The Columbia Years: 1963-67

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In 1960 I went out to Baltimore to begin my medical schooling at Johns Hopkins University. I was excited about being accepted to such a great school, and hoped that I would be able to find time and continue to be as lucky as I had been in college and high school in finding musicians to play with.

My luck held; it turned out that Gary Bartz had a steady gig at the North End Lounge, a jazz club owned by his father, and I was able to go and sit in late at night after I finished my medical studies. Gary was in his late teens at that time, and it was before he had begun to record. But already he was sounding marvelous, bringing together elements of both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. He and the other musicians were very welcoming and I had many wonderful evenings sitting in over the course of my four years at Johns Hopkins.

Billy Hart was frequently there on drums, and as I recall at that time he was seriously considering a career in mechanical engineering. For a while Grachan Moncur, III was playing trombone. Always great musicians. Medical school was fascinating but extremely demanding and in the late evening after studying for five or six hours, to be able to go and play was a wonderful balancing experience. I was also fortunate in that the medical residence hall I was staying at had an excellent seven foot Steinway in its entry room. I would grab a few minutes whenever I could between classes and labs.

In 1963, in my third year in medical school, I obtained a 10 week fellowship to Columbia University in psychiatry. I rented an apartment on the west side on 72nd St., and hoped to get an idea of what it might be like to live and work in New York City.

I studied and hung out with George Russell frequently during that period which was one of the pivotal inspirational musical experiences of my life. History has never really given George his due. As a theorist-composer-arranger, he has had enormous influence. His belief and encouragement of my music is something that I will always cherish.

It was during that fellowship that my friend Paul Winter, another big supporter, dragged me reluctantly to meet his producer, the legendary John Hammond at Columbia Records. At that point I didn't have aspirations of recording; I was resonating with the bitter and cynical remarks many fellow musicians made about the recording scene, and didn't wish to risk a record label telling me what to play.

But John Hammond turned out to be extremely enthusiastic about jazz in general and my music in particular, and offered me a contract with Columbia for a multi-record deal in which I would have carte blanche to record with whomever I wanted and to play whatever I chose. This was too good to pass up.

My first recording experience was as a featured pianist on Jeremy Steig's album "Flute Fever." Ben Riley was on drums and Ben Tucker on bass. I met with Jeremy brieflybefore the recording and we discussed and tried out some tunes, but essentially this was a blowing date on a weekend. Jeremy wanted to speak raw emotion through his flute—particularly to give his anger a voice through "musical temper tantrums."

The album had plenty of fire, the chemistry among the four of us was terrific, and everyone played his ass off. It was a great thrill to record in Columbia’s 30th Street studio; I could feel the echoes of decades of great jazz and classical recording sessions. I remember how touched I was when Billy Taylor, a major early pianistic influence of mine, responded warmly to this LP. I hope that someday Columbia will reissue “Flute Fever” on CD; I think it still sounds fresh today.

In the winter of 1964 I recorded my first album as a leader: “Cathexis,” with Cecil McBee on bass, and Freddie Waits on drums. They had been playing together in Paul Winter’s consort, and had a great rapport. And they were both wide open to what I was trying to do. We immediately clicked as a trio, and the album was recorded in just a few days.

This was my first opportunity to present some of my own compositions, as well as my approach to reharmonizing and reworking jazz and American songbook standards. It was particularly exciting to record my composition, “Blue Phoenix”, a 15 minute exploration of the legend from Egyptian mythology, in one take.

I remember taking the finished LP over to Bill Evans’ apartment for his critique. I felt emboldened to call him, since he had mentioned my “great” playing on “Flute Fever” in a Downbeat Blindfold Test. He loved the trio album, and encouraged me to “keep doing my own thing.” In this early phase of my recording career, the encouragement of people like Billy, George, and Bill was tremendously inspiring.

The release of “Cathexis” and the subsequent Columbia LPs opened many doors—to network TV and repeat spots on the Tonight Show, appearances at colleges and major festivals, and critical acclaim in the international press:

But shortly after the release of this first trio album, I was up to my neck in a rough-and-tumble rotating internship at San Francisco General Hospital. It took some reconnaissance and hospital logistics, but I managed to hook up with Jerry Granelli, a sensitive and innovative local drummer, and bassist Charlie Haden, whose great time feeling and harmonic anticipation I had admired with Ornette Coleman.

We began playing steadily on Monday nights at the Trident in Sausalito and concertizing along the West Coast, and this lead to “Carnival” in ’64, “Live at the Trident in ’65, and ½ of “Zeitgeist” in ’66. With Jerry and Charlie, I continued to explore my interest in extended compositions, unusual time signatures, reworking of standards, “free” improvisation, and the challenges of trio interplay.

Charlie left for NYC in ’66, and Jerry Granelli became involved in other musical interests. I formed a new trio with the fiery Oliver Johnson on drums, and virtuosic Joe Halpin on bass. We continued to play the Trident, and tour the West Coast, weaving concerts into the fabric of my life as a psychiatric resident. We finished the other ½ of “Zeitgest”, and that LP was released in ’67.


Cathexis” and part of “Carnival” are available on a Sony CD. “Live at the Trident” was issued on CD by Japan Sony. To my knowledge, “Flute Fever and “Zeitgeist” have never been reissued on CD. These five albums for Columbia were a marvelous platform for me to develop and express myself musically.

I’ll always be grateful to John Hammond for his faith and encouragement. I can’t fault him or Columbia for not wanting to follow me into a new area I was becoming increasingly enamored with: the integration of acoustic and electronic instruments, jazz, rock, classical, and avant-garde music.

Critical Acclaim for Denny Zeitlin’s “Columbia Years” Recordings and Performances

BILL EVANS: [Downbeat Blindfold Test, listening to Jeremy Steig’s LP “Flute Fever,” featuring Denny Zeitlin] “…the piano player is also great.”

THELONIOUS MONK: [Downbeat Blindfold Test, listening to Denny Zeitlin’s LP “Carnival”] “Hey play that again…(later.) Yeah! He sounds like a piano player! (hums theme) …and he can play it; you know what’s happening with this one. Yeah, he was on a Bobby Timmons kick. He knows what’s happening.”

DOWNBEAT: “The Zeitlin trio…a stunning display of instrumental virtuosity, emotional depth, and musicality…Zeitlin’s piano is impeccable…introspective, filled with joy, bitingly mocking, always intelligent and emotional.”

NEW YORK TIMES, John S. Wilson: “…among the few contemporary jazz pianists who have the imagination, discipline, and technique to rise above the competent but routine level that most of them appear willing to settle for.”

NEWSWEEK: “What marks all of Zeitlin’s work and playing…is a sense of journey, but one complete with arrival as well as departure.”

LEONARD FEATHER, Editor of Encyclopedia of Jazz and syndicated newspaper columnist: “(at the Monterey Jazz Festival) Denny Zeitlin topped his Newport triumph…pianist of the year…the most versatile young pianist to come to prominence in the early 1960’s.”

CUE: “The most inventive jazz pianist in at least two decades.”

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