Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin has developed a vision of mind-blowing breadthSteve Krakowon June 1, 2022 at 4:10 pm

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

Secret History readers often assume I know every Chicago musician who ever lived, but luckily I’m still capable of experiencing the joy of discovery. One of my bigger thrills in life is buying a random LP by an act I barely know, being floored by the music, and then discovering the artist is from the Windy City. Case in point: pianist and composer Denny Zeitlin, whose 1967 LP Zeitgeist screamed out at me from the used jazz bin. 

A cool-looking bearded hip cat and a groovy font drew me to the cover of the album, and it was only four bucks! One of its longer tunes was called “Dormammu,” also the name of my favorite Dark Dimension-dwelling Dr. Strange villain. The music was just as expansive and borderline mystical as that title suggested, skirting around the borders of free jazz, cosmic jazz, and fusion and still somehow representing each subgenre. Of course, I dug deeper, and my mind was subsequently blown by the breadth of Zeitlin’s vision.

“Dormammu” appears on the 1967 LP Zeitgeist, Denny Zeitlin’s last album for the Columbia label.

Zeitlin was born in our fair city on April 10, 1938, to brainy and musical parents: his father was a piano-playing radiologist, and his mother was a piano teacher and speech pathologist. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree: Zeitlin has become a world-class jazz pianist and a professor of psychiatry. 

While growing up in Highland Park, Zeitlin started learning music from his mom, and by age seven he was talking shop with his psychiatrist uncle, leading to a fascination with the field. Zeitlin began improvising on the piano at two, and in preschool he started composing. His formal classical-music studies began when he was six, and in eighth grade he moved on to jazz. By high school, he was playing professionally around Chicago.

“When I graduated high school in 1956, I left Highland Park, a relatively cloistered upper middle-class suburb of Chicago, and headed down to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana,” he said in a 2021 interview with JazzWax, the blog of music writer Marc Myers. “My primary goal was to get into medical school. While the University of Illinois’s undergrad, pre-med curriculum was fixed, I also wanted to make the most of a liberal arts opportunity.”

At the University of Illinois, Zeitlin combined his love of jazz with formal study of music theory and composition, working with mentors such as Alexander Tcherepnin, Robert Muczynski, and George Russell. He also began gigging with serious jazz heavies. 

“In and around town, I had a chance to play with some great players, like Joe Farrell, Wes Montgomery, Punchy Atkinson, and Jack McDuff,” Zeitlin told JazzWax. “Being near Chicago, I’d frequently go in on the weekends to be part of the jam-session scene. I got to play with artists such as Ira Sullivan, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Ware, Wilbur Campbell and Bob Cranshaw. All this constituted my continuing education as a jazz musician. There were no formal courses in jazz offered back then in the music department.” 

Zeitlin joined the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau, which led to one of his best-known songs, “Quiet Now.” At the university, fraternities and sororities would pair up to write and perform 20- to 30-minutes musical-theater productions called “stunt shows,” and pressure naturally fell on him to contribute compositions. “There was a lot of support from the music school,” Zeitlin said. “They provided a high-quality band and help with orchestration when needed. Competition was keen, and many of the entries were original and professional.”

The theme of the late-50s stunt show for which Zeitlin wrote was the fragility of love: “How fleeting love is, how delicate it is, and how easily love came be broken,” he told JazzWax. “The final piece for this stunt show called for a ballad. So I wrote ‘Quiet Now.’ The title, for me, focused on the awesome silence of aloneness.” 

Of the song’s lyrics, written by a frat brother, Zeitlin can only remember the opening line: “Love has come and gone away.” He worked in the fraternity house’s living room to create a song that he’s described as having “a requiem feel.” The raunchy frat-party chaos of Animal House is set in 1962—apparently those few years made a big difference!

Piano demigod Bill Evans would soon become one of Zeitlin’s early supporters, and he would later add “Quiet Now” to his own repertoire—it’s even the title track of a 1969 Evans recording that was released in 1981, shortly after his death.

Denny Zeitlin made his first recorded appearance on the 1964 Jeremy Steig album Flute Fever.

Zeitlin was signed by producer John Hammond at Columbia Records in 1963, a few years after graduating from the University of Illinois. At the time, he was on a fellowship in New York during his third year at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Zeitlin’s debut on wax is the 1964 Jeremy Steig album Flute Fever, which also features drummer Ben Riley and bassist Ben Tucker. Steig was a bit of a wunderkind—he’d just turned 21 at the time of the sessions—but Zeitlin keeps up with his off-the-charts flute acrobatics. 

Also in 1964, Zeitlin headed to San Francisco to intern at the University of California San Francisco, where he later began a psychiatric residency. That same year he recorded his first two Columbia albums as a bandleader: the postbop voyage Cathexis (with Cecil McBee on bass and Freddie Waits on drums) and the smoothly sophisticated Carnival (with Charlie Haden on bass and Jerry Granelli on drums).

