could buy Chateau Lafitte for three, four dollars a bottle! Fantastic!
"All of my activities seem organically related, I can't say exactly why. When I run on Mount Tamalpais [Mill Valley, CA], I get the same sense of merger with the mountain that I do with my music and my patients, I find a deep, sensual and aesthetic pleasure in all of these activities, all of which make me appreciate the wonder of humans, what they feel, what they think about."”