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When the Chatter Stops : Talk show band leader gets a fat paycheck, his face on TV five nights a week and a chance to play with his idols

It’s a little before noon on a Thursday not that long ago, and Michael Wolff, keyboardist-composer and musical director of the “Arsenio Hall Show,” leans back in his swivel-based chair in his semi-cluttered office on the Paramount Pictures lot, telling a visitor about how he got to meet his main inspiration, Miles Davis, a recent guest on Hall’s late-night show.

“He and Cannon(ball Adderley, the renowned saxophonist) were my idols, ever since I was a little kid,” says Wolff. “I got to play with Cannon but I’d never even met Miles. I used to live a block away from him on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and I’d see him walking around and stuff, but I never had the guts to talk to him. And then he came on the show.”

“Miles said to me,” and now Wolff switches from his clear, tenor voice to a scratchy, foggy whisper that closely approximates the fabled trumpeter’s (who has only one vocal cord), “ ‘I read what you said about me (Wolff told of his idolization of Davis in a piece in the June 15 issue of Rolling Stone). You played with Cannon, then you know what’s happening.’

“He told me, ‘I like your band,’ ” Wolff says, smiling. “The hippest thing was that he seemed to respect me as a musician. To grow up and have that happen, that’s cool.”

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Times have been good for Wolff, 36, since he signed a two-year contract to handle musical matters for Hall last November. Besides a fat paycheck each week and getting his face on TV five nights a week, he’s gotten to work with Sammy Davis Jr., Al Green--"who is one of my favorite singers"--Donna Summer, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and saxman Branford Marsalis.

Davis’ appearance on the show (which airs in Los Angeles on KCOP-TV at 11 p.m.) demonstrated the kind of fast, precise thinking and playing the bandleader and his group--Starr Parodi, keyboards, John B. Williams, bass, Peter Maunu, guitar and Chuck Morris, drums (Morris replaced the original drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington, about six weeks ago)--have to be capable of.

“Sammy wanted to do a another song, one which wasn’t scheduled,” Wolff says. “So he calls ‘Time After Time,’ and John B. and I go into the Jule Styne standard, while Starr starts playing the Cyndi Lauper pop tune,” he laughs.

Parodi’s thinking wasn’t that far off base, since the band plays mostly rock-tinged music. The group’s songbook includes tunes like Toto’s “Roseanna,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” “Superstition” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” in addition to a handful of jazz-based numbers, like Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe” or Cal Tjader’s “Soul Sauce.”

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Still, playing rock or not, Wolff--who, between 1972-79, was part of bands led by Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Cal Tjader, Airto and Flora Purim and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra--insists his is a jazz band. “I am jazz guy first of all,” he says. “My experience has always been playing with black people. That’s the influence that been the most important to me. That’s why Arsenio and I get along so well. I know what he likes, more or less, and that’s what I like. He loves jazz. So we sneak it in. Like when Branford (Marsalis) was on the show, we played (Coltrane’s) ‘Moment’s Notice.’

“What I feel happy about is to be a jazz guy and be on TV and be able to impart, however subliminally, some of that culture and some of those values. If you’re going to be commercial, it’s not a bad way to go.”

In a manner of speaking, jazz got Wolff his lucrative job. “I was with (jazz-based singer) Nancy Wilson, along with John B. and (ex-Adderly drummer) Roy McCurdy, in 1979, playing in Chicago when a young comedian named Arsenio Hall was called in to replace the comic who was already scheduled,” Wolff recalls.

“We helped him relax, and then he ended up opening for Nancy a lot and we became friends. He kept telling me, ‘One day I’m gonna have a talk show and you’re going to be my musical director.’ ”

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Hall, talking in a separate interview, says he got in touch with Wolff to repay a friend for a kindness received. “Michael and John B., they were just very good to the new kid who was nervous who had just been told that Nancy’s manager was flying (in from Los Angeles) to see him,” Hall says. “In this business, people just don’t take the time to be nice, not to opening acts who need to use your dressing room, so to have somebody be nice, you remember it. I always said if I ever make it, I want to go back and grab those guys.”

