Michael Wolff, Jazz Pianist, Composer, Bandleader – Episode #225

Nov 29, 2022 | 2 comments

“Michael writes powerfully and movingly about his time in the jazz world, and his many challenging experiences he’s had while winding his way toward success in both music and life.”
~Steve Cuden

The brilliant jazz musician, Michael Wolff, is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, bandleader, and now, author. In a long-running musical career, he’s been the musical director for the great Grammy-winning jazz singer, Nancy Wilson, and the award-winning The Arsenio Hall Show. He’s also been a member of Impure Thoughts, Wolff & Clark Expedition, and a co-star with his sons, Nat and Alex, on the series The Naked Brothers Band.

Michael’s life story is detailed in his memoir, “On That Note,” released in 2022. I’ve read On That Note and can tell you Michael writes powerfully and movingly about his time in the jazz world, and his many challenging experiences he’s had while winding his way toward success in both music and life.

Michael made his recording debut with Cal Tjader in the mid 1970’s and has since gone on to play and record with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world, including legends like: Flora Purim and her husband Airto Moreira; Cannonball Adderly; Sonny Rollins, and The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, among many others.

He’s performed with and conducted over 25 symphony orchestras, including those in Dallas, Fort Worth, Berlin, Atlanta, Memphis and Pittsburgh.

Michael has performed at Carnegie Hall, The Royal Albert Hall, Birdland, Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Snug Harbor and Mezzrow, among hundreds of others in the U.S. and around the world.

He’s released 21 recordings to critical and popular acclaim. Aside from performing with drummer Mike Clark in Wolff & Clark Expedition, he’s also part of a trio featuring Ben Allison on bass and Alan Mednard on drums. Michael also records and performs in conjunction with jazz radio station WBGO at the Yamaha Piano Salon in New York City.

Michael is a recipient of the BMI Music Award, the winner of the Gold Disc Award in Japan, and the recipient of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s award for best film score for the film, The Tic Code, starring his wife, Polly Draper, Carol Kane, Tony Shalhoub, Gregory Hines and Camryn Manheim. Michael has also composed the scores to other film and TV projects, including The Naked Brothers Band. He also wrote the score for Polly Draper’s 2018 film, Stella’s Last Weekend.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat…

Michael Wolff: I was with Cannonball Adderley. He died, and I was a pallbearer at his funeral. Jesse Jackson did the eulogy, and he said, Cannonball combines science and soul. That’s how I play. The science serves the soul for me. Everybody has their own way. They’re into all the different technical things or whatever, or different time signatures, which I like to do. But to me, I want everything to be soul.

Narrator: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, the brilliant jazz musician, Michael Wolff, is an award-winning internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, band leader, and now author. In a long running musical career, he’s been the musical director for the great Grammy winning jazz singer, Nancy Wilson and the award-winning Arsenio Hall Show. He’s also been a member of Impure Thoughts, Wolff and Clark Expedition, and a costar with his sons, Nat and Alex on the TV series, the Naked Brothers Band. Michael’s life story is detailed in his memoir On That Note, released in 2022. I’ve read On That Note and can tell you, Michael writes powerfully and movingly about his time in the jazz world and the many challenging experiences he’s had while winding his way towards success in both music and life. Michael made his recording debut with Cal Tjader in the mid-1970s and has since gone on to play and record with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world, including legends like Flora Purim and her husband, Airto Guimorvan, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, among many others. He’s performed with and conducted over 25 symphony orchestras, including those in Dallas, Fort Worth, Berlin, Atlanta, Memphis, and Pittsburgh. Michael’s performed at Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Birdland, Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Snug Harbor and Mezzrow, among hundreds of others in the US and around the world. He’s released 21 recordings to critical and popular acclaim. Aside from performing with drummer Mike Clark in Wolff and Clark Expedition, he’s also part of a trio featuring Ben Allison on bass and Alan Medard on drums. Michael also records and performs in conjunction with Jazz Radio Station, WBGO at the Yamaha Piano Salon in New York City. Michael’s a recipient of the BMI Music award, the winner of the Gold Disc Award in Japan, and the recipient of the Hamptons International Film Festivals Award for best film score for the film, the Tick Code, starring his wife, Polly Draper, Carol Kane, Tony Shalhoub, Gregory Hines, and Camryn Manheim. Michael has also composed the scores to other film and TV projects, including the Naked Brothers Band. He also wrote the score for Polly Draper’s 2018 film, Stella’s Last Weekend. Please be sure to stick around at the end of the show because we have a real treat. Michael is graciously sharing with us a sample of his work, a piece of music he recorded with his son, Alex Wolff, called, Left Out with Drums. So, for all those reasons and many more, I am deeply honored to welcome one of the very best jazz pianists to ever sit before a keyboard, Michael Wolff. Michael, thanks so much for joining me on StoryBeat today.

Michael Wolff: Steve. Thanks for having me. Now that I heard that bio, I’m starting to feel good about myself. I like that.

Steve Cuden: It’s about time. It’s really about time. So let’s go back a little bit in time toward the very beginning of your life as a musician. Did you feel like music was a calling? Did it call out to you and say, music is something that I need to do with my life, even as a young boy?

Michael Wolff: Yes. I think music was something that I loved doing from the time I was about four years old. My father was an amateur musician and he played piano, but he mainly played clarinet and recorder. He could just pick up anything and play it. So when I was a little kid, he would show me little things on the piano, like the St. Louis Blues and different things. I really went for it. Of course, as a little kid, I was also really wanting to be a baseball player. Do all the stuff the kids do. Well, I was going into the 10th grade, I was 15 years old, I met a guy named Dick Whittington. My family was from the South, but we had moved to Berkeley, California in ‘61. He was a jazz pianist, and I took lessons from him. I just thought, this is it for me. This is what I’m going to do.

Steve Cuden: Now, your father was a jazz aficionado. Yes?

Michael Wolff: Yeah, he was a jazz aficionado. He would sit me down listening when I was a little kid. I mean, my earliest memories are sitting on his lap. He had a rocking chair, and he’d be smoking a cigar or a pipe or something and holding his golfer, his nine iron. He was a doctor, but he loved all this stuff. We would listen to Count Basie and Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson and George Shearing and all these great musicians. He would tell me as we were listening, what was going on in the music from his point of view. It was a great education.

Steve Cuden: This is even as a little boy. Four years old.

Michael Wolff: Little boy. He would dance around the house. He and my aunt, his sister, Nita, they could tap dance. They just learned it. Saw a shoe. They were from Indianola, Mississippi. A little town of Mississippi.

Steve Cuden: So music was in your blood from early on?

Michael Wolff: It was.

Steve Cuden: So it was almost a natural transition. It wasn’t something that you had to force yourself to do. It was something right there in front of you.

Michael Wolff: No. It was a lifesaver for me. At that time, in that summer that I turned 15, I was going into 10th grade, I had a real bad experience with some drugs. This was in the sixties in Berkeley, California, and we were trying everything. I really had a bad experience, and I got very kind of agoraphobic. You know. I couldn’t leave the house and full of anxiety. I mean, music saved me. I know I could go to the piano every day, and it would be exactly how it always was, and that’s when I focused all of my energies on playing the piano.

Steve Cuden: It’s interesting you used the term that music saved you.

Michael Wolff: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I think of music as saving lots of people, but not as saving an individual by playing. I didn’t think of it that way.

Michael Wolff: It did. I had Tourette syndrome and I still do. Which is a lot of energy, a lot of ticks and noises, and it’s a big fight all the time. I didn’t know I had Tourette syndrome. I didn’t know there was a name for it till I was in my thirties. But when I was a kid, I just knew that when I played the piano, everything in me relaxed in my body and my soul.

Steve Cuden: Do you have a thought as to why that works that way? Is it because all of your energy’s being focused in one thing?

