Photo courtesy of Michael Wolff
Jazz pianist Michael Wolff, performing at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill
To be featured on National Public Radio’s JazzSet (April 1st)
Now performing through March 20th
At the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill (33 University Place)
For reservations, call 212-228-8490
Michael Wolff reveals his jazz passions
Teacher still learning, performer still finding new grooves
BY STEVEN SNYDER
Pianist and composer Michael Wolff has played jazz in some of the nation’s most prestigious venues. He’s taught the secrets of the genre to America’s top musical students. Yet after all these years, Wolff still prefers jazz experiences that are intimate and low-key; the sort with a little less “performance” and a little more vibe.
A resident of the West Village for decades and a monthly regular at various New York jazz venues, Wolff says that when it comes to playing — and for that matter listening to — his favorite tunes, there’s no city that better respects the jazz spirit and attitude.
For Wolff, it’s no debate: “New York is still the best. In the 40s and 50s, it was this very popular music that you could find everywhere. Today, in some places, it’s treated almost like more of an art music, like classical music,” he says. “But if you head downtown on most nights, and definitely on the weekends, the music is still here the way it was always meant to be. That’s why I love clubs like the Knickerbocker, where it’s not treated like a concert. Jazz music is part of the whole scene. People are hanging out, drinking, eating, hooking up and being social — and that’s the way I came up, where jazz was just another facet of society. It was part of the rhythm of it all.”
That’s not to say Wolff has shied away from embracing jazz gigs of a more prestigious variety. Recently, he assembled a trio to play at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club — a performance set for broadcast on National Public Radio’s JazzSet on April 1. Even as he’s racked up concert accolades through the years (one critic praised him as “one of the most engaging all-around performers in the jazz game”), Wolff has gone on to be prolific in the recording studio as well — releasing more than a dozen albums.
Wolff, who continues to experiment with his craft, remains a formidable presence not only on the NYC stage, but in the classroom. In addition to headlining a month-long stand at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill on University Place, he’s also made multiple appearances as a guest lecturer in New York University’s music department.
Wolff appeared at NYU in both January and February, most recently leading a Master Class with his trio on February 24. The irony of his role as teacher does not escape him. As he was a rising musical protégé in the 1970s, Wolff says he knew that the only way to chase his passion was to hit the road. So he dropped out of school after only two years and traveled with Cal Tjader’s band, learning the various schools of jazz from the different musicians he would collaborate with in cities across the country.
At the time, Wolff says to learn the craft was to do the craft — and to hone your skills was to put in the hours on the stage. “Back then, there was only one book out there to learn from. It was all about getting four or five musicians together and hitting the highway, simple as that,” he says, nothing that today’s music programs offer much the same immersion in the genre. “What’s great about the programs is how wide open they are. You can pick your focus and then concentrate on becoming a master. There are so many great programs today in this city, when you talk about NYU, Columbia, Julliard. There was no jazz at Juilliard when I was starting my career.”
If it’s easier than ever to learn about jazz, Wolff also appreciates the fact that it’s never been more difficult to make a living as a jazz musician. “You see more venues now that host music two or three nights a week, versus six or seven nights a week like they used to, and nowadays you can’t really just be a jazz musician any more. You have to teach, or write music, or do some other things in addition to performing,” Wolff says. “But the opportunities are still there. As has always been the case: You are only limited by your talent and ambition and persistence. If you can still do all those things — become the best performer possible, be ambitious in what you do and remain endlessly persistent, then you still have a chance.”
During his current stint at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, Wolff says he’s invited some of the most talented, ambitious and persistent performers he has ever known to swing by for guest appearances. He’ll be joined by drummer Victor Lewis and bassist Ugonna Okegwo on March 5-6; drummer Mike Clark and bassist Chip Jackson on March 12-13; and drummer Mike Clark and bassist Rich Goods on March 19-20. Wolff says that whenever he organizes hometown shows, he lets other New York musicians know where he’ll be and when, hoping that they might hop on stage for a couple numbers as the night goes on.
Wolff says it’s these sorts of improvised evenings that remind him of what the New York jazz scene once was. Even though he’s watched his neighborhood undergo a stunning transformation in recent decades, gentrifying into something far more safe and chic, it remains home to an artistic community more vibrant and diverse than one will find just about anywhere. “It’s still such a hip neighborhood, and you can see sort of what’s going on in Williamsburg now that compares to what happened here,” Wolff says. “Lots of young people, and so much energy, but today the Village is a little bit safer and more about families. But for jazz, New York is still the place and this is where you can see and find the musicians.”
When not performing or teaching, Wolff says he’s also striving to refine a new jazz technique that he stumbled upon while rehearsing for this month’s New York performances. “It’s been an exciting few months, but this is why you get into this profession. You want to learn and experiment and work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says. “It feels good to be busy.”
At the Knickerbocker shows, Wolff plans to present for the first time a new improvisational technique he’s been focused on for the last several months. “I was practicing on one of my older songs, ‘Little M,’ from my Jumpstart CD, and just outlining the chords and arpeggiating them, and I found a really great way to connect them together and stagger them rhythmically. I don’t hear pianists do this much, and it helps to break me away from playing scales, which feel over used, at least by me,” he says. “The result is a ton of rhythm and more movement. I’m moving quicker, and as a result I think the sound is fresher and more energetic – a different way of approaching things.”
So the teacher is still learning, and the performer is still finding new grooves — and for the next few weekends, Michael Wolff will be stretching himself yet again — in front of familiar crowds, joined by his favorite collaborators. The calendar may say 2010, but you might as well be traveling back in time. Jazz is new again.