Q & A: Denny Zeitlin, Psychiatrist and Jazz Pianist (Part 2)

By Don Heckman

Denny Zeitlin is a rare Renaissance man.  He’s been a practicing psychiatrist since the early ‘60s, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco since 1968.  His career as a highly praised jazz pianist has paralleled his psychiatric work.  After making his first recording in 1963, he released dozens of albums over the succeeding decades, including his latest release, Wherever You Are—Midnight Moods For Solo Piano.  This is Part 2 of our conversation

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Zeitlin will present an evening of Solo Jazz Piano, December 1, 8 PM, at the Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Avenue (at 18th Street), Oakland, CA. Admission $20.  Reservations recommended:  (510) 547 8188.

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DH: Denny, in addition to your activities as a recording and concertizing musician, you have an active practice as a psychiatrist and teacher at the University of California in San Francisco. What has it been like to maintain these dual careers for half a century?

Denny Zeitlin

DZ: Actually, I’ve been balancing these two interests since childhood. Music had a bit of a head start on psychiatry, in that I started clambering up on the family Steinway when I was two or three years old. When I was about seven, my uncle, who was a psychiatrist in Chicago, began talking with me about what it was like to work with patients and I was fascinated. It wasn’t long before I was practicing psychotherapy without a license on the playground. Captivated by both fields, I had a sense early on that one way or the other I would be deeply involved in both, and never happy pursuing one to the exclusion of the other.

I have tried to find the heart for me in each activity, nurture that, and let other areas go.  In psychiatry, I focus on working with patients; teaching psychotherapy to psychiatric residents at the University of California, San Francisco, where I am a clinical professor; consulting to other therapists’ practices; and presenting courses and workshops In music, I have focused on leading my own groups, or performing in duo and solo; and relishing the opportunity to compose , record, and do a modicum of touring.  My psychiatric responsibilities have not allowed for extended touring; being a sideman in a number of bands; or having much opportunity for writing for large groups and symphonies.  These compromises seem a small price to pay, and I am extraordinarily grateful to have been able to maintain these dual pursuits.

DH: From a layperson’s point of view,  these two careers seem so very different.  Are there commonalities—aspects that drew you to both of them?

DZ: I think deep communication is at the core of both.  With a patient in my office, I’m hoping to tune in and connect as profoundly as possible to his or her psychological life in order to help the person feel truly understood. A similar process occurs improvising with other musicians, when we are selflessly and deeply attuned to each other.  I then frequently enter an ecstatic state in which it is not apparent who is playing what or how, but that some special and new music is simply happening.  I feel more like a conduit than a producer of music at those times, and yet maintain a certain part of myself available to observe and intervene without getting in the way.  In the solo setting, my task is to communicate with my deepest self via this process of merger, and allow some new music to surface.

“Healing” is another commonality. I’ve wanted to be a healer all my life, and am grateful to have had an opportunity to be helpful to so many patients for so many years.  And although I don’t practice “music therapy” in the formal sense, I believe there are therapeutic effects when I reach out to an audience and find them reciprocating.  This meeting, this connection, also has a transcendent “healing” effect on both listener and performer.

DH:  You offer a Lecture-Demonstration called “Unlocking the Creative Impulse: The Psychology of Improvisation,” where you wear both hats.  Tell us a bit about it.

DZ: I’ve wondered for many years about the nature of the creative spark and what ignites it, and have enjoyed exploring this area with musicians, artists, performers, psychotherapists, educators, and lay audiences in workshops I have conducted internationally.  My basic thesis is that the highest forms of creativity entail the combining of two disparate disciplines.

One is the more classically “Western”  tradition, involving the countless hours of woodshedding that lead to technical expertise;  the study of the history and scope of the art form; and development of a personal aesthetic.  The other is the more classically “Eastern” tradition, emphasizing the development of ecstatic capacity, allowing the artist to merge with the act of making art.  This integration occurs at peak moments of creativity, regardless of the artist’s level of awareness of it.  Both disciplines are needed.  Over-emphasis on the Western tradition produces work that may be technically and formally flawless, but is emotionally empty.  And over-emphasis on the Eastern tradition leads to communication of deep emotional states at the cost of aesthetic form.  Since the anatomy of ecstasy is less familiar to those of us raised in the Western world, I focus considerable time on it.  Interested readers might like to read a more detailed summary I wrote for the New York City Jazz Record in November, 2011 (www.dennyzeitlin.com/documents/arc-creative-impulse-nyc-jazz-record-8-12-2011.pdf).

DH: On your website, www.dennyzeitlin.com, you share some of your other passions, like wine collecting and fly fishing.  How do you weave all these activities into the fabric of your life? And how does all this fit with your life with Josephine?  You folks have been married since the sixties, right?

DZ: Well, start with my parents, who had a tremendous zest for life, and encouraged me to follow my passions. I’ve loved fishing since I was a boy, and since college have focused on fly fishing.  I got involved with wine in medical school, and started a cellar with my wife in the mid-sixties.  For twenty-five years we were avid mountain bikers, traveling to spots throughout the United States.  I run up on Mt. Tamalpais near our home in Marin County four times a week, loving the opportunity for another kind of merger experience with the outdoors.  Balance and compromise are two challenges I keep in mind to avoid feeling that the days are too jam-packed.  My life with Josephine is at the hub of all this.  She is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.  We have such a wonderful time sharing our lives, and she has been an unflagging supporter of my music, resonating deeply with my work. I believe she is the most creative person I have ever known.  Her ability to constantly take a fresh look at the world is inspiring.

DH: What about plans for the future?

DZ: At age 74, I am more and more frequently experiencing friends, colleagues and family facing illness and death.  I am fortunate to be in extremely good health at the moment, and I don’t take it lightly.  You never know when the wheels are going to come off. I am grateful for every day and for my good fortune in being involved in careers and activities and relationships that are so rewarding.  I see myself as a perpetual student; I love to keep learning and growing, without forcing the directions that might take. I can’t imagine ever retiring from psychiatry or music—maybe they’ll have to cart me out of my office or studio someday.

DH: Thanks Denny.  As always, it’s been great talking with you.

To read Part 1 of the Denny Zeitlin Q & A click HERE


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