Michael Wolff: I was good friends with the great neurologist Oliver Sacks. He was a great writer.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Michael Wolff: I met him because I ended up being the chairman of the board of the Tourette Syndrome Association. I got heavily involved. I told him, when I play the piano, Oliver, I’m I feel like the ticks aren’t an issue, but when I get up in my band to talk, they come back. He says, well, look man, it’s all about energy. It’s about the energy going through your body. When you’re playing the piano your energy is focused on that activity.

Steve Cuden: It’s interesting.

Michael Wolff: Someone’s an actor or an athlete. If you do anything like that, you can be very focused and not have the issue. He said, I tell my patients, just let it fly, man. I lived in shame. I didn’t even know what I had. I just was so embarrassed that I did these weird movements. People thought I was—I don’t know what they thought. Stupid or on drugs or whatever. Finding music was really a salve to me. It really saved.

Steve Cuden: You write in your book that you have etheric energy. Is that what you’re talking about?

Michael Wolff: Yes. Tons of energy. It’s just like a lot of impulse. I mean, that’s why, for me, playing sports was great. I got to stay after school every day till they send us home in the dark. Just running around. I always had a lot of energy. Then I’d come home and eat some cereal and practice the piano and eat dinner, practice the piano, and go to bed. I never did homework. I knew this is what I needed to do. Because when I touched the piano, something went through me, and I could just feel some kind of—I don’t know what you would call it, energy or power. I mean, I’m not really religious person, but if I were, I would say it’s God or it’s nature. Something was going on. It wasn’t like I was doing it all the time. I mean, I was practicing. When music was happening, I was observing. It’d go through me and I’m going, oh man, I never would’ve thought to do that.

Steve Cuden: A huge amount of what you do is, well, and we’re going to talk about this later, but creating as you’re playing.

Michael Wolff: Definitely.

Steve Cuden: Improvising is a huge part of jazz. So you’re having to focus not only the playing ability, but you’re concentrating on what you’re playing. Not just reading sheet music.

Michael Wolff: It’s really better for me when I’m playing, not to think about it too much. I’ll tell you what I’m trying to do now at this late date. I’m trying to play in public, the way I play at home like when I’m on the phone. Check this out. I just whip it off and I don’t care what it sounds like. Lately, my gigs are just like that. It’s like, oh, here we go. Take it or leave it. I’m just going to enjoy it. I like it. It’s tactile. I love the feeling of my hands on the piano. I love the sound that comes out. It’s really sensual in a way. Yet, like I was saying, impulsive. I just play what I feel like playing.

Steve Cuden: Fortunately for you, you play jazz where you can do that more frequently than say a symphony player could play.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. It’s true. I’m lucky.

Steve Cuden: So, when I listen to you play—because I’ve listened to a bunch of your work—I can both hear, and in videos of you, I can see that you love what you’re doing. It’s obvious. You’re not faking it. You clearly love what you’re doing. How much does actual passion for music factor into how you perform it?

Michael Wolff: It’s everything. I’m so lucky. I have a wife and two children. My sons are 28 and 25, Nat and Alex Wolff. Like I, they have intense passions. My wife’s an actress and a writer and a director. My boys are great musicians, and they’re very successful movie actors. I didn’t grow up with anybody like that. My dad was a doctor, and my mom became a social worker, and they were passionate about their thing. But being passionate about the arts is just something that eludes you all the time. So I think every time I go to play, I can’t wait to do it, but I’m always wondering how it’s going to turn out. I’m thinking about I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Steve Cuden: You said it eludes you.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I never feel like I got it. I’m teaching at NYU now, New York University, and I have to teach all these kids. Really, I’m checking them out, see what they’re into. Because what I’m really good at is having a great feeling and excitement and being open to what’s happening. I’m much better when I perform live than I’m just sitting around. But it just alludes me. I don’t know. It’s just kind of like magic in a way.

Steve Cuden: So when you then go to play, it just all comes alive.

Michael Wolff: Hopefully. I mean, sometimes better than others. What I like is when I can just say, okay, I’ve done all the practicing I can do. I’ve studied, I’ve listened, I’ve had all these experiences. It’s just like writing my book. I’m just me. So I’m going to sit down and be me, and hopefully it’ll come out. Mostly it does now. I’ve done it so much. But it was a long process.

Steve Cuden: Well now you started playing professionally at a fairly young age. You were what, 20-21 when you started to play professionally?

Michael Wolff: Yeah, I went on the role with Cal Tjader, this jazz vibe. It was right after my birthday, when I turned 20.

Steve Cuden: That’s incredibly young to be at that level.

Michael Wolff: Oh, yeah, man. I wasn’t old enough to go into the bars we were playing at. So during the breaks, I had to sit by myself in a chair, in California, 20 feet away from the bar or whatever.

Steve Cuden: Was there a moment prior to that when you realized you were truly good at playing? Did you have an epiphany at some point?

Michael Wolff: Oh, when I was a kid, I read in the book. I went to summer camp quite young. Maybe 10 or 11, 12, something like that. They had a talent show. At the talent show, I just sat down at the piano one time and just played, I didn’t even know what I was going to play. I just remember I was in the key of G, and I just played Bluesy. People loved it and I just went, wow. What’s that about? It gave me an inkling that there’s something about this music thing in me. I mean, I took classical lessons till I was about 14. I wasn’t that good at that, and I didn’t care that much about it. But I did my lesson for the teacher, but all my thoughts were on, I just want to make up my own music. I don’t want to spend all my time reading this music by these guys. Of course, I have a different view now that I’m educated. But then I just wanted to make up my own music. I had a teacher when I was in the seventh grade, I guess about 12, named Florence Bardell. She was a real old lady. She said to me, alright, I’m going to make you a deal. You’re going to play one of your compositions every week. You’re going to play a Beatles tune every week, and then you’re going to do the classical music I want you to do. I said, okay. I was happy then. But I didn’t know if I was good. No, I didn’t know. It was really when I started playing in high school, 10th grade, 11th grade, and then we started going to Berkeley High School, Berkeley, California, going to some jazz festivals. I hear the other people. People were hearing me. Playing in public. I was getting a response. I was kind of a prodigy at that. I could just do it. It took me a long time to figure it out later, what I was doing.

Steve Cuden: You were madly in love with doing it, so that was helpful.

Michael Wolff: It wasn’t even love. It was need. It was desperate need. I desperately needed it. Yeah. I loved it. My whole social life were my musician friends. I’m not anymore, but I was really shy when I was a kid and embarrassed about my tics and everything. The music was a gateway for me, especially to meet girls. Some would like the piano playing or sit next to me on the bench. When I was about 14, 15, I realized this is my way to meet girls and this is my way to talk. I could never hit on a girl or something like that. It just wasn’t me.

Steve Cuden: The classic way to meet girls is to be a musician. Yes?

Michael Wolff: That’s what John Lennon said. I remember once I saw him on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. He says, well, John, why’d you get into music? He goes, for the birds, for the birds, Tom. For the birds. My friends that I’m still close with, some of my friends from the 10th grade, we had a band, a Berkeley Jazz quintet. A friend of mine, Nick Timbrook, was the trombone player. We’re still tight. He became a big producer and arranger and composer. Being a musician, if you’re really into it, whether it’s jazz or not, you’re just a nerd. When’s the next Mile’s album? What’s this? What’s this scale? I mean, it really is. I used to observe for me that it was a combination of trying to be cool and do hip stuff, and then being very scholastic. Because I have to study it to figure it out. I really had no clue.

Steve Cuden: So when you listen to music, what for you makes a good piece of music good? Why is it good for you?

Michael Wolff: That’s a good question. I have to say, I kind of sometimes listen sort of functionally. The last few days, I’ve been listening to the very fastest players, because I’m playing some music with a great singer, Camille Thurman. Some of her music is really fast. So I’m listening to Herbie Hancock or whoever’s playing really fast, and just seeing if I can soak that feeling up. So I think it’s about feeling. It’s about feeling. I like a lot of different kinds of music. I like rock and funk and jazz. I even like country and classical. I don’t know. It’s not intellectual for me.

