Michael Wolff knew at an early age that jazz was his passion, but he never dreamed that in his early twenties, he'd be playing with the best in the business.
By 1974, at the young age of 22, pianist Michael Wolff was already a member of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, one of the most famous bands in jazz.
Wolff went on to work with jazz legends Sonny Rollins and Nancy Wilson, before becoming the music director for the Arsenio Hall television show.
In his recently published autobiography, “On That Note,” Wolff describes the highs and lows of the jazz life as well as his struggles with undiagnosed Tourette’s Syndrome as a child and a rare form of cancer that nearly took his life as an adult.
“After being misdiagnosed with a type of lymphoma and not getting any better, the doctor discovered that I had a very rare form of cancer called ‘histiocytic sarcoma,’” Wolff said.
Through it all, Michael Wolff emerged as a pianist and educator with a positive attitude and a joy for living.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On Wolff joining Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet
[Adderley] told me, “Man, I hired you because you’re not hung up in a bebop style. Quincy Jones and I have been trying to get that last foot out of Birdland!”
He really wanted to play different music. And I had come up playing jazz, but also funk and Latin and I had my electric piano. I had a lot of pedals and wah wah pedals and I could get a lot of sounds out of it. So, he was very encouraging to me and he said, “Look man, I love the way you play. Don’t let anybody tell you what to play.”
He really supported me. And in terms of off the bandstand, I once talked to Cannonball about it and he liked to talk to the audience. He said, “If you get to know the audience, and you let the audience know you as a person, you can take them wherever you want to go, as a musician.”
So, I always talk to my audience. I like to include them in my whole performance. And I think that I owe that to Cannonball.
On becoming the music director at The Arsenio Hall Show
The Arsenio Hall show was a fantastic experience for me. I was the music director for Nancy Wilson [Show] for five years, and our opening act for a lot of that time was Arsenio. He was just an unknown comedian in Chicago. We became close friends and hung out.
He said, “One day I’m going to have a talk show and you’re going to write the theme and do the music!” And I said, “Okay, I’m up for it.”
I figured it might last 13 weeks, so I didn’t buy a car. I just sub-let a friend’s apartment for a few months, and it turned into 5 ½ years and it changed my life.
It’s the first time I’d really made any money and I got to play with everybody — jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and it was my band, so I really had a great position with them, in dealing with them.
And then I got to play with so many other great musicians, classical people like Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo. And then I got to play with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey on her first thing when she was about 18. It was on-the-job training in a lot of ways. And the best thing that came out of it, there was an actress that I had always liked who was the star of “Thirty Something”, named Polly Draper.
She came on the show and I made it a point to meet her. And, eventually I asked her out and now we’ve been married for 30 years and we have two sons that are famous actors and musicians.
On how cancer changed his outlook on life
Truthfully, my wife says I’m much sweeter than I used to be. So, I’ll accept that.
I think I had a temper and I don’t think I have a temper anymore. It was kind of a gift. My perspective has changed. I try every day to notice something really special.
If I’m in New York, I look up to see a building I would have never looked at or the sunset or whatever it is. The main thing that I came to from this experience, the gift that I got from it was to realize that the absolute most important thing for me in my life is my family and then after that the people I love — and the people I love that are no longer alive. You know, they’re really important to me.
And I kind of realize they’re living with me all the time and I accept that. Whether it’s Cannonball or Cal Tjader or Miles Davis. Whoever really meant a lot to me musically or my grandparents and parents are both deceased. Whatever it is, I feel those people living on some plane in my reality.
On teaching jazz music today to college students
I teach at NYU. We get some very talented people. But when I was young, it was like, “Who have you played with?” and with these guys it’s like, “Where’d you go to school?” So, it’s a different way to learn.
I mean, great people are going to be great. Robert Glasper, he went to college for music. But some of the stuff you have to learn to be great you can’t teach. You’ve got to find it. You have to experience it.
But I’ll say that these kids are really well trained now. When I teach, I teach from my point of view, which is not as academic, even though I have a scholarly academic view of harmony and all that … I mean, when I was with Cannonball or Sonny Rollins or any of the great people I’ve played with, we never once talked about scales and chords or harmony or theory. We just talked about the meaning or was our feeling getting across to the audience. It was more about the soul and the feeling of the music.
So, I try to impart that to my students. You know I say, “Sure, you go to this program. You’ve got to learn everything they’re teaching you and that’s great. You’re going to be great, but don’t forget it’s what’s underneath that counts!”