Arnold Roth and William Zinsser at the Cornelia Street Cafe. (drawing by Arnold Roth)
William Zinsser's alternate life as a musician goes back to his college days at Princeton, where he wrote songs for the Princeton Triangle Club. A skilled jazz pianist, he has long played at clubs and at special events in New York, mainly with the cartoonist Arnold Roth, whose own alternate life as a musician goes back to his teen-age employment playing the saxophone in the bars of his native Philadelphia. Their longest-running gig was at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.
Much of William Zinsser's writing in books and articles has been about American popular songwriters and jazz musicians. He has written liner notes for CDs and he wrote the program notes for Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series in its first two seasons. His own favorite among his books is "Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs," about the composers and lyricists who wrote the theater songs, movie songs and popular standards during the 40-year golden age that began with Show Boat in 1926 and lasted until the advent of rock in the early 1960s. The book is used as a source by a broad range of professional musicians. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote: "This is going to be the standard bedside reference for anyone who has ever found themselves seduced by this great American artform." In 2003 the Oregon Festival of American Music devoted its annual ten-day festival to the book. Organized by the pianist-arranger Dick Hyman, the festival, called "Easy to Remember," brought major jazz musicians to Eugene, Oregon, to perform the songs of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser. Zinsser gave daily seminars demonstrating how the songs were conceived and constructed.
William Zinsser's other favorite book is Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz. Foreword by Alfred Murray, which follows his teacher, the pianist Dwike Mitchell, and Mitchell's longtime partner, the bassist and French-horn player Willie Ruff, to Shanghai and Venice and back through their growing and learning years in the American South and Midwest. Two of its chapters first appeared in The New Yorker.
In 2002 William Zinsser wrote the music and lyrics for What's the Point?, a musical revue about a summer community, which was performed in Niantic, Connecticut, and subsequently had a week-long off-Broadway run. Five of its 12 songs are available on sheet music here: "A Summer Place," "Just like People Used to Do," "Didn't We Dilly-Dally?", "An August Thing" and "Where did the Summer Go?". Other songs included "Croquet," "Little Animosities," "Our Tennis Program," and "Waiting for Waterfront."
In 1997 William Zinsser collaborated with the classical composer Chester Biscardi as lyricist for a set of "Modern Love Songs," which have often been performed and recorded. For the complete lyrics click here. With Biscardi, he also wrote a Christmas carol, "The Child Comes Every Winter,". Click here to hear that carol.
William Zinsser demonstrates a song from the Great American Songbook at a workshop held by the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin, July 2002.
“When I was in my sixties, some friends urged me to start playing the piano in public. 'Your music gives people pleasure,' they said, and I liked that idea. If you can do something that gives people pleasure, you ought to do it. But the idea made me uncomfortable. WASPs are told not to make a display of themselves. It was O.K. for me to give lectures about writing; that was an extension of my writer's persona, a role long approved by society and raised to a bravura art form by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. But to perform! What if someone I knew saw me playing in a restaurant or bar?
"I needn't have worried. Musicians, I found, are an invisible class of providers, like waiters and caterers and bartenders, unnoticed as individual men and women. One night Arnie Roth and I played at a birthday party held in one of New York's haughtiest private clubs, and several of the guests happened to be people I knew quite well. None of them noticed me. That's when I knew I had become a musician."
—From “Writing About Your Life”