Steve Cuden: It has to hit you in the gut.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I have a thing in my solar plexus where when I’m playing, I feel the rhythm, the inner rhythm of the song. If it’s quarter notes, if it’s swinging, I feel triplets. 1, 2, 3, 1, 3, 3. If it’s Latin, it’s 1 and 2 and 1. If it’s funk, it’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 16th. I mean, it’s kind of technical. But I feel it in my solar plexus and that’s where I feel the music.

Steve Cuden: Do you have a regular routine in working on your playing? Do you go through a daily routine of some kind?

Michael Wolff: No, I don’t. I’ve had routines over the years. What I do now is I still study now then with a teacher here in New York. It’s just classical teacher and it’s just to work on technique. When I was about 40, which is 30 years ago, I had some issues with my hands, as most pianists do at a certain age – repetitive stress. So I went and studied this technique called the Taubman, T-A-U-B-M-A-N, Dorothy Taubman Technique, and saved my technical life – my hands. So I still work on that, and usually every day I will. It’s not so much what you play, but it’s what you think about and how it feels when you play. So I’ll do some stuff where I’m playing and I’m thinking about this technique. Now that I’m teaching a lot, I will teach it a little bit. I mean, I’m not an expert at it, but if I have somebody that’s having problems with their hands. I’ve gone through periods where I work really hard on my ear training. I’m kind of like a serial composer. I just keep writing, writing, writing all the time. I keep big, huge music paper. I write actually on music paper. I mean, I have a studio and I have logic and all the computer, and I do a lot of tracks for people if they need keyboard tracks, whatever. So I’ll go in and do that. I just did one for a guy in Brazil. Really beautiful Brazilian piece, and I did piano, and Rhodes, it just depends. I’ll tell you what happened. We’ll talk about it later, but I got really sick. I could barely get to the piano. I was bedridden for about eight months. I came up with a whole new way to practice scales, which was two scales at a time. One in one end, one in the other and just playing with each other. One going up, one going down, maybe against each other, mirroring. Just do all kinds of stuff. Fred Hersch is a good friend of mine, jazz pianist. He said to me years ago, I just look at practicing as experimenting. That really helped me.

Steve Cuden: Practice is experimenting.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I mean, some of it is like going to the gym. Just to keep my hands. But it’s more conceptual really than anything else. It’s not about how strong your fingers are. I mean, come on. That’s not what makes you a great player. It’s about the concept of what you’re going to do. I’ll go through periods where I’m sight-reading music every day to keep my sight-reading up. I’m not doing that so much now.

Steve Cuden: There’s clearly some connection that happens between the mind and the hands to make it happen. Because you’re not thinking every single press of the key. You’re just doing it, as you said before.

Michael Wolff: Well, when I had my problems with my hands when I was 40, I went to this guy, I can’t remember his name. This doctor, a really great neurologist in San Francisco. In his office, he had a keyboard, and he dealt with a lot of the people in the San Francisco Symphony, particularly a violinist with lots of issues with repetitive stress. He watched me play. He said, oh yeah, this is what you got to do. He said, you got to remember the hand teaches the brain. It’s not the brain necessarily teaching the hand.

Steve Cuden: Interesting.

Michael Wolff: Just when I was going to have kids, and he said, okay have your kids go outside. Don’t just have them sit home on a computer. Things outside teach their brain. It was great advice. He said, playing the piano is the height of mammalian neurological development.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Michael Wolff: Sight reading, hearing, playing. That’s what he said.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s probably right. Every bit of your being has to be in it.

Michael Wolff: I’m really a combination. You know, when I was with Cannonball Adderley, he died, and I was a pall bearer at his funeral, and Jesse Jackson did the eulogy, and he said, Cannonball combines science and soul. That’s how I play. The science serves the soul for me. Everybody has their own way. They’re into all the different technical things or whatever, or different time signatures, which I like to do. But to me, I want everything to be soulful in some way.

Steve Cuden: Is the science technique an academic thought, or what do you mean by science?

Michael Wolff: Just knowing all the harmony and knowing the modes and just knowing everything that you could teach. But what’s hard to teach, and I try to do those with my students, is what’s underneath the music? My father was a psychiatrist later in life. When I was young. He was an internist. He said, listen to Count Basie Big Band. It’s like listening to a patient. Everybody listens to the trumpets and the saxes because they’re the loudest and they’re playing the melodies. But if you really don’t want to know what’s happening in a band, you got to listen to the bass and the drums. That’s the feeling. For him, when he talked to a patient, they’d say a bunch of stuff. But it was what’s underneath it. So for me, what I think I was good at when I was young was that feeling part. If I heard a song, I couldn’t necessarily figure out every note, but I could glom on, like by osmosis. Like a glom onto the feeling of it. It has its pros and cons. I’m not exact enough when I do it like that.

Steve Cuden: Well, you talk about the most important, or someone, I can’t remember who said to you that the most important part of the music is between the beats?

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I think between the lines was how we put it.

Steve Cuden: Between the lines. Who was it that said that to you?

Michael Wolff: An old girlfriend of mine said it to me because she wasn’t a jazz musician. Most people aren’t jazz fans, including my wife. I mean, she likes bass. She comes to the gig, but that’s not her thing. But this girl said to me, God, I listen to your music. You play between the lines, and she was right. Everything’s not on it. It’s like you’re kind of dancing around, in and out under the time. I like to go fast and slow and speed up and slow down. There’s all this stuff going on.

Steve Cuden: You also write that you should play only what’s necessary.

Michael Wolff: Well, I’m definitely guilty of not doing that. When I get playing, I like to play a lot of notes. It just means, when you’re a pianist, particularly, you do what’s called comping or accompanying or complimenting the other instruments. Say a sax or a singer like Nancy Wilson, or I play with Seth Rollins, whoever it is. So I’m playing back there, and the drums and the bass are going, ding-ding-ding. They’re playing time. My job is to play the harmony, listen to what that person is playing. It took me years to figure out my job is to make them sound good. My job is not for me to get to try to play all my stuff, which is what I used to do. But then you go, well, how do I know what to play? No parts are written out for the piano. You just get a chord symbol. Play a C seven. Play this. So when I was with Cannonball, I was 22 and we were playing at Just Jazz, it was a club in South Philly, Philadelphia, not far from you. We were playing. It was upstairs. It was a hard gig because I had my Fender Rhodes, and nobody would help me bring it up the steps. I had to do it myself. One night we’re playing and all of a sudden, I had a gestalt and I saw on the ceiling a big circle, like a pie, a pizza pie or something. I saw where the drums were playing, and the bass was playing and maybe trumpet solo. I saw that the only place for me to play is when there’s a space. Otherwise don’t play where there’s already somebody playing. Where somebody’s got their piece of the pie there, only play where it’s empty. That started me figuring out my job is to either create a little rhythmic thing or answer. It’s like a conversation. Really.

Steve Cuden: That’s your pie theory, right?

Michael Wolff: My Pie Theory of Improvisation.

Steve Cuden: I read that in the book. I thought that was really interesting. The Pie Theory of Improvisation. I’m also curious, when you played with Cal Tjader, he would tell you to breathe. What did he mean by telling you to breathe? How important is that?

Michael Wolff: It means don’t play so much. It was great advice. I can’t say that when I was 20, I was willing to follow it. Because I thought he was an old man. What was he telling me? But I realized, I knew it was great. But I was kind of like, oh God, I want to play real intensely and play a whole bunch of notes. Because I was trying to learn all this stuff. I didn’t go to a music school to learn jazz. I mean, there was only one school when I was a kid. That was Berkeley in Boston. I didn’t go there. So I went to UCLA and UC Berkeley, and studied classical music. I learned to play on the bandstand. Even though I practiced and everything, I took some piano, jazz piano. But I really learned in front of people playing with professionals that were better than I was. So I was trying to play a lot.

Steve Cuden: You learned in what they call the school of hard knocks. You just did it.

Michael Wolff: It was kind of like the old days. Some kid wanted to be a cobbler. The family would give him when he was nine or 10 years old to a cobbler, and he would be their apprentice, right?

