In October 1963, a 25-year-old Johns Hopkins medical student sat at a concert grand piano in the East 30th Street studio of Columbia Records in New York and played a masterpiece of a jazz solo. Denny Zeitlin, from a Chicago family devoted to medicine and music, had come to New York for a 10-week fellowship in psychiatry at Columbia University. But the medical student, a pianist since the age of 2 and a professional musician during his high-school years, had also found time during his New York sojourn to study with the seminal composer George Russell, who became one of his champions, and to sit in with some of the city's leading jazz players.
On the Sonny Rollins composition "Oleo," Mr. Steig and Mr. Zeitlin each soloed with ferocious thrust, chutzpah, swing and – one of the most challenging accomplishments in jazz – a feeling of delirious freedom within the discipline of a harmonic structure. Mr. Rollins's tune is based on the chord changes of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," apart from the blues the most familiar pattern in jazz.