Jazz piano in La Jolla scientist’s DNA


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Woody Allen isn’t famous for playing jazz clarinet. But visitors to Manhattan can see the Oscar-winning director do just that — and only that — almost every Monday night at Café Carlyle.

La Jolla has its own version of this phenomenon. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Tuesday for the past six years, J. Craig Venter Institute geneticist Clyde Hutchison — who helped determine the first complete sequence of a DNA molecule in 1974 — plays jazz piano at Manhattan of La Jolla, 7766 Fay Ave.

The Light recently caught Hutchison’s act, during which he blazed through jazz standards including Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and “Satin Doll,” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” Hutchison bills it as Clyde and Mac. (Mac is the computer he uses to summon drums and other instrumental accompaniment.) A few days later, we sat with Hutchison’s Clark Kent counterpart in his Venter Institute office.

Do you think the Woody Allen analogy holds water?

“That’s interesting to me, because I’ve thought about that myself. I’ll go and play and someone will come up and talk to me and it’s not really because of the music. It’s because they know about my scientific work. And I’ve wondered what it’s like for Woody Allen when he goes and plays the clarinet and people are there not because of his clarinet playing.”

Does playing piano help you achieve any scientific insights?

“Possibly. It does help to do something else besides the science sometimes. I can’t think of any specific examples of where some scientific breakthrough can be linked to (playing music), but historically, a lot of scientists have been interested in music.”

Why do you think you play then?

“I play because I’ve been really interested in jazz since I was in high school. This was in the 1950s and ’60s — a very important period in jazz — so I went to see a lot of the important players in Chicago. Then, when I was in graduate school at Caltech, we’d go into Hollywood and hear people like Thelonious Monk in a small room, where he’d stagger around and pretend to trip over your feet and stuff. So I really liked the music, but I did not know anything technically about how to play it.

As a kid, I’d had the usual kind of classical piano lessons with a teacher I didn’t respect a lot as a player. So I had the basics. But I didn’t learn until later, in my 40s, when I was a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and I would go out and listen to local jazz players. One, Ed Paolantonio, turned out to be a teacher of jazz. So I started taking lessons with him, and he was able to teach me a lot. I learned all kinds of chord voicings and scales.”

Do you think different parts of your brain are engaged by your work and your music, or are you taking up brain space with music that could be used for genetics?

“Well, I don’t know if there’s a problem with space availability (laughs). I think it doesn’t use completely separate parts of the brain. I think all these things involve similar kinds of thinking.”

So how is cracking a genome similar to cracking a Duke Ellington piece?

“Both involve a lot of strict thinking, where you have to follow the rules. And they both then involve the necessity to have some loose thinking, where you’re not concerned with the rules. I think of jazz as kind of a rebellion against the man. You have this song that has a set harmonic progression and a melody, and the music’s kind of a theme in variations. But then you start improvising on the harmonic and melodic content of the song, and you may get fairly far away from the original thing.”

What improvisation is there in genetics?

“You have to think of novel things to do, or you’ll just be repeating other work. The work I’ve been involved in is developing new methods to deal with problems.”

How much of your set list is improvised?

“I don’t plan a set list before I play. I just see what happens.”

Do you think you’re a good jazz pianist?

“Not technically, no. I think I have some good ideas and I think sometimes, I do something good. And I enjoy doing it.”

How often to you practice?

“I have a Yamaha G3 grand piano at home, but I don’t actually practice much these days. When I play on Tuesdays at the Manhattan, that helps me not forget everything I know (laughs).”