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Michael Wolff: That was a system. It was the apprentice system. So I went on the road with Cannonball and all these people, and I gleaned things from every one of them. Either they told me, or I just got it from doing it. But they also said pithy things. Everybody was very cool. Most people didn’t talk that much about the music. But just from being in those situations, I was able to grow. So it’s a different kind of education than what I’m teaching at NYU, where most musicians now, almost all jazz musician, go to college. When I was that age, you go, who have you played with? I played with Cannonball. I played with this one. Now they go, where’d you go to school? Recently, a guy asked me my age, but who had studied with Lennie Tristano for a long time. He’s a really amazing pianist. He said, well, who did you study with? Barry Harris or somebody? I go, I never studied with anybody famous man. I never thought you could do that. I thought you’re on your own with this music. You got to just go to that piano or listen to a record or go to somebody’s gig and ask. You got to do it yourself. Maybe that was a harder way to go.

Steve Cuden: I have a suspicion that like many things in the arts, the artists start out sort of finding their own way, and then it becomes something that people teach in a university setting or in some other school. You were in it prior to it being a big school thing.

Michael Wolff: Absolutely. There was a little bit, but not much. Now we’re just turning out overqualified jazz musicians for no gigs. I don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re probably going to go teach. Studying jazz in a college is good. You learn a lot in life and whatever. You’re going to be a teacher. But not a lot of jobs.

Steve Cuden: it’s true for most music, there’s almost no outlet for it in albums or sales in any way, unless you actually tour. That’s the only way to make any money.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. But jazz is hardly any place you can tour to. You can do it. I’m getting ready to go to LA to play at Patella’s, and I’m going to go to the Jazz Kitchen, Indianapolis. There’re some places that I like to do it. I love to record. I love to compose, but I really love to play live.

Steve Cuden: We’ve already talked about this a little bit. Creating music requires really deep mental and physical skills and concentration. It’s not something that you can do lightly. You actually have to spend your time working like that. Is it mainly when you’re creating, about creating an emotion? Or is there something else that’s in your thought process? Or how do you then tap into your emotional core to get what you’re trying to get to?

Michael Wolff: Do you mean to be a composer? When I compose.

Steve Cuden: To be a composer and to improvise when you’re working live.

Michael Wolff: Well, when I compose, I use a lot of different things. A lot of times it will be a feeling. I remember I had a gig to the Village Vanguard quite a while ago with this great saxophonist, Steve Wilson. I just knew the sound of his saxophone, and I just got a feeling. I sat at the piano and I wrote this beautiful tune, I have to say, for him. So I was inspired by the feeling I got that I was going to play with him and what it was going to do. But sometimes I’d just write a bunch of stuff down, ideas, and then I go back to them. I go, this could be a good thing. I kind of manipulate it to turn it into a song, because I want to write something that’s a vehicle for me to play as a composer. Now, if I’m doing a film score, the inspiration comes from the film and the director. You sit down with the director. You watch the film. You get an idea of the characters. You get an idea where the film’s going. Then the director, you do what’s called spotting the film. You actually sit there, and it’s got numbers under it, sing numbers. You write down, we want the music to start here, and I want it to build here. I want it to move it along. This is sad. It’s like you’re making shoes in a way.

Steve Cuden: It’s a little bit of a technical skill to it.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I love it though. Because you’re inspired by other things. So I see, how can I put some magic into it? But I got to do my job. Just like a company and a singer. The film is the singer and I’m the pianist.

Steve Cuden: It’s creative, but you’re in a little bit of a box.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. I like having a form. It’s like playing the blues. You’re in a 12-bar form, but it’s what are you going to do within the form? How are you going to be interesting?

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Michael Wolff: It’s like a box when I improvise, I’ll tell you, I don’t know what I’m doing. I really don’t. Sometimes I just go, ugh, what am I doing? I don’t know. I know all this stuff. I’m not a bebop player. I don’t really practice all that stuff. I work on harmony all the time. I work in this Olivier Messiaen stuff and sounds that I want to hear. But I improvise like I’m just trying to create melodies. I guess I’m trying to create music on the spot. I was usually successful, but I’m not like a Broadway show about jazz, where it’s the same script every night. Some musicians, they’ve practiced everything, and they play their stuff. They do it differently. I’m not like that. It can be too detrimental, but it’s just the way I do it.

Steve Cuden: It sounds like you have to be fearless too, because you’re doing something new, live, every time you play.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t see it as fearless. Maybe it is. I mean, there was a great bass player. We played together with Nancy Wilson. We played together on the Arsenio Hall show, John B. Williams. He’s somebody I really looked up to, kind of a mentor, older than I. Somebody asked him once, well, how do you play with Mike? He said, well, I know all the options. He can do whatever he wants. I know all the options. That’s kind of how it goes.

Steve Cuden: What would you say are the biggest challenges you face when you’re playing live?

Michael Wolff: That I face?

Steve Cuden: Yes. What are the big challenges that you come in contact with? What do you have to overcome when you’re playing?

Michael Wolff: I think getting the audience to show up. That’s the hardest thing. Getting paid. Musically, I just played a Birdland theater here, which is downstairs from the upstairs Birdland, obviously, and Thursday, it was amazing. But I played there a lot. I know the sound, I know the piano, my group. So it was no issue. One could go to a club or do a concert, deal with the piano or deal with the sound, just those things can be a big problem. If you can’t hear everybody. My home music is interactive. The bass player and drummer. If I’ve got a horn player, we have to hear each other. We’re bouncing off each other, just like you and I are having a conversation. If I couldn’t hear you, I wouldn’t know what to say. So I try to train myself to be a vessel for all of that inspiration that’s going to come through me.

Steve Cuden: You have to be a very good listener, don’t you?

Michael Wolff: Yeah, I have developed into that. But if I’m the leader, they got to listen to me, probably more than I have to listen to them. But I do, because why not? I get the best ideas and have the most fun.

Steve Cuden: But you also write in the book that you, as the pianist, frequently follow the bass.

Michael Wolff: What I was talking about was when I was young, I didn’t know a lot of those standard songs, and the bass player always knew them. So I follow them. But I do. I’m interactive. I kind of respond rhythmically to the drummer, but harmonically with the bass player.

Steve Cuden: I see. So you’re looking for the bass to set up what you’re going to harmonize with.

Michael Wolff: Like we were talking about form and sort of being in a box or whatever, usually you’ll have some chords figured out or something figured out. So then for me as a player, I like to play away from those things. I know those things. There’re different planes of the music. Here’s the rhythm. Here’s the chords. I could play in there, which is great. But then sometimes I like to just leave it. I know where it is. That’s going around in a circle. But I go over here. The drummer and the bass player can either go with me or we just all go to some crazy place. Or they can stay there, and I can create a lot of tension and then resolve it. I can’t help that. That’s just something I do. If my friend Nick says, hey, I’m going to give you some music to do a track on. Try as hard as you can to play it regular. He says, you won’t be able to, and I can’t. But it gets more what he wants.

Steve Cuden: So does it ever become disharmonic or not in harmony.

Michael Wolff: Yeah, definitely. I’m creating tension. So I go away from the harmony. But I’m aware of it, and I’m aware of the amount of tension that I’m creating. So tension, tension, tension, tension, resolution. I’m aware of that.

Steve Cuden: So you’re actually working your way toward the resolution somehow?

Michael Wolff: Yeah. From it and back to it. It’s like a rubber band. You stretch it out and you feel the end of it. You don’t want it to break, and then you bring it back.

Steve Cuden: You write in the book, again, that in terms of improvisation or essentially composing, you write that composing is slow improvising, and improvising is fast composing.

Michael Wolff: That’s it.

Steve Cuden: It sounds obvious, but can you elaborate on that a little?

