Sunday, March 13, 2016

Denny Zeitlin - A Mid-Career Interview with Ben Sidran

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Jazz musicians are their music. Absent that, they're just people making a living, eating meals, paying bills — no different from cops or politicos. But that's just the point: the music can't be subtracted: it's the defining essence, which sets musicians apart, makes them special and ultimately a little mysterious. Makes their various complexes and misbehaviors interesting to writers, chroniclers, fans.

Would British writer Geoff Dyer, for example, have found Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, and the other walking pathologies celebrated in his BUT BEAUTIFUL (Farrar, Straus, 1996) so fascinating had it not been for the music they made? Subtract the music and you have just another chronicle of aberrant thought and behavior. In a review of his book, I wondered whether Dyer would have been similarly drawn to musicians such as Henry “Red” Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, and Red Norvo, no less brilliant, who seem to have led balanced, eminently non-neurotic lives.”
- Richard Sudhalter, Jazz cornetist, author and critic

I very much enjoy what the late, distinguished publicist, writer and educator Grover Sales refers to as Denny Zeitlin’s “two track mind.”

For not only is Denny a dynamite keyboard artist, he is also an M.D. Psychiatrist at the renown University of California at San Francisco and in private practice.

Denny is able to participate in what Arthur Koestler refers to as “The Act of Creation” and he is also able to articulate what is involved in the psychological dynamics of that “act” or process in a studied and pellucid manner.

One of the best examples of the latter is contained in a lengthy conversation that Denny had with Ben Sidran on his National Public Radio series “Sidran on the Radio,” which has been published as part of Ben’s Talking Jazz: An Oral History - 43 Conversations.

The conversation took place in 1988 which is approximately the midway point in Denny’s career which began professionally in the early 1960’s.

I hope Ben won’t think that we are stealing-his-thunder; we just want to share a little of it with you in the form of the following excerpts.

As regards Denny’s musical “track,” he has a new CD out entitled Riding the Moment with percussionist George Marsh, with whom he has had a long-standing working relationship. It’s available from Sunnyside Records [SSC 1408], online retailers including Amazon and CD Baby and on Denny’s website -

“Ben: You said something that I think might be a key to your parallel careers in psychiatry and music. And that is, classical music interested you to the extent that you could understand how it fit together. You know, your interest in knowing how it fits together and how the process works, I think, might be parallel in both cases.

Denny: Boy that's a good point. I think that's really very much at the heart of it for me. I also have memories of age six or seven, on the playground at school, of having kids come up and talk to me, spontaneously, about themselves, about their lives, about problems. And I was fascinated in just the way you describe. What makes life work? What makes people act and feel the way they do? Why would somebody do something with another kid that seems so patently self-destructive? I mean, that intrigued me even then. So this hunger to understand process, and to understand how things are organized, is very central to my character. I think it's really a good point...

Ben: And I think also that we can see jazz as being a parallel experience, not simply for you, but for all of us, in a way, to help understand the world. It has many of the human elements in it, but in a symbol system that can be manipulated almost safely, huh?

Denny: Yes. And it's a continuous unfolding, as is doing psychotherapy with somebody. It's not, it's not a finished product. I guess in some ways, playing Ravel's "Gaspard de la nuit," as much as I love to hear somebody play it, would have too much of a concretized, finished aspect for me. I wanna have this open-ended process in front of me, and jazz has always meant that to me.

Ben: You know, it's marvelous, because when one listens to a Denny Zeitlin performance, the thing that one comes away with is this sense of unfolding. For me, your playing keeps opening, and that's the experience of it, as opposed to other styles, which are also great but may be more linear or more driving toward a particular point. The point of your playing seems to me to be this "opening."

Denny: I'm glad you hear it that way. That's very much my intent. Maybe an unconscious intent much of the time, but that really speaks to me when I hear you describe it that way.

Ben: Well, let's talk a bit about the music. First of all, before we get too far ahead, the happenstance that occurred through the interjection of John Hammond, when you recorded with Jeremy Steig, a young flute player from New York who had clearly been influenced by Roland Kirk and other people who were starting to vocalize through the instrument. Somebody, we should say, who had suffered a facial injury in a car accident not long before he recorded, and learned a special technique that allowed him to still play.

Denny: Yeah, he had a special device, like a prosthetic device he would shove in his mouth to keep air from escaping from the flaccid side of his face. And he just played his tail off. Man, this cat could really play.

Ben: Your first record date, then, was with Ben Riley on drums and Ben Tucker on bass.

Denny: It was neat. You know, it was literally a blowing date. We just got together, never having played before, and played. It was just, I think, done in a day. But I think there was some nice natural spark that happened that day.

Ben: And you can imagine in 1963 what those of us who heard this record thought, when we heard Denny Zeitlin. Your playing suggested, a little bit, the playing of Lennie Tristano, but not really. George Russell, but not really. Bill Evans, but not really. A lot of parallels were drawn at that time.

Denny: Well, you know, those are all people that were certainly a big part of my musical influences as I was growing up. Bud Powell, I would certainly have to add to the pianistic influences. Billy Taylor was an early and important influence, and by then Coltrane was a big influence on me. And Miles had been a tremendous influence. And then a lot of the modern twentieth-century classical composers were equally important as any of these jazz people I mentioned.

Ben: But you obviously didn't divert your career by being a member of the Jeremy Steig group. It seemed, instead, that you settled into your medical career. You took up your residence in San Francisco rather than go on tour.

Denny: Yes, I was a junior in medical school at Johns Hopkins when that was recorded, and then I did another album for Columbia next, which was my first trio album. Well, I guess the first of four albums I did for Columbia in the mid and late '60s. And during that time I did my internship at San Francisco General Hospital and started and completed my residency in psychiatry, University of California in San Francisco, and then set up a private practice and have been teaching at UC ever since.

