I am so honored to have my lyrics married to Denny Zeitlin's incredible composition "Quiet Now"
Here is a lovely interview with Denny from JazzWax about the story behind the writing of this remarkable song and I am deeply touched by Denny's support of my work.
I'm unbelievably fortunate to a part of his world of music!
I have known and admired pianist-composer Denny Zeitlin for many years. My admiration dates back to the early 2000s, after I heard for the first time his four albums for Columbia recorded in the mid-1960s. I was blown away. Our friendship dates back to 2009, when I did a multipart JazzWax interview with him. We've been email penpals ever since.
Last week, Denny sent along an email urging me to give a listen to vocalist Suzi Stern sing his composition Quiet Nowon her now-out-of-print album recorded in 1995. Suzi had uploaded the song to YouTube. You know Denny's song because it was part of Bill Evans's recording and gig repertoire for much of his career. I gave a listen to Suzi's track and had an idea. Would Denny be willing to share with me the story behind the song's birth and evolution? Denny eagerly answered my questions.
Here is my interview with Denny on the writing and recording of Quiet Now:
JazzWax: You were in college when you wrote Quiet Now. Where were you studying and what was your major?
Denny Zeitlin: When I graduated high school in 1956, I left Highland Park, Ill., a relatively cloistered upper middle-class suburb of Chicago, and headed down to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. 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. Philosophy, with its history and adventures of ideas and grappling with major questions was an attractive focus.
JW: Was there a jazz scene on campus?
DZ: Yes, an informal one. In and around town, I had a chance to play with some great players, like Joe Farrell, Wes Montgomery, Punchy Atkinson, and Jack McDuff. 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. Instead, I studied composition with Thomas Fredrickson, a faculty member who was fluent in jazz and modern classical composition and orchestration. He also was a hell of a bass player.
JW: What about the social scene on campus?
DZ: The fraternity-sorority system there was very strong and considered a major social stepping-stone. On arriving at the University of Illinois in 1956, I was immersed in fraternity “rush.” My high school experience in jazz performance and writing of stunt shows made me a highly desirable “pledge.” Stunt shows were musical-theater pieces that ran about 20 or 30 minutes each.
JW: Which fraternity did you join?
DZ: I ended up at Zeta Beta Tau, which seemed the best all-around fit, and began the challenge of living with 60 or so guys in a big old house. Though I was not religious, my ethnic background was Jewish, and ZBT appealed to me since they were known to cross religion boundaries freely in events and dating. I also was drawn to the overall vibe of the members. [Photo above of the fraternity house where Quiet Now was composed]
JW: So your ability to play jazz piano at a professional level was an asset?
DZ: For sure. Very soon, there was pressure on me to write music for the yearly competitive stunt shows where a fraternity and sorority pairs up and collaborates on writing and performing a 20-to-30-minute piece of musical theater. There was a lot of support from the music school. They provided a high-quality band and help with orchestration when needed. Competition was keen, and many of the entries were original and professional.
JW: What was the theme of the stunt show the year you wrote “Quiet Now”?
DZ: The fragility of love—how fleeting love is, how delicate it is and how easily love came be broken. 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.
JW: Where on campus did you write Quiet Now?
DZ: I composed the music in the fraternity-house living room, at a medium-size grand piano. When I finished, someone in the fraternity wrote lyrics. All I can remember is the opening phrase: “Love has come and gone away.” Subsequently, the song, for me, had a requiem feel.
JW: Why did you choose the "awesome silence of aloneness” as a theme?
DZ: The overall theme of loss came from the libretto, which I did not write. I attempted with Quiet Now to evoke a nuance, to capture that "awesome silence of aloneness."
JW: What personal experience governed your writing?
DZ: It wasn’t romantic love, since I hadn’t experienced that yet. I was quite shy dating in high school and had never suffered a bad breakup. My resonance with that feeling came from my immersion in the ballads of the American songbook, which so often explore the heartbreak of lost love. Frank Sinatra's 1955 collaboration with Nelson Riddle on The Wee Small Hours had a profound effect on me.