Michael Wolff: Well, when I compose, I might improvise a little idea, right? But then I got to stop and write it down or record it. Something’s on my phone. I voice memo, I’ll record it, whatever. It’s a slow process because I’m trying to make things more perfect. So if I write on paper, which I was saying, I write on big music paper, and I’ll write my ideas, and then I’ll just sit and maybe I’ll sing an idea and I’ll play that. I’ll play a chord. I do it various ways. Then when I’ve kind of got something, I might have a couple different ideas, and then I just look at it and I can think about it. I can play it over and over and over and over and make little changes, or the changes will just happen. I’m kind of slow as a composer. I’m not a super-fast, I mean, I can write a fast piece, but I don’t like to do it. I like to spend a week on a piece or something if I can. When you’re doing a movie score, you just write, boom, boom, boom, boom, you’re in a hurry. But for my own stuff, sometimes it’ll be fast. But I always can find I can make it better.

Steve Cuden: So here’s where I’m trying to get into the mindset of it. I understand once you have a movie, if you’ve composed something for a movie or a TV show, it gets locked in and it’s baked in forever. That’s it. It doesn’t change. But when you write a jazz piece and you then take it out on the road, you are going to change it all the time. So when you write it down, you’re only writing it down as the basis of it, as the concept?

Michael Wolff: No. I mean all songs are different. But if I’m writing down something that I feel is a vehicle for me to play jazz on. In other words, it’s like, I have a track in a gym, and I really want to run on this track. I just try to make a good track to run on. I really like the track. So it just depends. But sometimes I’ll write a ballad, a very rich piece, and there’s not a lot of improvisation on it. Usually there’s some, but I really don’t want to change it. It’s all different.

Steve Cuden: Even when you’re playing it live.

Michael Wolff: Yeah, playing it live. But most things, playing it live. When I play with my trio now, Ben Allison, Allen McNair, or sometimes I use Darryl Green on the drums, we played the other night. There’s music to everything in terms of the structure. Everybody knows that. But we all know that I’m going to do whatever I want to do and they’re going to go with me. So, it’s a blast. It’s like basketball. If you look at the triangle offense, like the Lakers have, the Warriors. They might have a few plays. They just have a concept. They don’t know where the ball is going to go, where they’ll know where the person’s going to block them. But they got to stay within the bounds, or they’re out of bounds. They can’t go into the paint, because then there’s three seconds, right? That’s how our music is. So within that, we can make up plays.

Steve Cuden: So let’s see if there’s a parallel to what I do as a screenwriter. Because screenwriting, I’ve taught forever, is a form that every single movie that’s ever been made, that’s of any value in my perspective—

Michael Wolff: Yeah. Three x, top points, all that.

Steve Cuden: It has a form. There’s a form to it. It’s going to be a certain length and so on. There’s a form. But yet within that form, you can go into infinite direction.

Michael Wolff: Absolutely. You can have a horror film. You can have a love story. You can have a whatever. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Same thing with playing jazz.

Michael Wolff: You can break the form if you want. But generally what we do is just like with film screen plays, you can break the form a little bit. But you basically have three acts, right? I mean yeah. I think it is a lot like that.

Steve Cuden: What does it mean to let the audience know who you are as a person? You write that in the book. That you’ve got to let the audience know who you are as a person.

Michael Wolff: Well, that’s what I learned from Cannonball Adderley, the great saxophone. He would talk to the audience, and he would talk about whatever was on his mind. It was 1975, so he’d talk about the Vietnam War. He said, the only way they’re going to get me on the front is they’re going to have to carry me up there. Whatever he would say. He had a lot of things he would say. Cannonball would talk to the audience. He was really funny, very warm. I asked him about it. I said, Cannonball, that’s really cool, because most musicians don’t really talk to the audience too much. They might announce it to him, but he would really talk. He said, well, I think like when they get to know you, you can take them for their music. Now, I don’t know if that’s true. But my personality was such as that when I saw that, I went, oh, I’m going to try to talk when I do a gig. Because it’s my gig.

Steve Cuden: You also were a comedian at one point, right?

Michael Wolff: Well, yeah. Then that was later on. I did standup comedy for five years, and then that really showed me how to… again, it’s very improv. I have some jokes or whatever, or things that come up, but I don’t really plan anything. I’m in the moment with the audience. Somebody says something, or something happens in the day. I mean, I’m just talking.

Steve Cuden: You’re playing now.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. What I’m doing in my gigs now is, I’m reading a little bit from my book and then playing a tune or two that relate to what I just read. I don’t do too much, about maybe two or three little things per set, but it really gives it more of a plot. But yeah, it’s sort of like I’m a one man show, but I’m a jazz piano player composer. But it’s really like a one man show. It’s like, it’s taken me all these years to realize it’s just me up there and of course, the musicians. Because I don’t want to be a solo pianist. That’s not my thing. I like interaction. I’m not a loner.

Steve Cuden: Like you say, you like to play off of the other musicians and get the harmonies going that way.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. It’s like playing basketball or anything. It’s fun. I like to play. I like to sit at the dinner table with my family and friends and joke around. I like people and interaction.

Steve Cuden: Do you do your own arranging and orchestrations as well?

Michael Wolff: Yes.

Steve Cuden: So you don’t hire an orchestrator?

Michael Wolff: No. I have some friends that are good at it. So I might say, check this out. Is anything very messed up? Is it going to work? Like I said, I write them papers and then they might write it out in Sibelius. Even though I can do that stuff, but I’d rather go to them.

Steve Cuden: Sibelius being a computer program.

Michael Wolff: Yeah. It’s a computer program that writes music out. I use Logic Audio, which is a great program, and you can write it out from that. I’ll do that sometimes.

Steve Cuden: How important is orchestration to what you’re doing? Is it super important?

Michael Wolff: Well, with the trio it’s not, because you got piano, bass, and drums. I mean, it’s important in the sense that, hey, this piece will be fun to have mallets on the drums and the bass. But I mean, not so much orchestration. But if I’m writing for like the last couple pieces I wrote for jazz, piano, trio, piano, bass drums, and then string quartet. Cello, viola, and two violins. It’s all orchestration. I had to do it. I’ve written for whole symphony orchestras, and I’ve written for big bands, but I’m not a trained composer. Just like everything else I did. Just, when I was with Nancy Wilson, I was 26, I started touring with her. We often played with big bands, or we played with big bands with a string section. We were playing in New Orleans early on. There was this guy, Dick Stabile. They had a band in the hotel at Fairmont Hotel. He had been an arranger for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and all their movies. He was a really good writer. I was talking to him. I said, man, I want to be a writer. He goes, hey, man, I heard you play the piano. Just write all that stuff for the instruments. So that’s what I do. Obviously, I have to know the ranges. I have to know, would it sound good. But I just started writing. Actually, I started writing in high school. I just did it.

Steve Cuden: As you said earlier, it’s something that you were passionate about doing early on, more than learning how to play the classics. You wanted to just write.

Michael Wolff: I was in a great jazz band in high school. We had a great jazz band with a lot of people who came out as famous musicians. I wrote a piece or two for that. I just got inspired to do it. So the same thing in college. We had a big band jazz thing, and I wrote a piece for that. I wasn’t doing it all the time, but I like doing it. It’s a different process. It’s slow. But I’ve started writing for the string quartet, and I really love it. It’s really beautiful.

Steve Cuden: When you were working on Arsenio’s show and you had Sammy Davis Jr. on the show, you write that he leaned over, and had you start to play a song that you did not know.

Michael Wolff: I had heard him singing it upstairs. It was a jazz standard. I kind of knew it, but I didn’t know he was going to do it. I don’t really know it. He didn’t even know what key he did it in. But I just went up to say hi to him because when I was 12, my father took me to see a midnight show at The Sands at Vegas. We were going to Mississippi for something from Berkeley. I was blown away, and I thought, this is what I want to do. Some on stage thing. So I just went to talk to him. He was really sweet. As I left, he’s going time after time ta-da-ta, singing. I thought, I wonder if he’s going to try to play that song. Then I just kind of ignored it. That’s what happened. But again, the bass player, John B. Williams, knew the song. I said, what key notes? I don’t know, man. Time after time I found the key D. Okay, boom. We just started and I just followed John B. We just did it.

