Jeff Goldblum Has a Number One Jazz Album. It Only Took Him 50 Years
Jeff Goldblum has a daily routine that includes working out in his home gym and spending an inordinate amount of time at the piano. “I play every day,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It’s part of my life. I know what gratification comes from a routine and making something a habit and I play first thing in the morning.”
Goldblum’s love of jazz goes back decades. Beginning in the mid-1990s, acting on the advice of fellow jazz aficionado Woody Allen, Goldblum and actor Peter Weller began playing standards by musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk at various Los Angeles clubs. Allen suggested the duo set up a residency. And while Weller would eventually drop out, Goldblum, never one to shy away from an ostensibly left-field idea, ran with it.
His weekly gig with the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra at L.A. club Rockwell is hardly a vanity project — “If I’m not out of town doing something, I’m there every week” — but the 66-year-old actor has taken the idea to its logical, if odd, conclusion: his debut album that recreates the Rockwell vibe in a studio with a live audience.
Bolstered by guest vocalists Haley Reinhart, Imelda May and Sarah Silverman alongside trumpeter Till Bronner, Goldblum’s The Capitol Studios Sessions — which hit Number One on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart — blends standards (Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Times Square”) with the actor’s goofy, whimsical crowd banter. Imagine if Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner swapped a rumpled shirt and newsboy cap for a tuxedo with tails for a start. We’ll let Goldblum take it from there.
Your love of jazz goes back to your teenage years. How would you describe 14-year-old Jeff Goldblum compared to now?
I’d been taking [piano] lessons for a few years and I didn’t know the joys yet of conscientious discipline. So I’d dread the teacher who would come once a week because I hadn’t really practiced but I had some coordination and a facility for it so I proceeded with my exercises and scales. Eventually, I said, “Gee, I don’t care how long I sit at the piano. I’m going to really work on this and figure out how to play,” and I did.
I learned how to start to put together chords and inversions and what scales might go in different things in the right hand and how to improvise. There was something about that that I had a natural enthusiasm for and appetite for. I’d “play for company” when my parents’ friends came over and I remember locking myself in a room one afternoon and getting the Yellow Pages and turning to cocktail lounges around Pittsburgh and I went from A to Z.
At 14? How many did you call?
[Laughs] A bunch of them. I would say, “I understand you’re looking for a pianist.” Most of them would say, “No, we don’t even have a piano here. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” but some would say, “Yeah, we have a piano. Where’d you hear that?” I’d make up something and get, “Come on down and play it, let’s see what you do,” and I got a couple of jobs that way. Either my parents would drive me or I somehow connected with a girl singer or two who would then drive me to a gig and we had a couple of those. I just got real enthusiastic about it. At 10 years old, I had already decided to myself that I was going to be an actor. I wanted that in the worst way but this piano thing, I just purely got a kick out of it. Over the years, I kept involved with music just for the sheer bushy-tailed fun of it.
You said you wanted to be an actor at 10, but it sounds like that was more a pipe dream and music was really what you were able to do.
You’ve put your finger on something. Yes. It was kind of some sort of crazy dream, but I didn’t do it really except around the house or in the backyard with my sister. I’d put on some kind of play here or there and go to an [arts] day camp, but not really much of anything. Carnegie Mellon University offered high school kids these six-week [drama] courses given by the professors who taught regularly who had stayed around for the summer. That’s when I got totally obsessed with it and would write on the shower door, “Please, God, let me be an actor,” and then wipe it off so nobody would see it.
You’ve been doing the Rockwell residency for a while, but whose idea was it to do an album?
Peter Weller and I had just done [1984’s] The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonsai and he plays around on the trumpet and he and I would get together at my house and play and run through some songs. Then he did a movie with Woody Allen and he came back after that and said, “I was talking to Woody who said, ‘Oh, you and Jeff get together and play? You guys should do what I do and have a regular gig and play with good guys and you’ll get better and it’ll be fun.'” [We] set ourselves up during a brunch on Sunday and kept doing it once a week here and there. We played many places over the last three decades.
