One month ago, Matt Zoller Seitz visited his father Dave Zoller in Dallas after hearing his father had suffered a stroke. At the time, Zoller, a renowned jazz pianist, feared he may not be able to play piano again, but after a strong recovery he has not only returned to his craft but will be playing tonight at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of a ceremony honoring his career in music.
"I was very concerned that it would affect his ability to play," Seitz says over the phone, speaking from his home in New York. "His eyesight was blurry, which is really not a good thing if you're a pianist. But then it got better after a couple days. The guy is indestructible."
Zoller will be recognized for his lifetime of contributions to Dallas by the Professional Musician's Union of DFW tonight as part of the DMA's Jazz in the Atrium series. He'll be performing with the Daybreak Express and playing the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Now 72 years old, Zoller started playing piano at six and became enamored with jazz by the age of 13, when he first heard Dave Brubeck. Since then, he has built a towering career in music, writing 1,600 music tracks, performing as a tour pianist with Al Hirt and composing songs that are played worldwide.
But beyond being a celebrated musician, composer and performer, Zoller is also a father. His son, Matt Zoller Seitz, is a renowned film critic and editor-in-chief of rogerebert.com, has been featured in the New York Times, was a finalist for a Pulitzer in criticism and previously wrote for the Dallas Observer. Though he won't be in attendance tonight, he says he feels the weight of his father's career.
"He's managed to make a living doing nothing but music since he was about 19," Seitz said proudly. "That's a pretty substantial achievement by itself."
Seitz, a child of divorce, was disconnected from his father for the first 18 years of his life, and the bridge between he and his father wasn't gapped until Zoller's second wife, Genie Grant, and Seitz's late wife Jennifer Dawson helped bring the two together.
"I was not close to my dad as a kid, and I didn't get close to him until I moved out of the house and got to know him," Seitz recalls.
It started with just seeing his father perform while Seitz was in college. Zoller played with jazz trios in hotels or bigger bands in clubs, and Grant would invite Seitz over for dinner to try and reconnect the two estranged parties.
Father and son eventually found common ground by bonding over their shared passion for creative arts -- Zoller with music and Seitz with movies. They would converse in dueling monologues, each one fervently speaking about a musician or director they loved and what made them tick.
Even in his writing, Seitz now says he can feel the influence of his father; the way he sees, he writes his prose like a jazz musician. He starts with a melody, improvises a bit in the middle and comes full circle, back to the melody at the end. This adapted style was the result of Seitz writing film critiques while listening to his dad play in clubs, and now he has to take a notepad to every show or risk going crazy, unable to write down his thoughts.
Seitz even used his father's encyclopedic jazz knowledge to fact check an article he wrote, and has used his father's music in his projects. He says he recognizes his father's commendation as a result of his decades of performing and composing in Dallas.
"It feels great to see everyone appreciating my dad," Seitz admits. "What's not to like?"
The DMA's Jazz in the Atrium series takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight and is free of charge. Wine and food will be also available for purchase.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.