Steve Cuden: I still don’t understand how you’re live in front of an audience on TV and you’re playing a song you’ve never played before and don’t really know. How do you do that?

Michael Wolff: Well, it’s not a hard song. Music’s not neurosurgery. It’s just music. Well, I’ve fucked up on TV a couple times. I’ll be honest with you.

Steve Cuden: If you’re going to go out on a limb like that all the time, I would hope that you would swipe a little bit.

Michael Wolff: Exactly. Right.

Steve Cuden: So, I want to talk for half a moment about Warren Zevon, who was your friend. He wrote, in my opinion, for me personally, the greatest lyric line that’s ever been written. Little old lady, got mutilated late last night, to me, is the greatest line of lyrics I’ve ever heard. For me personally. Other people will disagree. That’s fine.

Michael Wolff: What song was that again?

Steve Cuden: That was from Werewolves of London. Little old lady got mutilated late last night. You write that he was a devoted reader and so are you. I’m wondering if you being a deep reader of whatever you’re reading, does that influence the music in any way?

Michael Wolff: Maybe my brain. I don’t know about consciously, but I know that the years when I was really getting into music, I was a voracious reader. I was reading Fitzgerald, Hemingway, JD Salinger, Norman Mailer. Just whatever I could get my hands on. That kind of cool stuff. My parents were really into that too. My mom was into literature. It gave me a taste for art. I like art. I like Picasso. I like impressionism. All that stuff. I did a whole album called Portraiture of the Blues Period. That whole album was influenced by a Picasso show I saw in the Picasso Museum in Paris. There was a painting by, I think, Pizarro or somebody. He just did a room’s full of paintings based on that. That’s like playing the blues, man. You got the form, and then you just do your thing on it. Like we were talking about where you take a form. So, I mean, maybe unconsciously those books affected me. I know they certainly affected me when I wrote my own book. That’s where they took off.

Steve Cuden: Sure. I was just curious if absorbing that information through all that reading, whether it has you thinking differently in terms of music. You’re saying you don’t really know.

Michael Wolff: Well, besides doing a standup, I did five years as singer songwriter. I mean, I was writing a lot of songs with lyrics. Maybe it had something to do with that. But I don’t know. If a lot of things happen, then maybe they’re not conscious. I love reading. Now I’m just reading a couple books now. I just love it.

Steve Cuden: That’s why I wondered because I’m also a reader. So it’s fascinating to me when I find others.

Michael Wolff: Do you know what? I feel like when I read, it like massages my brain in a different way than watching TikTok, which I do. My wife and I, during Covid, got into this thing where, I mean, we weren’t doing anything. So we do our day. I’d write music and she’d write screenplays or whatever. Our kids were in LA. We were in New York, so we didn’t see them. Just a little bit for two years. So at night, we started watching all those Netflix and all that stuff. We got totally into it. It was something we shared together. It became a really important thing in our relationship.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Michael Wolff: It’s the only thing that was happening, man.

Steve Cuden: That period was extremely rough on a whole lot of people.

Michael Wolff: We have for friends, a couple. Well, they’re both really great actors. Famous. We live downtown. They live uptown. But we always got together. We couldn’t get together anymore. So during the Covid time in New York City, at seven o’clock in the evening, everyone opened their windows and clapped and rang bells and hit pans as the thank you to the first responders, the doctors and the nurses and ambulance drivers and all those people. At 7:05, we were on our computers FaceTiming with our friends, having dinner every night. My wife is our cook. My friend Tony is their cook. So we would show each other what we cooked, and we’d visit for an hour or two.

Steve Cuden: I’m assuming your friend Tony is Tony Shalhoub. Yes?

Michael Wolff: Yeah, Tony Shalhoub and his wife Brooke Adams. Then after a while, we started getting bored. So we started writing monologues for each other, and then we taped the monologues. We had a blast.

Steve Cuden: Your whole family is creative, as you’ve already said, your wife’s very well known. Polly Draper. Star of 30-something. She’s also a writer and a director of many different things. Your two sons are now quite famous, Nat and Alex as the Naked Brothers Band, and then off onto other things, the Fault in Our Stars and other movies. I’m wondering, when you were working on the Naked Brothers Band, how did that impact your family life? Did it in any way? Was it hard to do?

Michael Wolff: It was the very best thing that could have ever happened. I mean, whoever gets to do that, get up every morning. We made this little movie. My son Nat was maybe seven or eight or something. He put a sign outside the door of his room. He wrote, I want to be a child actor, A-K-T-O-R. My wife goes, no, man, you’re not going to go out and do those auditions. It’ll destroy you. So she started thinking about it, and she realized when we had the birthday parties here, we had a little camera. Just a little home, cheap little camera. But she’d video them just to have as home movies. The kids loved to pretend that they were famous. So she came up with this idea the Naked Brothers Band, about a kids band that was as famous as The Beatles. So she thought, let’s just make a little family movie. So we did non-union below the line. We raised the money, and we shot it one summer, and our kids were the stars, and based on my son Nat’s songs at the time. He was nine years old, and his brother Alex was six. He was a drummer.

Steve Cuden: So it’s genetic.

Michael Wolff: It’s genetic. Yeah. They were really good musicians. So we did that. My wife thought, well, maybe every 10 years it would be fun. Like the seven ups, it was a documentary where every seven years they’d filmed this family. But we entered it. Kids were really liking it when we showed it to them. So we entered it in some film festivals. We were at the Hamptons Film Festival, the Hamptons here in New York, and there was this guy there, Albie Hecht, who had been president of Nickelodeon. He saw the movie, and he said, hi. About three months later, he called, and he said, I can’t get this thing out of my mind. I want you guys to come up with us to Nickelodeon, and let’s see if we can get a show. We said, well, we don’t want to do a show with our kids. We want to be regular kids. But he said, well, let’s go and see. So they made us an offer to do it. We said, well, we don’t want to do it. The agent said, well, what would make you want to do it? We said, well, if we could do it in the summer in New York. We want them to go to regular school. So that’s what we did. But it ended up being about five or six months. They’d probably be working up until Halloween.

Steve Cuden: They missed a little bit of school.

Michael Wolff: They eventually went to the school called Professional Children’s School. That was made for those kinds of kids. They were on Broadway or something. So every morning, seven in the morning, something like that, we’d get picked up by a van in front of the house, and couple of the other kids, and their parents would show up. We’d drive to Brooklyn, to Greenpoint, go to the set. We had a building. Do the show, man. That’s what we did for four or five months.

Steve Cuden: So you got to really work as a unit, as a real family.

Michael Wolff: We worked as a unit. Polly was a show runner, writer, director. She wrote almost all of them and directed almost all of them. I played the father, crazy accordion player, guy in the shelf. I also wrote the underscore. Nat and Alex wrote all the songs. They’re just songwriters. So what we do is, after the first season, we say, okay, well. We finished in October. We wouldn’t do anything. They go to school. We’d just relax. I’m doing my gigs or whatever. Then after January, she’d say, okay, have you guys been writing any songs? She’d see the songs because they were just writing constantly on their own. She’d find a song she liked and write an episode for that song. That’s how we really did it. Then sometimes she’d need a song. One day, when Nat was about maybe 10 or 11, he woke up. He said, I don’t want to go to school, man. Polly said, okay, you don’t have to go to school if you write a song about it. So he wrote this song, I don’t want to go to school, which is a big hit song. I don’t want to go to school. It was some kind of creativity just exuding out of the house every moment. We had a lot of fun, man. It was a lot of fun.

Steve Cuden: Well, I’m glad to hear that.

Michael Wolff: Exhausting.

Steve Cuden: Sure it would be exhausting, but I’m glad to hear that it was fun, because I can imagine under the wrong circumstance, it could turn into chaos within the family unit.