I maintained this group and it grew and [at one show] they said, “We need a name to put in the program,” and I thought about this woman whom I knew in Pittsburgh; a friend of my mom’s [named] Mildred Snitzer. I thought that was a funny name and then this idea of the orchestra was funny. I said, “Mildred Snitzer Orchestra,” and it’s kind of stuck since then.
Movies remove any direct interaction you can have with fans. Did playing live enable that side of you to talk to people more?
Yes, at Rockwell it started to evolve because I started to enjoy talking to the audience more and hanging out with them, playing games with them and figuring out what we were going to play. We started to make it into a show where I knew nothing about what was coming. I like to be spontaneous. I like it to be a surprise and so I wouldn’t know the set list. They would start to vamp. I would guess what they were playing and then play along, although I’d been practicing from the 40 songs from which we were going to play every day.
[Friend] John Mastro would write out some quizzes or questions about jazz or literature and I’d just cold read and have a little hangout with the audience and then we’d pick up another song. It’s become the version of the show that’s evolved and people over the last several years would say, “Gee, this should be a TV show,” or something. I’ve never been careerist or strategic or futurist about this at all.
Was there a push, though, to convert the Rockwell residency into an album?
Larry Klein, this terrific producer, saw the Rockwell show and said, “Gee, I think what you guys are doing is a little bit unique. It reminds me of another time when jazz was substantial and progressive and had an interesting kind of integrity to it but it was accessible and fun and the centerpiece of some social [activity]. I think we should recreate a live atmosphere like this and do it over a couple of nights.” It was all very spontaneous.
It follows your lack of careerism.
Yeah. It just happened really organically, as they say, and evolved from everything I’d ever done about it.
How close would you say the album is to being at a Mildred Snitzer Orchestra show at the Rockwell?
I think it captures something of the feel and spirit of it. When we go to Paris or Berlin or the London Jazz Festival, we’ll do 45-minute sets. At Rockwell, I start talking to the audience with this handheld microphone at 8:30 and I just keep going till 11. I make sure that I’ve peed before and I just keep going [laughs]. The band takes a little break in the middle and I take pictures with people and I get to know them and meet them. It goes on for all that time and there’s a lot of talking.
Does it concern you that people who don’t know your musical background may look at this as a vanity project?
No. Doing acting or certainly music was kind of just a wild-hearted, romantic adventure for me where I was trying to express myself more than impress myself upon anybody. Now it’s gotten more that way. If you love something, it doesn’t really matter what people think as much because you’re not really relying on that, but I’m gratified to see when people experience the band or come up to me after [the show]. It’s very happy-making for me. They get a kick out of it and I like that.
“I start talking to the audience … at 8:30 and I just keep going till 11:00. I make sure that I’ve peed before and I just keep going.”
Like Bill Murray, you’ve always come off as someone who was far less image-conscious than most actors and prized his personal interests over his public perception. Do you agree?
That’s very lovely and to be associated with Bill in any way is lovely. Yeah. That was my intention and that’s how I feel. I’ve done all of this because I have something burning in my gizzard about this stuff that has to get out and get pursued in some way and that’s it. The more purely I approach it that way, the more people seem to find it enjoyable.
But to what extent are you aware that people find you eccentric and quirky? Does it humble or flatter you?
Stanislavski said, “You should love the art in yourself, not yourself in art.” But yeah, I think I know. My wife comes out with a whimsical sigh or two when I post on my Instagram and then look at comments and the tattoos and drawings people make of me. And then somebody drew my attention to that statue that they put up near [London’s] Tower Bridge. It’s funny and fun and I know that it’s all fluid and fleeting, but it’s very sweet and I get a kick out of it.
Is it tough not to be the caricature that people want you to be?
Yeah, maybe so. The voice that I found in myself that has hopefully different variations in acting roles and is always sort of evolving, even musically, was never strategically designed for any impact or aspect. It’s not cooked up, but really comes out of what I enjoy about finding my voice and expressing myself. It really was a serious pursuit of what [acting teacher] Sandy Meisner said, which is, “Don’t copy anybody and it may take you 20 years of continual work to even call yourself an actor and then a lifetime of progress as you continue to pursue it, if you’re lucky enough.” He said, “You want to reveal yourself personally, even if it’s in this poetical parallel way that’s under imaginary circumstances,” or, as we could say now, through the music in some way.
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