After childhood struggle, jazz pianist soars
[size=9px]Source: Mercury News[/size]
Jazz pianist Michael Wolff -- who returns to the Bay Area this weekend for a mini ``homecoming tour'' -- recalls that as a kid growing up in Berkeley he was a brash young know-it-all. Something of a musical chameleon, he could channel Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock at will.
``I'd listen really hard and ask, `What were they thinking in terms of harmony and rhythm?' '' he recalls. ``I got pretty good at getting inside them.''
Just hanging out on campus, however, was another matter. His delivery sometimes came in gasps, and he couldn't always control the shrugging and nodding.
Wolff suffered from undiagnosed Tourette's syndrome, which on politically incorrect TV sitcoms is characterized by sudden blasts of profanity (not a symptom in Wolff's case).
``It's still difficult to talk about it,'' says the 49-year-old pianist who, since his stint as musical director on ``The Arsenio Hall Show,'' has toured and recorded with the band Impure Thoughts. ``My Tourette's was never really diagnosed correctly . . . When I was in high school, I think the kids thought I was on drugs because of the tics.''
The cruelest comments, he recalls, went something like: ``Oh, man, he's always singing to himself -- he must be doing a lot of cocaine or he's on speed.''
Looking back, Wolff says he thinks he gravitated to jazz because the field has always welcomed, indeed celebrated, societal misfits. For the young musician, jazz became ``a sort of cloak'' that helped him fit in.
``Maybe I was guided to jazz by Tourette's,'' muses Wolff, who has learned to control the symptoms without medication. ``I could be accepted in this world because it wasn't buttoned down. When I played, the other stuff, the tics, were overlooked.''
Still, Wolff refused to admit something was ``wrong.'' His instructions to actress-wife Polly Draper: ``Just don't tell anyone. They'll never know because when I perform, it doesn't really happen.''
Draper knew her husband was fooling himself. People suspected something wasn't quite right with the gifted musician whose r?sum? included sessions with Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie. She devised a novel means of therapy: a movie about a kid with Tourette's who's befriended by a sax player with Tourette's (Gregory Hines). Written by Draper, who also co-starred, it was called ``The Tic Code.''
Battling a stigma
``It wasn't my actual story,'' says Wolff, ``but it was close enough. It dealt with a lot of the issues I was dealing with.''
It also gave Wolff his first startling look at himself.
``On the first day of shooting, I saw Hines doing some of my tics. That blew my mind.''
Today, as he travels from jazz clubs to London's Albert Hall (where he accompanied Bobby McFerrin), Wolff not only talks about his disorder, he publicly campaigns for a cure as a member of the board of the Tourette's Syndrome Association. ``There have been breakthroughs: They've identified that it's linked to a chromosome, that it's genetic.''
Wolff's message to others with Tourette's: Don't let it define or stigmatize you. The great misconceptions about the disease are that everybody who has it is mentally ill and has coprolalia (the uncontrollable urge to curse). ``The IQ of those with Tourette's is generally high,'' he points out.
Has it hindered or benefited Wolff's music?
``That's hard to say -- I've never been a person without Tourette's,'' he replies, laughing. ``I do think a person can be less inhibited with it, a better improviser. When I sit down to play, I'm really in a fresh space, totally in the moment, and that helps me as composer.''
Also, he adds, laughing, it's made him the antithesis of the laid-back musician. ``I'm voracious about exploring. That's why I put this band together -- to fuse classic jazz with Indian and African music.''
Easing the tics
``It's just a theory, but when I concentrate on singing, the tics go away. Maybe it's because all my energy goes into that. I'll be singing some jazz standards and Broadway tunes. My vocal style is simple, direct. It's kind of bluesy, vulnerable, and sets off the piano playing, which is busier.''