Michael Wolff: My wife didn’t hire these professional kid actors. She just got kids. Her thing was, she’s got a great DP, a director of photography. She said, I mean, we’ll block it out, but they’re kids. They’re going to do what they want to do. You got to follow them, like at sports. He had done a lot of sports, and that saved it. At lunchtime, we’d always have an activity for them. Basketball, dance, ping pong. It was the best years of their lives. They were with all their friends. Two, three of the kids they’d gone to school with. So it was just a blast. I mean, we worked super hard, and they worked super hard.

Steve Cuden: The show was a huge hit.

Michael Wolff: Huge hit for three years. The great thing is that Nat and Alex, both my sons, they learned to work hard. They learned how to treat people. I said, this is a crew of a hundred adults. We’d say, okay, you’re the stars. You get special treatment, but you got to be nice to every one of these people because they’re all working really hard to make you look good. So they learned to work hard. Every night we’d have dinner. Some of the actor kids lived somewhere else, but they’d be here for the summer. They’d live with us. We’d all have dinner. During dinner we’d learn our lines over dinner every night. These kids, man, they could soak it up. They could learn 10 pages in a half hour. It’s okay. If you learned your lines, you could go watch the OC. That was the treat.

Steve Cuden: That was the treat. The treat was learn your lines. That was the treat.

Michael Wolff: They loved the OC. That show was really good.

Steve Cuden: I have to touch on your near-death experience with cancer that you eluded to earlier. You had histiocytic carcinoma. You also had non—

Michael Wolff: No. Histiocytic sarcoma.

Steve Cuden: Sarcoma, sorry. You also had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the same time, right?

Michael Wolff: Well, I had that first, and they think either it was a misdiagnosis, or it morphed into this other one. But by the time I had the other one, after a year of treatment, I didn’t have the lymphoma.

Steve Cuden: So explain what? The histiocytic sarcoma.

Michael Wolff: They found out it wasn’t even the right cancer anyway, so they got it something else. Now it’s somewhere else. Well, let’s put it this way. When I was diagnosed with the lymphoma, I was feeling fine. I just had some lymph nodes in my groin. I went to my regular doctor, he goes, I don’t think it’s anything. We’ll watch it. I don’t go to that guy anymore. So, well, after three or four months, he goes, well, maybe you should go to an oncologist. So he just sends me to an oncologist who says, no, you’re a healthy man. I don’t think it’s anything, but let’s go take some tests. PET scan, CAT scan, and he goes, yeah, you got lymphoma. I had to have a biopsy. Well, I got it double checked. I’ve got a second opinion. He goes, okay, well, you’re not sick now. This lymphoma, it is stage four, which means it’s all over your body, but it’s a blood cancer. When you get diagnosed, that often happens. But the cell that you have is follicular and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s not really that powerful. So what we do is we wait for you to get sick. When you get sick, we treat it. We can’t cure it because it’s so indolent, it’s so slow, we actually can’t kill it. It’s so low grade. But what we do is we treat it, and it’ll usually go away for three years to five years. Then you’ll get sick, and we’ll treat it again, and you’ll live a long life. I went, okay. Then I got sick, and I felt so terrible, man. So they started treating me, and I got treated for maybe eight or nine months or something. On paper, I was over the lymphoma, but I was sicker and sicker and sicker. So finally I was just at a proper doctor, and my wife said, you got to go up to Memorial Sloan Kettering. We live in New York City. It’s a great cancer center. I went to that lymphoma guy, and he said, wow. He kind of had a little attitude. He goes, well, what are you doing here? You look like you’re cured. You’re like a baby. He didn’t say that, but he was acting like, what’s the problem? He said, I’m not going to treat you. I’ll do another biopsy. I was like, oh God. I was like 20 pounds lighter and really sick, crying and on all these drugs and tons of drugs. Percocet, prednisone, just millions of drugs. So when we went back to talk about the biopsy, he sat down, and he was very quiet. He pushed this box of Kleenex towards my wife and me. He said, you have a disease. This guy’s about 70. He says, I’ve never seen this disease called histiocytic sarcoma. I’m going to get you right into the rare cancer sarcoma doctor. I go, well, is this treatable? He goes, I don’t know. Maybe. He didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t look good. My wife looked it up. She said, whatever you do, don’t look it up. Because what it said was, I probably was going to die within about six months, three months, something like that. Because there was no treatment. Only about 300 people had had it that they knew of. There was just no treatment. So I went to that specialist guy, super nice guy named Renow Gonder, Indian man. He was about 40. He goes, yeah, you got this disease. I said, well, am I going to survive? He said, well, I’ll fight with you. So when he said that we went home and I just said, oh yeah, that’s going from bad to worse. But when I first went to that doctor up at Memorial Sloan Kettering, he says, hey, we’re doing this trial thing where if you agree to do it. We’ll do a genomic blood test on your DNA. It takes about six weeks, and we’ll see if they’ll get any mutations or something. I didn’t quite understand it, but at that time I was so out of it. They test you for everything. I go, sure. I don’t care. So Dr. Gonder, who was waiting for that test to come in, there were no results yet. So I said, were we going to wait? He goes, no, I’m going to treat you. I’m going to give you a really heavy—he called it a punchy chemo. So he gave me way stronger than anything I’d ever had. Plus I was already beat up with those other six months of chemo. Anyway, I ended up in the hospital with sepsis and pneumonia. One night my blood pressure went away. I just about died. I was in the ICU, and then I was in the hospital for three weeks, and then there was no treatment. So we were waiting around for this genome blood test to come through and nothing was coming through. So we asked him, well, do you mind if we try this alternative stuff with—a guy was going to give me IV vitamin C and all this. He was like, yeah, do whatever you want. He figured I didn’t have much time. That didn’t do anything. Then one day he calls, he says, got to come over. You got to come over. I found something. So we go over. He goes, look, I found something. Your very end of this blood test results said you have this certain mutation. I called a mic mutation. I went into the lab. He had been a lab guy up in Boston before. I went to the lab, and he said, I think I found the mutation that causes your cancer. I think I found a drug that’s already here. It’s for another kind of cancer, and it’s not that effective that I think will work. So he said, okay, we’re going to get that. He said, but the problem is, of course, since it’s not for your kind of cancer, it’s going to be hard for your insurance to get in and it’s very expensive. Anyway, it’s Sloan Kettering. So they got it, took about a month, and I just got it. It was the smallest little orange pill you ever saw. I thought, this can’t do shit to my cancer. Anyway, so I said, there’s no way. So I took the pill. After the second night, all my symptoms went away. My fevers, my shakes, my night sweats, they went away.

Steve Cuden: That’s amazing.

Michael Wolff: I call him, he freaked out. So I go back and after 10 days, he said, let’s do a pet scan CT to see what’s up. After that, he goes, you have 80% reduction of all tumors.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Michael Wolff: I’m going to stay on this. I said, well, what’s the research? He goes, oh no, you’re the research. There’s no research. He tried a million different ways. Take two milligrams every day. Now let’s, after a month, let’s stop. Let’s do six milligrams for a week, then let’s do this. He just tried a million different things because he didn’t want resistance. After a while, there was zero cancer coming up in the test. That went on for like a year and a half. Finally I said to him, well, how would I know if I’m cured? He goes, well, the only way you’ll know is to stop taking the medicine. But that’s up to you. You could ask your wife and go home. I go, I don’t have to ask her, let’s stop now. He says, if you make it a year off the meds and it doesn’t come back, you’re not in remission. You’re totally cured. It’s not coming back. They don’t say that often. So after a year never came back. It’s been four years.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Michael Wolff: So in one of my appointments in the last year, I said, hey. I just go in once a year now. I said, when you met me, what’d you think I had a year or two? He said, the most you had was three months when I met you. So he ended up writing an article in the England Journal of Medicine on my case, because there had been no treatment for this disease. People came out of the woodwork. A drug company came, and they made a drug specifically for Histiocytic sarcoma. People started knowing about it and treating it. I asked him recently. I said, well, now that you know about it. You know about me and everything. What percentage of people can you cure? He said, a hundred percent now.

