Michael Wolff’s Sweet Miracle of Life

The pianist dives back into music after a frightening bout with cancer

Michael Wolff (photo: Chris Drukker)

Michael Wolff survived a harrowing health scare. The experience led him to seek the creation of beauty.

The jazz pianist/composer says that in 2013 he was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma that was treatable but not curable. “At that point, they weren’t even going to treat me,” he remembers, “because I wasn’t sick, I just had a few little symptoms. The doctors told me, ‘We’re going to wait until you get sick. We don’t treat this ahead of time. It doesn’t pay.’”

We’re sitting in a bistro in New York’s Greenwich Village, and Wolff, 66, is recounting his terrifying ordeal. He tells me his health began to deteriorate about nine months to a year later. “They started to treat me with chemotherapy,” he says. “And on paper it looked like I was well, but I was so sick. And I got worse and worse and worse.”

At one point, he was in the intensive care unit in a New York hospital and he heard the doctor ask his wife, actress Polly Draper, if she had a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate). Despite being heavily medicated, he interceded. “I was so drugged they thought I was knocked out,” he says, “but I just happened to hear that. I said, ‘Resuscitate me.’ Luckily, I didn’t need resuscitation, but … I knew that that meant I wasn’t ready to die. At least [not] without a fight.”

Draper insisted Wolff go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a top cancer hospital in New York. There, he saw a doctor who specialized in rare cancers. The prognosis appeared dire, but the doctor discovered a gene mutation, diagnosed Wolff with a very rare sarcoma, and prescribed a pill used to treat other forms of cancer.

The pill began to work immediately. “I took it and in two days my symptoms went away, and in two weeks I had 80 percent reduction of the tumors,” he explains. “It was Stage Four all over my body. And after a while—I don’t know how many months, six months or a year—there was no cancer.” He stayed on the medicine for about two years, and roughly a year ago he stopped taking it altogether.

Wolff says his cancer battle gave him a new outlook. He writes in the liner notes of his latest album, Swirl (Sunnyside), “My view of life, art & music has changed, developed, matured, widened and focused simultaneously. I savor every day, every view, every person I love, and every note I can play and hear.”

Swirl, a trio album also featuring bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allan Mednard, reflects Wolff’s new creative perspective. He says his perilous experience inspired him to compose music that was intentionally pretty. “I’ve always played with color and intensity and rhythm,” he notes, “but I just thought more about beauty.”

Recorded partly live at the Yamaha piano salon in New York City and partly in-studio, Swirl brims with gorgeous melodies and an exuberant spirit—as Wolff puts it, “literally a joie de vivre.” The buoyant opener “Allison” sets the tone, while the title track, which closes the album, is an evocative piece with an otherworldly quality. Wolff says that the feel he was after when he composed that tune was “just that I could be as beautiful as possible. And the swirling part of playing—with the sustain pedal down, soft pedal on sometimes—kind of peaceful, right?”

Wolff composed “Jenny,” a lovely waltz, to honor a friend who’d also battled cancer, but she rejected his initial offering. “First I wrote a piece for her and I sent it to her, and she goes, ‘That’s too dissonant,’” he recalls. “So then I decided, ‘I’m going to write the most beautiful melody I can write.’ And then she cried when she heard it.”

The blues-tinged “Tough Ashkenazis” is dedicated to pianist Fred Hersch, a friend who has dealt with his own health issues. Hersch came to one of Wolff’s first performances when he returned to playing. “Afterwards he said, ‘Man, you sounded strong, Wolff. It’s good,’” Wolff remembers. “I said to him, ‘How did we survive this?’ ’Cause he knew I’d been ill. He goes, ‘Well, we’re some tough Ashkenazis’”—a reference to their shared Jewish roots. “I said, ‘We’re some tough Ashkenazi motherfuckers.’”

Wolff says he feels resurgent, and he’s working on new projects. At press time he was planning live shows, and he’s composing a concerto for jazz piano trio and strings. He’s also thinking about his next album, which he says will include two songs from the Broadway musical The Band’s Visit, which he’s seen seven times.

He mentions that he recently attended an event in Los Angeles celebrating singer Trisha Yearwood’s new Frank Sinatra tribute album. “Everybody was there—Don Was, the head of Blue Note [who produced the album]—all these people I knew,” he says. “It was so great to be back on the scene.”

Lucy Tauss

Lucy Tauss is a New York City-based music journalist and longtime JazzTimes contributor. She is also a radio and audio producer/writer/editor/journalist who covers news, entertainment and everything in between.