If cool were a currency, Michael Wolff would be among the world's wealthiest men. Wolff, the famed music director of the Arsenio Hall Show and a recording artist in his own right, has been playing jazz music since he was a teenager, and he has jammed with most of the recording industry's greats throughout his career.
He and his group Impure Thoughts jet into Cleveland for a night of jazz stylings at Nighttown on Wed., Nov. 8. He is promoting his new CD release on Wrong Records, titled "Love and Destruction.”
"I was referring to the yin and yang: love and the opposite of love,” said Wolff in a CJN phone interview. "It's kinda like love and pain, but I thought love and destruction was stronger.”
The iconoclastic jazz pianist, 53, recorded one of his strongest pieces to date, "Underwater,” following the cataclysmic flooding of New Orleans, the city he once called home.
"Being from there, I was very affected by that,” he says. "I was getting these e-mails, particularly from my cousins. There was this despair in them and this was months after the flooding.”
The power of that song, the first released off the album as a single, was made all the more evident when a music video of it was shot in an abandoned home in the middle of the ravaged Ninth Ward.
The young prodigy spent many summers as a teenager sitting in with Al Hirt's big band and local luminaries such as brothers Willie Tee and Earl Turbinton. He was steeped in the blues, funk and jazz music of New Orleans.
Making this all the more remarkable is that Wolff had been diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome as a youngster.
His father, an internist, thought that playing music might be therapeutic for his son and encouraged him to play piano after the family had moved to Memphis.
"My influences were so many,” Wolff admits. "I listened to everybody and I stole everything from every piano player I ever liked.”
Eventually, he was selected to be singer Nancy Wilson's music director, working with her live concert appearances for over five years. That gig led to Arsenio Hall's decision to name Wolff as his bandleader, a position he held until the show was cancelled in 1994.
While on Hall's show, Wolff met his future wife, Polly Draper, an actress best known for her role in the TV series "thirty something.”
Inspired by her husband's battle with Tourette Syndrome, Draper wrote, directed, and starred in "The Tic Code” a 1999 movie in which both a young boy and an older man play jazz and share the disabilities of the disease. Wolff provided the soundtrack to the movie.
Wolff and Draper collaborated again last year when they cast their sons Nat, 11, and Alex, 8, in the movie "The Naked Brothers Band.” The two youngsters play rock stars and Wolff and Draper play their parents. Talk about typecasting.
Nickleodeon plans to show the movie during the month of January and has recently finished shooting the first 13 episodes of a new series also titled "The Naked Brother Band,” which bows in February.
He portrays a geek - a hapless accordion-playing father who is constantly trying to sit in with his successful sons' band.
Wolff says that his family is "culturally” Jewish. "In my house we still do Chanukah and Passover,” he says.
Meanwhile, Wolff has continued concentrating on performing and writing his music, but with the encouragement from his sons, he has also been singing.
"I've played at Nighttown many times - I used to hang there,” admits Wolff, who credits local relatives with taking him there to enjoy the music, food and ambiance. "I like Cleveland a lot.”
Michael Wolff and Impure Thoughts appear at Nighttown on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. Fee. For ticket information call 216-795-0550 or http://www.nighttowncleveland.com.