Eliot Zigmund: A Sideman Moves to the Front

After decades of playing with legends, including Bill Evans and Michel Petrucciani, the underrecognized drummer is working to establish his own name

eliotzigmund

Drummer Eliot Zigmund (photo: Chris Drukker)

“I was kind of worried that the first set would be underattended,” Eliot Zigmund deadpanned to a packed room at Smalls, the basement jazz club in the West Village, on a temperate evening in early July. “Reminds me of the Village Vanguard when I used to play there, too many years ago to tell you.”

If Zigmund, now 73, seemed anxious about the crowd size—or his age, for that matter—it didn’t show in his performance as the leader of a quintet he had assembled just for the night. Throughout the set, calling tunes and arrangements on the fly, he delivered forceful, swinging rhythms at the drums, punctuating each song with satisfyingly deliberate hits on his dark cymbals and low-tuned toms. At one moment, just after he had switched to brushes at the beginning of a bass solo, Zigmund paused for a moment to reposition his glasses behind his ears, casually maintaining the beat with his hi-hat pedal. It was the kind of move that only a drummer with supreme confidence would make.

Still, Zigmund’s words betrayed a certain hard truth about his career. Though he has played with some of jazz’s biggest names, including Bill Evans and Michel Petrucciani—both of whom he accompanied at the Vanguard in the 1970s and ’80s—Zigmund has struggled to earn a level of recognition equal to his stellar résumé.

Not that he doesn’t have many admirers. “Eliot has that real splang-a-dang in his ride cymbal,” the bassist Mike Richmond, who has played with Zigmund, said. “There’s just a little space between the splang and the dang that makes the whole thing work, and he knows that space, and you can’t write it down.”

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But Zigmund’s story provides a useful illustration of the ways in which an inveterate sideman makes do on the sidelines. Throughout his professional life, Zigmund—who is one of the rare drummers to play as a true lefty, with the hi-hat positioned on the right and the ride on the left—has found steady work in a number of estimable groups and sessions, but because he had a family to support, he often had to take on side jobs to supplement his income.

In the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, he drove a cab, and for around 10 years beginning in the mid-’90s, he worked as a freelance X-ray technologist—a job, he said, that gave him the latitude to gig when he wanted to. “It was a more legit, stable way of being a cab driver,” Zigmund, who sports a trim white beard, told me wryly in an interview at his home in Teaneck, N.J. He is perhaps the only X-ray technologist in the history of the trade to have backed Neil Sedaka, Dionne Warwick, Vince Guaraldi, Art Pepper, Fred Hersch, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz.

If not for his association with Bill Evans, though—in whose trio he played from 1975 to 1978—Zigmund might have had to do a lot more cab driving. That’s because he’d never really thought of himself as a jazz musician, at least not exclusively. Born in 1945, at the height of the bebop era, he grew up in the Bronx, listening to Symphony Sid and Mort Fega on the radio. At 12, he chose the drums, because it was an expedient way to jam with his brother, an ardent jazz fan who played guitar.

His primary influence was Philly Joe Jones, and during his high school years, Zigmund often made his way into Manhattan to frequent the many jazz clubs then in operation. He absorbed it all, taking mental notes on the stylings of drummers like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Pete La Roca. “You learn drumming through listening,” he mused, “but you also learn a lot just through observing—it’s such a physical instrument.”

In 1969, Zigmund graduated from City College with a degree in classical music, but the time he had spent watching his idols perform on stage had primed him for a life outside the conservatory. There were many gigs to be had, and he jumped into the fray, doing session work, playing on commercials, and taking whatever jazz shows came his way. Near the end of 1974, though, his career went into high gear.

At the time, Zigmund was playing a nightly gig with a cocktail trio in the Plaza Hotel’s opulent Persian Room. He had gotten word that Evans was recruiting a new drummer, and so he went down to the Vanguard one evening and tried out for the band in front of a live audience. Evans hired him a day or two later. Zigmund believes he got the gig because his chops were in particularly good shape, but whatever the reason, Evans’ imprimatur was a sign that Zigmund had, on the eve of turning 30, arrived—and other musicians began to take notice.

The pianist Peter Malinverni, now the head of jazz studies in the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College in New York, remembers seeing Zigmund perform with Evans in Buffalo in the mid-’70s. “He struck me then,” Malinverni told me in an email, “as someone who was supremely focused and intimately involved in what was happening onstage in a supportive—and inspiring—way.”

Zigmund describes his three-year run with Evans as one of the most creatively satisfying periods of his life. “I was just in awe of him,” he said. Evans was a guarded man, but Zigmund recalled some instances in which the master pianist opened up about his past, going into detail about his drug addiction and his relationship with Miles Davis. Eventually, however, Zigmund left the band. The intense touring schedule was too much for a family man to manage—but also, musically, he felt he had said all he wanted to say as a member of the Bill Evans Trio.

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By the late ’70s, Zigmund had established himself as a sensitive accompanist, and he found loads of work, playing with Don Friedman and then Petrucciani, with whom he toured extensively for five years and recorded a live album at the Vanguard. “I was pretty well-known at that point,” he said.

But the ’90s were more trying—a period during which he found more meaningful work abroad than he did in the United States. In 2004, Zigmund had a kidney transplant, and although he’s now in fine health, he was forced to retire from his medical side job because of a weakened immune system. He has played in a number of groups since then, though none as high-profile as those of Evans and Petrucciani—and even though, he says somewhat wistfully, it has become increasingly difficult to find work, as the commercial infrastructure of jazz has withered considerably.

In his living room in Teaneck, Zigmund looked back on his 50 or so years in music and said he has few regrets about his trajectory. There are minor concerns; he wishes he’d studied piano at an earlier age, though acquaintances say he is more than proficient. “I think, in a certain way, I’m a frustrated piano player,” he observed.

He also says that, if he could do it all over again, he would have learned to play drums as a righty. According to Zigmund, being left-handed has stifled him somewhat, partly because, at jam sessions, he has to reorient the drum kit, which interrupts the onstage flow. “It’s a total pain in the ass,” he said. However, some musicians who have played with him believe that it actually enhances the group sound; because the ride cymbal on a lefty set is usually positioned farther away from the players, it creates more space to hear musical subtleties.

But aside from those fleeting worries, Zigmund believes he’s playing better now than ever. Last year, he released a couple of self-assured albums under his own name, including a live recording with his quartet at Smalls. It’s a smooth, post-bop outfit, and Zigmund is trying to secure more gigs for the group, at least locally.

Having worked as an accompanist for the majority of his career, Zigmund is ready to stake his claim as a leader, unencumbered by the obligations of a side job. He is unworried about keeping up with the latest trends in jazz and more interested in establishing his own voice as a drummer.

“The older I get, the more I realize that I’m very, very emotionally involved with the music from the ’50s and ’60s,” he told me matter-of-factly. “The music that excites me the most is bebop and post-bebop: Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, young Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette. I find great levels of musicianship today, and knowledge, but emotionally the music just doesn’t grab me the way the music from that period did. And I think I’ve just come to accept that and to play that way.”

He paused for a moment. “That’s the way I want to play.”