Steve Cuden: Wow. It sounds to me in an interesting parallel, that he was practicing a form of improvisational medicine on you.

Michael Wolff: He always says to me, we were doing jazz together.

Steve Cuden: You were doing medical jazz.

Michael Wolff: What do you mean? I just said what you said. He goes, no. Do you know how so many patients wouldn’t have done it? You took a chance. But he was just improvising. Well, he’s an out of the box guy.

Steve Cuden: Well, after all the medical profession, the doctors are just practicing. They’re in practice. Alright. We have been having this incredible chat. I’ve been talking to Michael Wolff for little more than an hour. This has just been fascinating stuff. Just wondering, in all of your experiences, and you must have more than one example of something that you’ve been through that was either weird, strange, quirky, offbeat, or just plain funny.

Michael Wolff: Well, when I was with Cannonball Adderley in 1975, we had been on the road for about four weeks in the United States, I think Seattle. I don’t remember where we were before. We went up to Montreal to play. There was a club in the old town. We’re going to play there a week or two. We got there the night before. Well, we got to the next morning, and we were going to do our soundcheck in the afternoon, so maybe noon or one. Cannonball Adderley and I and our drummer, Roy McCurdy went down, and we had rented two cars. So Nat, Adderley, his brother, who played cornet and Walter Booker. The bases were going to come in the other car. But we went down. First, I had to load in all my keyboard stuff and the other saxes and stuff. We go to get in the car. Before we got in the car, there’s these screeching of all these different cars. These guys get out and put guns to our heads and they’re screaming at us in French. We don’t know what’s happening. They handcuff us. They throw us into their cars. Roy McCurdy and I are handcuffed together and put our heads down in the backseat. Cannonball’s a big guy. So he is in his own car. They speed and we don’t know where they’re going. We don’t know who they are. They don’t identify themselves. We go to this police station. We go in and they take our handcuffs off. They strip search us. We finally find out that somebody had robbed a bank, probably black people, and they were arresting every black group they could find. I got swept up with that. I want to get my phone call. They said, you don’t get that phone call. This isn’t America. I was like, oh man. I knew Cannonball and Roy, were going to get off. I knew those guys. They were very distinguished and famous. But man, I looked like every hippie in 1975 in Montreal. I had long hair down to my back. I had a big beard. I figured I look like one of those French dudes. Anyway, they put me in a jail cell. They threw in this brown paper bag. I opened it up and it had this horrible cardboard-like bread and in the middle of it, this slimy piece of some kind of yellow cheese. I just put it back in the bag and I just sat there. Finally they came and got me, and they got Roy and then put us in the cars. Just Roy and I. We didn’t see Cannonball. They didn’t tell us where we’re going. They didn’t say a word. They drove us back to the parking lot of the hotel. We got out and they left. So we were so happy to be back and go up to the room our hotel’s on our room. We see the Cannonball’s room, the door is open. So we go in and Cannonball’s in there with Walter Booker and Cannonball’s sitting up on the bed. That brown paper bag is torn beside him and he’s eating that cheese sandwich. He goes, not bad, my man. Not bad.

Steve Cuden: Well, you’re in a foreign country. You don’t have the same rules or laws.

Michael Wolff: No.

Steve Cuden: You don’t know what they’re charging you with.

Michael Wolff: There you go. That was racism.

Steve Cuden: Well, unfortunately, some of that still goes on today.

Michael Wolff: Oh, yeah. I had a lot of those experiences. I didn’t even know it because my idols, my peers, my employers, my best friends, we were all these African American musicians. I was usually the only white guy in the band with them, or Nancy Wilson or Sonny Rollins and it happens all the time. They think I was the manager. With Sonny Rollins, we were playing in Mississippi. I had to check the band in. I wrote a lot about that in my book.

Steve Cuden: You did. You wrote very movingly about it. It’s sad that it’s part of our history. It is part of our history.

Michael Wolff: Part of our present

Steve Cuden: Part of our present, which is even more disgraceful. So, alright, last question for you today, Michael. You’ve already given us a ton of advice throughout this show, but I’m just wondering if you have a single solid piece of advice that you like to give to people who are starting out in the business, or maybe they’re in a little bit and trying to get to that next level.

Michael Wolff: I don’t know that I have a good answer. You know? A lot of people will say, well, my daughter or my son want to be an actor. They’re in high school. What should they do? Should they get an agent? Should they get pictures? She says, no, just do the high school plays. If they’re that young, I just say, man, just find your friends and play with your friends. Do anything you can in the school. We don’t need to jump into being a professional. But if you’re trying to be a professional, I mean, look, the way I did it was, it was hanging out. It was networking in person. Going out every night to hear music. Now, I mean, it’s all online. I don’t think I have good advice for those people. I know at NYU, my students are 18 to 21 or 22, and then I have graduate students. Most of them are graduates, more than half now. I just say there are two main things. Go out to hear music every chance you can and play with people that are better than you. It’s like tennis. If you want to be a good tennis player, you got to play with a better tennis player or anything that you do in life. So try to find people that are better than you, beg, steal, or borrow. Figure out a way that they’re going to let you play with them. That’s my suggestion.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s a pretty sound advice. You came up that way yourself. You played with who you could play with. You basically trained yourself to be a businessperson within the business. I think that there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you stick to it.

Michael Wolff: Look, I made my fair share of mistakes. My kids ask me sometimes what questions they don’t know what to do. I say, well, look, let me just tell you. Any regrets I have are not anything that I did. It’s always stuff I didn’t do. I turned down because I was too cool or whatever. I was a teenager. I think I was going to be a musician, and my father… I was complaining, oh, I don’t want to play that kind of music. I’d get hired for whatever. I played a fraternity at UC, Berkeley play. He said, well, he grew up in the depression. He said, my opinion is if you’re not digging ditches or breaking the law, you’re all right. So that’s something to remember.

Steve Cuden: Yeah. That’s a hundred percent true.

Michael Wolff: I couldn’t be precious. So I played every kind of music. I played country, web music, funk music, Latin music, rock and roll, jazz, some classical. I just love music. I had what I liked the best, which is what I’m doing now. Wrote scores. Some stupid. Some good. Nothing wrong with working hard.

Steve Cuden: Just take the gigs as they come.

Michael Wolff: I think so. Everybody doesn’t agree. But like I said, I don’t regret any gig I’ve done. I’ve always gotten something out of it. Either I learned something musically or I’ve met somebody or something good happened. Turning things down hasn’t worked for me. Maybe it does for other people.

Steve Cuden: I think what you’re saying is absolutely true. The more that you do, the better it gets.

Michael Wolff: When you’re young. When you’re starting out.

Steve Cuden: Sure. Of course.

Michael Wolff: When you’re Hanks or somebody, Tom, or somebody like that at this stage. Yeah. Me, I don’t take every gig.

Steve Cuden: No. You can afford to be more selective as you—

Michael Wolff: I don’t get asked to do a million gigs as a sideman. But even as a leader, I just can’t do every gig.

Steve Cuden: Well, Michael Wolff, this has been an absolutely fascinating, fun, interesting hour plus on StoryBeat. I’m so delighted that you spent some time with me today. I can’t thank you enough for being on the show.

Michael Wolff: I can’t thank you enough for having me. You are a great interviewer and conversationalist. The fact that you’ve read the book and knew about me. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves. Awesome, man. We’re going to do another one where I ask you questions. You’re going to tell me all about your screenwriting career.

Steve Cuden: That would be an interesting twist. So thanks so much. Thank you. Now as promised, we have a real treat for you. Please sit back and listen to Michael Wolff on piano and Alex Wolff on drums as they play Michael’s composition Left Out with Drums.

Michael Wolff: That’s all I wanted to do. Right. What does that remind you of? Do you think it’s going to go back to the F. You might use this as a bridge instead. [vocal percussion]. Hip hop. I love it. Meditation. I love that groove so much.

Unnamed Speaker: Yeah. Cool.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you liked this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you are listening to. Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Tune In, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden. May all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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