Ben: So you were there in San Francisco as it transitions from a kind of quiet, sleepy Italian neighborhood into the Haight-Ashbury. You were there in the midst of that madness, as a musician.

Denny: And as a psychiatrist too. You know, that's a wonderful time to learn. I mean, besides, it's sobering but exciting from a scientific angle, in terms of drug abuse and what was happening with psychedelic drugs. Our hospital was literally three blocks from the center of the Haight-Ashbury, and for several years I was consulting and working on a youth drug abuse study unit, where we had an opportunity to really work in depth with people who were literally blowing their minds. And it was very, very sobering to see what was happening. But it was very exciting, as a learning experience.

Ben: Let's talk briefly about why you think jazz musicians have used and abused drugs, since the beginning it appears, but certainly since the '40s. What are your thoughts on that? Why heroin? Why drugs? Why jazz?

Denny: Complex question. I think though that probably one central aspect of it is that everybody who tries to create has to deal with the issue of noise. External noise is the more obvious sort that we think of, and certainly a musician who has to stand up on a bandstand in a nightclub and fight the Waring blender, the tinkling of glasses, the patrons screaming "Play Melancholy Baby," and everything else that happens in the external world, those distractions are tremendously potentially destructive to any ongoing flow of the music. But I think even more insidious is the kind of internal noise that most of us as creative people have to deal with at one time or another.

In a sense, I think it's an ongoing issue to deal with that internal noise. And that can take a number of forms. Sometimes it can be, for example, somebody who gets up to play, or is about to be involved in a creative activity, who has an internal feeling of, "I have no business being here," or "I haven't really prepared," or "What happens if I play and I flub a few notes," or "There's a tremendously important pianist out there in the audience. What's he gonna think of this voicing," or ... All these kinds of internal things that can start to percolate, that have to do often with fears of public humiliation, of failure, sometimes of loss of control. At other times it's a more interesting theme of fear or guilt about being successful. Which is interesting.

In my private practice over the years, where I've often had a larger percentage of people involved in creative pursuits perhaps than other psychiatrists, that theme comes up again and again. Where people unconsciously have a tremendous inhibition about allowing themselves to be successful.

And then often, historically, what it turns out is that it involves some early familial experiences, whereby they learned or came to believe that their success would be at the expense of somebody else in the family. For example, a very talented saxophone player, and I'll disguise the elements here so that there's no way the person could be identified. Let's call him a saxophone player, comes to my office with the stated complaint that he was tremendously [in] fear of, had a tremendous fear of failure on the bandstand. He thought he was an imposter, he thought he was no good. And he was so almost phobic about performing that his career had ground to a halt.

We began doing intensive psychotherapy. And after a number of months it turned out that that fear of failure theme was really a cover story for a more pervasive underlying guilt over being successful. He was the older of two brothers, and he always felt that he had been favored in the family, and that his younger brother had suffered, and had been somehow shoved off in the corner. Never had a chance to shine.

So when he was up on the stand, potentially being able to really play, and he knew on some level that he was more talented than everybody else in the band that he was playing with, and that he could literally blow them away. And when he would talk about that imagery, you could feel the potential destructiveness that had in his fantasy life. That his playing well would blow other people away. Annihilate them. That's what he felt on a symbolic level he was doing to his brother by excelling. And after being able to be able to work this through, in psychotherapy, his career began to really take off, and he went on to make some really major contributions.

Ben: Two things come to mind. One, the idea of internal noise. You know, Charlie Parker once was quoted as saying, "You don't play better on heroin, but you do hear better." Because a lot of the noise drops away. And what you hear is the music.

Denny: Yeah. I think that one of the major reasons why people would take drugs is to quell noise. And to have more access to the purity of the merger state, which to me is a prerequisite for true creativity. Where I think there's a severe backlash for most players, and I'm not talking about legal issues, or ethical issues here, but, I don't wanna say that there might not be people who, literally, given their make-up and their background, would play better on drugs. And there probably are some that do.

But I think for most people, the price one pays esthetically for the drug, for getting to that place where you don't have the noise, is a huge price, in that the sense of form typically goes out the window. In that, where there may be a subjective feeling that you're really burning, "It's really happening, man," you know, and it feels wonderful, if one goes back often and listens critically to the tapes of such experiences, you find out that there's a lot of heat but not much light. That often it can end up being what sounds like a form of musical masturbation. That whatever organizing principle a person internally has about the shape of an improvisation, or the compositional inevitability that one often hopes is going to emerge from playing, that doesn't seem to happen as frequently.

Ben: Well that's interesting also. The inevitability of music is really an illusion, isn't it? We do this music. This music is not literally done through us. We do it. A lot of musicians, John Coltrane included, expressed the sentiment that they're merely the vessel and the music passes through them. And to some extent it's true, but...

Denny: It's a useful state of mind to have, I think, and I think getting into the merger state helps promote that, that feeling of being one of the people in the audience, almost, listening to the music. And I think that allows us as musicians often to less consciously manipulate the music, which I think gives it a more natural and spontaneous feel. But there's no question: "There ain't nobody else at the keyboard."

Ben: Someone's doin' it. It's so easy sitting here with you, Denny, to get far afield. But of course, the main reason we're here today is because you're a player. You're a player first and foremost to most people. I'm sure your patients would argue otherwise, but to the rest of us, we think of you when we hear your music, as being an original voice. For somebody who is such a gifted acoustic piano player, with such an original voice, I think it was a surprise to many that you became very involved in electronics. Talk about that a bit. ….”

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