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John Zainer Birkenstory
I don’t go by what’s right or not. I go by what I want to do or what I want to wear.

John Zainer

Birkenstory #9

John Zainer – musician and motorbike enthusiast

If you are in L.A. and spot a 1950's racing bike with a rider who is wearing a leather jacket with a portrait of Beethoven on it, it's probably John Zainer. This is where the 84-year-old professional jazz pianist and fan of motorbikes lives, with his German wife Ille. His favoritebike is a 1956 Norton race motorcycle; His favorite shoes are a pair of Birkenstocks from 1998. We paid John a visit and chatted about music and motorbikes – and about the benefits of ground wine corks.

Strength lies in serenity

The first thing you notice when you visit John at home is the serenity. John explains: “If somebody comes to my house for a party, there will never be music played in my house because it’s not background noise; I want to hear music, I don’t want to be interrupted. So I can’t do two things at once: have a party talking to people and music being played – it’s never going to happen.”

When John listens to music, he wants to actively listen to it without being interrupted He loves music more than anything else, and his major passion is jazz and improvisation. The professional musician has enjoyed close to 70 years of success in the business, with his most recent jazz CD being released three years ago.

The Three Zs

John was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1934. His parents ran a music shop and he began to play the accordion at the age of three and took up the piano at age five. He was already earning money playing music professionally when he was 15. John was part of a high school trio called “The Three Zs” that mostly played standards like “How High the Moon” and “Tea for Two,” as well as tango and cha-cha songs.

John Zainer Birkenstory
John Zainer Birkenstory

John, Jazz, and Ille

John came to Germany with the U.S. army in 1955. He played the piano in shows put on for the troops – making his delight twofold: “I fell in love twice when I came to Germany – firstly, with the jazz that we played, and second, with Ille, who I met at a piano concert,” says John, smiling. Five weeks later, they were offical and were planning their wedding. John and Ille returned to the USA to begin their life together.

In 1962, John was awarded a scholarship by the German university HfM Karlsruhe University of Music, so he and Ille returned to Germany. During these two years, Ille worked as a bartender at the officers’ club, while John studied and played regularly at barracks and in clubs. He also threw himself into learning German – he and Ille now speak in only German at home.

Gershwin, Cole Porter, or Johann Sebastian Bach – it’s a question of quality

Back in California, John took up a position as a teacher. He loved his job and the fact that is allowed him to pursue his other passion of traveling during the 12 week summer vacations. Over the years, he and Ille have traveled all over the world, but John still always found time for music. He has written a number of jazz songs over the years and has released numerous successful CDs. “I like jazz and I like Baroque music – those are my favorites. Anything that is of good quality,” says John.

John Zainer Birkenstory
John Zainer Birkenstory

Music as brain training

John sees music as an intellectual challenge: “In fact, I make it a point of playing my Bach fugues as much as I can, because it’s really demanding to play that kind of stuff, and also, playing jazz where you’re improvising – it takes a certain kind of mentality and intellect to do that; So that’s what I like about music,” said John.

Music is a part of John, and he can’t help analyzing music, no matter what kind, as soon as he hears it. “Good music is music which follows the fundamentals of good music. The Beatles were excellent musicians. They had songs with nice chord changes and the dynamics were there. So people should listen more to The Beatles if they like more of the pop kind of music, because they can learn a lot from them,” John said, grinning.

John Zainer Birkenstory
John Zainer Birkenstory

Engines – John’s second passion

If it’s music that sets him off on flights of fancy, it’s engines that keep him grounded. This is John’s way of explaining his penchant for vehicles. His fleet includes a 1971 VW Bus, a Porsche 912 from 1968, an RV, and five motorbikes. His love for the automotive also extends to garage time. He started with the removal of a spark plug, but he can now dismantle an entire Porsche engine.

Beer and Birkenstock

John and Ille regularly go on vacation in Germany. “It’s like my second home. I like the culture, I like the exactness of everything, and the beer of course,” John laughs. It’s in Germany that he bought his first Birkenstocks 20 years ago. They soon became his favorite footwear, and they have been with him to six continents. “I like the bed of the sole and all that. It’s my favorite footwear. They fit my feet just perfectly! I wear the Birkenstocks driving, I’m on my bicycle daily with Birkenstocks – so I live in them from morning until night!”

He has repaired them numerous times over the years and has his own unique method of repairing the sole – he grinds wine corks down into a fine cork powder, mixes it with glue, and uses the mixture to fill cracks. “Anyone in the world can buy a brand-new pair of Birkenstocks, but how many people can have this?”, John says proudly.

John’s motto: “I buy good quality and I keep it. That’s my motto. Good-quality cars, motorcycles, shoes – anything!”

He does everything he can to maintain this quality for as long as possible. He’s never been interested in what people say. He has only ever done one thing, and that’s go by what he wants to do.


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