JW: What was the writing process like on Quiet Now?
DZ: Most of my writing for four different shows was done late at night, under time pressure, when the day-time racket from 60-plus fraternity brothers simmered down. Pieces emerged at different rates of time. Quiet Now was the last piece I wrote for that show sophomore year, and it crystallized quite quickly in just a few hours.
JW: Was it secretly written for a girl you liked on campus or wanted to impress?
JW: When you played it for your fraternity days before the show, what was their initial reaction?
DZ: They were really touched. I made no changes.
JW: What was the problem with the initial lyrics?
DZ: I can't remember anything beyond the opening phrase. My sense is that the lyrics were appropriate for the production but not particularly inventive or special.
JW: Of the songs composed for that stunt show, Quiet Now stayed with you.
DZ: It did. The song became part of my jazz repertoire on gigs off-campus at the University of Illinois. I also played it often while attending medical school at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
JW: And when you moved to San Francisco?
DZ: I recorded it in March 1965 for Shining Hour: Denny Zeitlin Live at the Trident, my third album released by Columbia, with Charlie Haden on bass and Jerry Granelli on drums. I was in the city then for my medical internship and psychiatric residency.
JW: How different was the recording from your original version?
DZ: There was no difference. The version I recorded was the same as how it was performed at the frat house.
JW: When did Bill Evans hear the song?
DZ: Bill must have heard the piece on my album. He found so much in it that he kept the tune in his nightly repertoire for over a dozen years and recorded it about eight times.
JW: Did Bill ever tell you why he liked the song or did he say anything about it?
DZ: He never mentioned particulars, but several times over the years he talked about how compelling he found the piece, and wondered about its creation. This exposure prompted a number of lyricists to send me lyrics for the song, but none of them worked.
JW: Something changed in the 1980s?
DZ: Back then, singer-lyricist Suzi Stern sent me a cassette after she completed an album on which she wrote lyrics to jazz compositions and recorded them, including Quiet Now. I'm not sure if the album was ever formally released, but I was very impressed, and accepted her lyric for copyright.
JW: What made her Quiet Now lyrics different?
DZ: I was knocked out by both the lyrics and her voice. She is one of my favorite singers. She combines a deep, sophisticated musicality with a haunting, pure sound and a rich amalgam of strength and vulnerability. She’s a brilliant lyricist, navigating the complex terrain of jazz compositions. Suzi showed me that Quiet Now can be a beautiful love song celebrating the moment of connection, not just the fragility of love.
JW: How did she discover the song?
DZ: I believe her initial contact was listening to Bill Evans’s 1969 live recording released on a 1981 album entitled Quiet Now, which then took her back to my original recording in 1965. In 1995, Suzi's album Seven Stars was released by Mad Moon Records. It's out of print now and hard to find. On the album, she sang Quiet Now with me on piano, David Friesen on bass and Alan Jones on drums.
JW: What did you think?
DZ: I thought the chemistry was very special. The album had limited distribution, but Suzi (above) recently uploaded Quiet Now on YouTube, and I’m very happy to hear it brought back to life.
JW: Ever been back to the campus piano where you wrote Quiet Now?
DZ: I've never been back to Champaign-Urbana. I just checked Google Maps on the web. I see that our ZBT house is still active at the same address. I wonder if that old grand piano survived.
Denny's latest album, Telepathy (Sunnyside), can be found here.
My four-part JazzWax interview with Denny starts here(links to subsequent installments can be found if you scroll up above each post's red date at the top).
JazzWax clips: Here's Suzi Stern singing Denny's Quiet Now, with Denny on piano, David Friesen on bass and Alan Jones on drums...
Here's Denny's recording of Quiet Now in 1965...
And here's Bill Evans in January 1979 at the Maintenance Shop in Ames, Iowa, playing one of his most exquisite renditions of Quiet Now, with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums..