Denny Zeitlin: Nothing Halfway
Zeitlin says that serendipity seems to have played a part, more than once, in his career as a jazz man. "I recorded five albums with Columbia. The first experience happened almost by accident. At that point I wasn't consciously aspiring to have a particularly public musical life or recording career, or [do any] touring. I was definitely convinced I was going to be a psychiatrist, and I knew I wanted to have music in my life, all my life. But how public that was going to be, that wasn't terrible important to me at that time.
From left: Buster Williams, Denny Zeitlin, Matt Wilson
"I had a fellowship at Columbia University in New York City in Psychiatry, in 1963, and Paul Winter was there at the time, and he had met me in Chicago, we had both grown up there, and he had always been very enthusiastic about my music, and he literally dragged me, almost kicking and screaming to meet this producer at Columbia, John Hammond."
John Hammond was the record producer/talent scout extraordinaire who furthered the musical careers of Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Teddy Wilson, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie...and Denny Zeitlin.
Zeitlin continues, "I told Paul Winters, 'Well I don't want to get into recording, AR men telling you what to play, I just want to be able to play the music that's in my heart.' And Paul said, 'Come on and meet John Hammond, he's a beautiful guy and he's been wonderful to work with, and I just want him to hear you.' So I went with Paul and met John Hammond and he turned out to be this wonderful ebullient guyI think he was about fifty years old at that timeand he just asked me to play for him and I played a couple of pieces and he said, 'I would love for you to come to Columbia. You record whatever you want, use whomever you want. I would just love to have you record for us.' Well, I was flabbergasted to have an offer like this, so totally carte blanche, so of course I said yes, and he said, ' I would love to get your feet wet in recordings by being the featured player on a young flautist I've discovered. His name is Jeremy Steig.' It was just a blowing date, it ended up being called Flute Fever (Columbia, 1963), and we just got together and I thought everything gelled. I thought we brought out the best in each other. It was a terrific album."
After this getting-his-feet-wet recording with the flautist Steig, Zeitlin went on to record four trio albums for the label, three in the studioCathexis, (1963); Carnival, (1964); Zeitgeist (1967)and one live date, Live at the Trident (1965).
"Those [Columbia] albums really did open things up for me, to continue to record and play at major festivals and do concerts and continue to record and get a fair amount of press, and get some visibility in the jazz sub-culture, and it was a lot of fun for me, and I was grateful to have that opportunity, and still was able to continue with my medical studies because I graduated from Hopkins in '64, and then came out to California. That was the place I had decided I really wanted to live. I'd had a chance to do a fellowship in 1963 in San Francisco, and I fell in love with San Francisco almost the first night I was here."
"And then I got a real hunger to investigate what was happening with the possibilities of electronic music and integrating it with acoustic instruments. I wanted to explore what was possible in this electronic area, but to do so I knew I would just have to withdraw from public performance for a while and find engineers to build me stuff. Back in those days there were no pre-packaged synthesizers you could take on the road. What there was around then was a Fender Rhodes, I had a clavinet, an organ and a melodica, and then a lot of sound-altering equipment that I had engineers build mering modulators and a doomsday machines, then gradually it was possible to get some synthesizers.
"Then 1978 rolled around and I got a call from Philip Kaufman, the filmmaker and director. Saying he would very much like for me to do the score for the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
The original 1956 movie of the same name was adapted from the novel Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. The movie's story line is one of alien plant-like pods taking over and becoming replicas of their human hosts. It is considered a science fiction/horror classic.
Zeitlin continues: "I met with him [Kaufman] and talked to him about it, I was very excited about the prospect, because for years I had hoped that I might get a chance to do a film score, but I thought that it would be very unlikely, because typically to get a film score you have to live in Hollywood, you have to knock on doors for years, finally, if you're politically adept enough you might get a chance at a movie, but it probably be something on a shoestring budget, and all you could afford is a kazoo player. So here I stumbled in once again, via the back door, a la Columbia Records, to a film that I sensed was going to be a classic of its genre, by a filmmaker I had admired for years."
Kaufman had previously directed Goldstein (1965), Fearless Frank (1965), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), and White Door,. Post-Invasion of the Body Snatchers he directed The Wanderers (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Henry and June (1990), Rising Sun (1993), Quills (2000), and Twisted (2004).
"The lead male, Donald Sutherland," Zeitlin continues, "was to be an avocational jazz man, and Kaufman wanted a jazz score. But the script morphed. Donald Sutherland's character became a deputy public health inspector, and the jazz score receded into the background, and now Phil [Kaufman] and his producer, Bob Solo, wanted a 20th century symphonic score with lots of electronics.
"The electronics I could supply with ease, and I had plenty of credentials for that, but I had never written for a symphony orchestra, even though I think I had thought orchestrally all my life. So I had to convince both Phil Kaufman and Bob Solo that I could do this, and after some arm twisting, they accepted me on the team, and I began one of the most intense musical adventures of my life."
At this point, Dr. Dennis Zeitlin, closed his psychiatric practice for the first time in his career, and had his psychiatric colleagues cover for him to take care of his patients. For someone as committed to medicine as he is his music, it was not an easy decision. Speaking with Dr. Zeitlin about this juncture in his career, it becomes obvious that Psychiatry is not something he does halfway; it was/is not the "day job" that allows him to do his art, but rather it was/is a consuming passion for him, as is his music.
"I was so immersed in this music I was spending 18, 19, 20 hours a day in the studio working on this score, and my wife would have to come down and scrape me off the piano stool and plunk me in the hot tub to reconstitute me, put me in bed for a few hours, and then I would get up and do the whole thing all over again. And what was making it so complex, other than my naïveté, was writing for a symphony orchestra and working with the Profit Polyphonic Synthesizer that had just come out, and all the electronic keyboards, to try to produce a music that was often weird and scary but also organic, because what was happening was not an invasion of metal ships from outer space, but an invasion of another alien life form, so Philip Kaufman wanted the music to have an organic feel. So it was complicated."
"Finally we got to the point where I'm down in Burbank, on the sound stage with a full symphony orchestra, and I got the chance to hear the symphony orchestra explode into the music I had been working on all those weeks. It was one of the high points musically of my life. I was exhilarated by the experience, but also utterly exhausted, having been pulled away from everything I hold dear in my lifemusic, psychiatry, my wifewe've together now forty yearsI saw so little of those sectors of my life during that [ten week] period."
The entire project turned out to be a huge success. The 1978 version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers met with near-universal critical acclaim. Philip Kaufman was named Best Director by The Academy of Science Fiction and Horror Films (Saturn Award, 1978), and the movie received a coveted Hugo Award as Best Dramatic Interpretation. The project was, Zeitlin agrees, a near perfect work of art: the acting, directing, the script, the special effects, and, though he doesn't say so himself, the soundtrack, that captures the eeriness and grim gathering dread, and even, in the case of his perfect composition, "Love Theme From the Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a wistful, tender moment of beauty in the face of impending doom.
In light of the success of the project, Zeitlin replies to the question of why he has not done another soundtrack with: "Well, it was one of the high points of my life to have that experience, to see that both Bob Solo and Phil Kaufman were delighted with the music, but knew I could never get a situation as remotely as good. I had some offers but I said to myself: 'I'm quitting while I'm ahead.'"