The setup is right out of a Hollywood film. Michael Wolff is dying and disoriented in New York City as he watches himself get wheeled into the ICU. The Dilaudid kicks in and the scene fades, and the next time we see Wolff he’s a twitchy child in Memphis, inexorably drawn to the family’s upright piano.
A major league jazz pianist since the age of 19 when he started a string of gigs accompanying stars such as Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderley, and Nancy Wilson, the Berkeley-reared Wolff (who’s still very much with us) has written a deeply soulful autobiography that traces his unlikely journey from shaggy jazz rebel to the center of the entertainment industry. Published on March 15, On That Note: A Memoir of Jazz, Tics and Survival is at its best evoking how music served as salvation for a precociously gifted pianist with undiagnosed Tourette’s Syndrome.
“Playing was hugely sensual and satisfying to me then, and it still is,” he writes. “From my earliest years at the keys, I felt like someone who’d been holding his breath underwater and, just when he was about to pass out, shot to the surface, took a huge gulp of air, and felt alive again.”
Back in the Bay Area this weekend, Wolff performs Saturday night at the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab with his New York trio featuring bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allan Mednard. As part of the program, he’s premiering a three-part suite he wrote inspired by Ravel and Bach that he’ll be recording shortly with the trio and a string quartet.
On That Note could have been a medical mystery (he was misdiagnosed and eventually cured after being given three months to live) or a name-dropping autobiography rife with celebrity encounters. Since serving as music director for The Arsenio Hall Show from 1989-94 the pianist has been in the thick of the entertainment industry as a player, film composer and eventually an actor. He played father to his actual sons, Nat and Alex Wolff, on the Nickelodeon mockumentary series The Naked Brothers Band, which was created by his wife, writer, producer, director and actress Polly Draper (best known for her leading role in the 1980s ABC drama Thirtysomething).
But jazz is where Wolff’s heart is, and he’s best known these days as a bandleader who’s released some 20 albums in the past two decades. Like many memoirs On That Note is most compelling when he’s describing his formative years.
His father, Dr. Marvin Wolff, relocated the family from Memphis to Berkeley in 1961 when he got a grant to become a psychiatrist, which led to a three-year residency at Herrick Memorial Hospital (now part of Alta Bates). His parent’s marriage didn’t survive the move and his mother, Elise Blumenfeld, threw herself into Berkeley’s two primary pursuits in the 1960s, politics and education. She protested with the Free Speech Movement and against the Vietnam War and earned a series of degrees, including a doctorate in social work. She helped found the Sanville Institute, and saved the Fourth Street-adjacent Sisterna Historic District from redevelopment.
Wolff absorbed a love of jazz from his father, who ardently supported his musical ambitions. He got his first real taste of the jazz life at 15, when he spent the summer of 1968 with his family in New Orleans and wangled a regular gig at Al Hirt’s Club. Noticing that the band was waiting around for the pianist to show up, Wolff volunteered to sit in and by the end of the set the regular pianist had lost his gig.
Over the next few years he spent every summer in New Orleans, gigging around the city and learning the ropes as session musician working for the great keyboardist and producer Willie Tee, playing “all kinds of music: blues, R & B, pop, even country,” Wolff writes. He also befriended Tee’s brother saxophonist Earl Turbinton (aka African Cowboy), a relationship that led him to confront the stark duality dividing his life as a budding jazz artist with his Southern Jewish roots.
“I was part of my family, which I loved, but in the South, people were generally racist,” he writes. “They didn’t hate Black people, but they took for granted that they would work for them and be subservient. In my life, Black people were my friends and colleagues and employers. My bandmates. My partners in crime. Musical crime. We were exploring and creating together. We were equals. When Earl and I hung out, we never talked about race or any differences we might have.”
Back in Berkeley, which he evokes in granular detail from gigs at La Val’s to the roiling energy on campus, he studied with pianists Dick Whittington and Martha Young, the niece of tenor sax legend Lester Young. By 17 he was working as the weekly jam session house pianist San Francisco’s Both/And Club with bassist Ray Drummond. And at 19 he talked himself into an on-stage audition with Latin jazz bandleader Cal Tjader.
Wolff had landed a gig at the Fantasy Studios in 1972 writing lead sheets for rock musicians incapable or uninterested in copying out their own tunes. But he insisted on setting down the actual notes they played rather than knocking out simplified charts, which quickly led to conflict with his boss.
“I got fired, and as I was walking around Fantasy I saw Cal Tjader in a room listening to an acetate,” Wolff told me. “I just went in and introduced myself. ‘Mr. Tjader, name is Michael Wolff. I play piano and I’m ready to play in your band now.”
The vibraphonist told him to stop by the North Beach jazzspot El Matador a few months later when he was there with his band, which turned out to be a challenge because the underage Wolff couldn’t get in the front door. A sympathetic waitress snuck him in the back, and he made an impression strong enough to earn an invitation for a two-week gig with Tjader in Tucson.
Wolff could play, but his sartorial choices sometimes irked his boss. On the opening night the pianist showed up to the club in ripped blue jeans and a pork pie hat. “‘Hey, kid,’ Cal said to me out of the corner of his mouth during the first set, ‘take off the hat. Bebop’s over,’” Wolff writes.
The Bebop era was over, but the next gig was playing a Latin jazz jam session at the Monterey Jazz Festival with modern jazz trumpet legends Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry and Cuban conguero Armando Peraza, an encounter documented on The Best of Cal Tjader: Live at the Monterey Jazz 1958-1980, which features Wolff on a scorching 12-minute version of Gillespie’s standard “Manteca.”
Fantasy Studios was also the site of one of his most profound early recordings. The alto sax star Cannonball Adderley hired Wolff in 1975 and started featuring him on solo number and duets on concerts. In the spring Adderley was recording new versions of hits from the past two decades for the album Phenix. Though Wolff didn’t really know the tune, their duet on the ballad “Stars Fell on Alabama” is sublime and unlike anything else in the saxophonist’s discography. Adderley died four months later from a heart attack at the age of 46.
At 22, Wolff found himself at the first of many career crossroads. He’s thrived in just about every musical endeavor he’s tackled, with jazz providing a sense of belonging that’s eluded him elsewhere.
“In my soul, jazz, Tourette’s, and the feeling of being an outsider have always been intertwined,” he writes. “I have never felt as if I belong to any particular group or religion or organization, though I do bear some labels, like everyone else. In my heart, I belong to music and jazz and the piano, and my people are all the others who share that.”