Zeitlin followed these in 1966 with Shining Hour: Live at the Trident, which featured the first recorded appearance of “Quiet Now” (as well as the album-cover debut of Zeitlin’s impressive beard). The aforementioned 1967 LP Zeitgeist, which gave me my eureka moment with Zeitlin, would be his last for the label. 

Jazz critic Ted Gioia had high praise for Zeitlin’s Columbia output. “He assimilated the breakthroughs of the previous decade, from the impressionism of Bill Evans to the free-fall explorations of Ornette Coleman, and blended them into a personal style that anticipated the next fifteen years of keyboard advances,” Gioia wrote. “He stood out from the crowd for the unbridled creativity of his work, the richness of his harmonic palette, and the sheer beauty of his piano tone.” 

But then Zeitlin took an exciting left turn into a stranger sound.

Denny Zeitlin wrote the music for a series of animations that ran during the first year of Sesame Street.

For the next few years, Zeitlin focused on exploring the new technologies of synthesizers, electronic treatments, and the like, though it would be a while before he’d do so in public. One of the earliest revelations of this new approach came in 1969, in the music Zeitlin composed for a whimsical series of animated counting tutorials on the first season of Sesame Street (variously nicknamed “Jazz Numbers” or “Jazzy Spies”). Zeitlin used a bonkers selection of nonstandard time signatures, in keeping with the focus on numbers, and Grace Slick added her voice. 

The same year, Zeitlin recorded an album called The Name of This Terrain with percussionist George Marsh and bassist Mel Graves, which captured this transformation in progress. At the time it was pressed only as a small-run demo, in an attempt to lure a label into bringing aboard a proper singer to replace Zeitlin’s vocals. It didn’t get a formal release for ages, though—not even more than 30 years later, after the LP’s coproducer died and his copies were discovered. Zeitlin still refused to release it for nearly two decades, and went so far as to destroy his own copies. 

Last month’s long-delayed release of the 1969 recording The Name of This Terrain.

The pianist eventually relaxed his negative appraisal of the music and gave his blessing to an archival release by NowAgain, which put out The Name of This Terrain last month. The label describes the album as “a wonderful and weird fusion of avant-classical, jazz, funk, rock and electronic music.” In the late 60s, electronic instruments were appearing more often in rock and jazz (see Miles Davis’s fusion period and the band the United States of America), but the world still hasn’t caught up with the sounds or the vibe of Zeitlin’s unearthly recording.

After a couple more years of incubating this new style, in 1973 Zeitlin released the artsy, forward-thinking Expansion LP on the tiny Double Helix label, also featuring Marsh and Graves. Zeitlin plays synthesizers, melodica, electric piano, clavinet, organ, and tambourine, and to this day the music sounds like nothing else. He committed the similarly spaced-out fusion of Syzygy to wax in 1977 for 1750 Arch Records. 

Just when Zeitlin seemed to be settling in on the avant-garde margins, though, he encountered a plot twist—Hollywood came calling.

Filmmaker Philip Kaufman, also a Chicago native, had been dazzled by Zeitlin’s performances in his Windy City days and filed him away in his brain for a future film score. That moment came when Kaufman was working on his famous 1978 remake of the sci-fi horror film and “red scare” allegory Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Kaufman initially wanted a jazz score, but as script rewrites transformed Donald Sutherland’s protagonist from an amateur jazz player to a public-health officer, the director began asking for a 20th-century classical sound. Zeitlin admits he had to wing it, but his first-ever experience writing for a symphony orchestra (which he augmented with overdubbed electronic instruments and effects) produced a memorably ominous soundtrack.

Zeitlin wouldn’t use synths again till the mid-2000s, but in the wake of his work on a popular film, he landed more higher-profile gigs. He recorded with Charlie Haden in 1981 for the ECM label (the 1983 release Time Remembers One Time Once) and for mellow acoustic specialists Windham Hill in 1988 (the album Trio, with Joel DiBartolo and Peter Donald).

Since then Zeitlin has released a tall stack of albums, one every few years at minimum. The most recent is 2021’s Telepathy: Duo Electro-Acoustic Improvisations, with longtime collaborator George Marsh.

At publication time, the 2021 release Telepathy was Denny Zeitlin’s most recent album.

Zeitlin has lived in Marin County, California, for many years. He’s been teaching at the University of California San Francisco since 1968, and he also maintains private psychiatric practices in the Bay Area. Zeitlin has even developed a lecture and workshop called “Unlocking the Creative Impulse: The Psychology of Improvisation,” combining his two careers. 

“In each setting, communication is utterly paramount,” Zeitlin told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. “There has to be a depth of empathy that allows you to really inhabit the other person’s world. It comes out as a collaborative journey in both settings.”

That seems to sum up Zeitlin well: his evolution in psychiatry and in jazz has helped him develop a distinctive kind of genius.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

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