Jeff Goldblum: Not a Hollywood Square

The screen star is passionate about jazz piano, as a new album shows

Jeff Goldblum

Talking with Jeff Goldblum is one rare instance in which it’s comforting to learn that a Hollywood reputation holds true. Well, nearly true. Reached by phone this past fall, Goldblum, 66, is less delightfully quirky than he is enthusiastic without affectation—especially about his new Decca release, The Capitol Studios Sessions, an outgrowth of his semiregular gig at the L.A. venue Rockwell Table & Stage.

There, Goldblum leads a small group of aces from the piano, swinging agreeably on meat-and-potatoes repertoire, bringing in special guests, and charming the curiosity-seeking crowd. The album, recorded in front of a studio audience and produced by Larry Klein, is an effective advertisement for that Wednesday-night engagement. Throughout the hour-long program of jazz and trad-pop standards, Goldblum quips and comps, mostly letting featured players like trumpeter Till Brönner and a trio of singers bask in the spotlight. Haley Reinhart and Imelda May do expectedly terrific vocal work, but it’s comedian Sarah Silverman, duetting with Goldblum on “Me and My Shadow,” who steals the show.

With absurdist flair, Goldblum calls his band the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, after an old family friend; obviously, the emphasis here is on cabaret-style fun. But the actor’s passion for jazz and the piano is deep-rooted, even if he never pursued music as his vocation. “I play every day,” he says. “I’m serious about what it does to my life and how it changes my days, and I just love doing it.” In this edited conversation—and it was a conversation, as Goldblum isn’t shy about engaging his interviewers—he tells JazzTimes about his musical beginnings in Pittsburgh, his favorite pianists, and the jazz fashion tips he’s adopted.

JazzTimes: I was impressed by your performance of “Mona Lisa” with Gregory Porter, on Graham Norton’s BBC show in 2017.

Jeff Goldblum: Did you like it? [Laughs] I was hunched over my music. It was new to me, so I was reading the lead sheet they’d given me and doing my own thing with it. I love Gregory Porter. I ran into him in an airport a couple of years before and we connected. I told him how much I adored his music.

Midway through that performance, you worked a little bit of Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke’s “Epistrophy” in there. Let’s talk about Monk.

I remember Monk being on the cover of Time magazine. I should look that up and see what year it was, because that will tell me how old I was. [Monk was on Time’s cover in February 1964, when Goldblum was 11.—Ed.] And then I must have heard something of what he did, and you can imagine I was very struck. Over the years I’ve consumed more of it. I like his unique, brave voice and idiosyncratic way of playing, a virile and beautiful and discordant way.

Pittsburgh is one of the great jazz-piano cities: Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams.What are your musical memories of growing up there?

[My parents] found a music teacher who came to the house. It was around that time that my dad brought home Erroll Garner Plays Misty, and [I heard] that a lot. [The teacher] gave me an arrangement or two of something syncopated; I don’t think I even knew that word before. It was “Alley Cat” [scats melody]. There was something about that that just stirred my innards, mysteriously and naturally. And then “Deep Purple” and “Stairway to the Stars,” with interesting chords that really got to me, and I was like, “Jeez, I gotta just sit and practice until I know this thing, because I love it.”

When they realized I was interested in jazz, my parents found this teacher named Frank Cunimondo. I went with my parents to see him play at a club. He said he took requests, and I think my mom said, “Can you play ‘Bluesette’?” And he played a jazz waltz version of [scats melody]. I was thrilled with him, and I liked our lessons.

Then I secretly called these cocktail lounges myself. I said, “Hey, I understand you’re looking for a piano player,” and they said, “No, we don’t even have a piano.” But some places said, “I don’t know where you heard that, but come down and we’ll hear you play.” I got a couple of jobs that way, and met a couple of lady singers who drove me to a gig or two. That was all just for fun, because I’d already made up my mind that I wanted to be an actor. But on the side, like it continued to be, I was just in love with the piano and kept one in my apartment when I went to New York [at age 17]. And I snuck [my playing] into a movie or play or two.

And then, [more than] 30 years ago, Peter Weller and I had done a movie together, and we started to fool around at my house; he plays [trumpet]. Then he did this Woody Allen movie, and Woody said, “Oh, yeah, I know Jeff from Annie Hall. You guys should do what I do: have a weekly gig, and you’ll get better and you’ll play with good guys and it’ll be fun.” That’s what we started to do. [Weller] shortly after went off and did other wonderful things, but I kept this core group, and it’s evolved.

What players would you say are your strongest influences? Like, if you were to try to play a standard, you’d want to check out their interpretation to hear what they did.

I did that with acting and devoted my life to the serious study of it, and continue to. But I’m catching up on all aspects of my study of music. I’m driven by my enjoyment, and that includes my exposure to all the people who’ve come before and who are currently playing. I didn’t do like everyone else I’ve played with did—go to college and consume all of that material.

Keith Jarrett I was listening to recently. Oh, my God in heaven. He’s just wonderful. As we’ve said, Monk. Bill Evans, of course. Oscar Peterson. Bud Powell. I like Horace Silver, his writing and how he plays. Erroll Garner, there’s a song that I came upon called “Eldorado” that really drives me nuts. But as [Goldblum’s legendary acting teacher] Sandy Meisner said about acting, you have to look at everybody but then find your own voice and try not to copy anybody.

You’re a famously sharp dresser. Have you taken any style cues from the great jazz musicians?

[Laughs] Well, of course Thelonious Monk used to like to wear hats, and I like to wear a hat, especially when I play. And I did like Bill Evans’ glasses from the ’50s and ’60s, and I need to wear some frames here and there. Oh boy—I remember a picture of Miles Davis with some plain Bass Weejun loafers on that I admired. … Do you like clothes?

Top photo: Pari Dukovic