ZEITGEIST: Denny Zeitlin's twin careers of psychiatry and jazz complement each other remarkably well.
Denny Zeitlin, the man with two brains
By Leilani Clark
Denny Zeitlin is one lucky fellow. Rather than choosing between his two loves, music and psychiatry, he has thriving dual careers. An acclaimed jazz pianist and composer as well as a successful psychiatrist, the Kentfield resident has taken the road less traveled without any regrets.
"I'm very grateful for the shape of my life and for the opportunities I've had to continue to grow in both fields," Zeitlin says by phone. On June 11, he performs at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
A clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF, Zeitlin has private practices in San Francisco and Marin County. In addition, he has more than 30 jazz recordings under his belt, performing throughout the years with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, as well as Charlie Haden and Bobby Hutcherson, both of whom also appear in Healdsburg this year. He composed the outer-world theme music for 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and his new live solo piano album, Labyrinth, will be released in late June. A compatriot of Bill Evans (who regularly performed Zeitlin's gorgeous "Quiet Now"), Zeitlin is known for radically reinventing jazz standards.
"The compositions are really launching pads for improvisation," he says. "Improvisation is something we all can learn to do better. We're improvising, really, in many ways much of the time through our lives, whether or not it's on a stated artistic task." For Zeitlin, creative improvisation extends into conversation, cooking and general everyday living. "We all have the challenge, if we want to accept it, of infusing our everyday life with more creativity and more spontaneity."
He says he got an early start in spontaneous composition. "My parents wisely protected me from prematurely beginning a study of music," says Zeitlin. At six, he began a course of formal classical studies, but says that serious explorations of jazz, in the eighth grade, were like being shot from a cannon. "This had been the music I had been waiting for all my life," he says.
Nowadays, Zeitlin is often called to work with people who struggle to act on their own creative desires. He's turned his insights gained through years of psychiatric practice into a lecture called "Unlocking the Creative Impulse" which addresses the psychological blocks that arise during the artistic process.
"I can't imagine retiring from either music or psychiatry. I wouldn't know what to do with myself," says Zeitlin. "I love being involved deeply in both fields, and it really is the combination that has helped keep it fresh for me over the years."
Denny Zeitlin performs on a bill including John Heard, George Cables, Ray Drummond, Craig Handy and others on Saturday, June 11, at the Raven Theater. 115 North St., Healdsburg. 7pm. $45 and $75. 800.838.3006.
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