When Hall got his show, he wrote Wolff, who was then living in New York, and had him fly in for a meeting. “At the end of an hour, I had the gig,” Wolff says. “He told me, ‘You’re a great jazz player and I want you to put a band together around the way you play.’ That showed me that he knew what was happening musically.” (Hall, a former drummer, wrote the show’s theme, which Wolff later orchestrated).

To choose the group, Wolff auditioned players from names he and Hall had compiled, and when selections had been made, Hall--who, as executive producer of the show, has the final say on all creative decisions--gave his blessings to Wolff’s appointees. So far, so good.

“I’m really happy with the band,” Wolff says. “It’s growing, it’s different every day. Everybody’s into being a musician, not being into show biz. Everybody just wants to play great.”

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Hall likes the diverse make-up of the ensemble. “We have whites and blacks, men and women--it sends out a message of what we should be as a people,” he says.

Besides getting a musical director, Hall got a fellow comic he can banter with, if need be. In New York, Wolff took improv workshops with Second City veteran Marty Friedman and studied acting at the Herbert Bergoff Studios and in Los Angeles, he’s currently studying Meisner technique with Jeff Barton. The pianist has been developing comedic routines for almost a decade, has his own jazz-and-comedy show, and has even written material for Hall. While all this doesn’t necessarily translate into a bigger role on the show for Wolff, it does mean he can be an occasional foil for Hall.

“I’m there to talk with him if he needs me,” Wolff says. “But we don’t plan things out much. About 99% of the time, I’m there as an improviser.”

Wolff was featured one night when Chuck Woolery, host of “The Love Connection,” was on the show and three women from the audience came down and played that show’s game (where either a man or a woman selects a date from three off-camera, yet audible, members of the opposite sex) with Wolff as the available man.

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“I actually went on the date, on the night of the Oscars, then came back and talked about it on the show,” Wolff says, a mischeivous twinkle in his eye. “We went to Pink’s and had a chili dog, then to the Improv, but nobody was there because of the Oscars, then we went to Lucy’s Tacos, and we had to eat in the car with the motor running because there was something wrong with my car. Then when I took her home, she couldn’t find her keys, so I had to help her break her into her apartment. It was like a 12-minute segment and it got a lot of laughs. I was happy with that.”

Wolff’s act, which he did for a just-concluded string of Tuesdays at the Vine Street Bar & Grill, is a mixture of funny stuff and musical interludes, sort of a “Victor Borge of Jazz,” as he likes to call it.

“I poke some holes in the concepts that people have about musicians, and I make fun of some people who need to be made fun of, like (New Age pianist) George Winston, whose music I abhor,” he says. “And I want people who like it to at least have the choice of knowing it’s lame.”

Although he enjoyed his stint at the Hollywood club where, on one Tuesday night, he imitated Winston by playing a chord then waited about 15 seconds before striking another, Wolff may soon return but he would rather do his act as a two-hour concert with intermission. “I can do 50 minutes of comedy, then play for an hour, and that way you’d hear everything I can do,” he says.

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A concert now and then, but he doesn’t miss the jazz life. “I just didn’t want that life style,” he says. “It isn’t about how good a musician you are. Working three sets a night, four, five nights a week, it’s not healthy.”

For the time being, Wolff is pouring most of his energy into the Hall show. “What it’s been is getting used to being on TV every night and just being who I am as a person, making that my character on stage,” he says. “That’s been taking some time for me to figure out.”

On another day Wolff leaves his trailer-office at 2:15 p.m. and heads out into the sunshine, making the brief walk to Soundstage 29, where he tapes the Hall show.

In faded denims, tennis shoes, T-shirt and sports jacket, Wolff matches the casual attire of his partners: Parodi has chosen biking shorts and a tank top while Williams, wears white jeans and a T-shirt. Later, for the day’s shooting, all will be considerably spiffed up.

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But in the afternoon, Wolff spends more time hopping back and forth between the audio mix and control booths and the bandstand, trying to work out a volume problem.

Returning to the bandstand, Wolff and crew warm up with Toto’s “Roseanna.” He shouts “One, two three,” and they dig in, playing loud but crisply. After a while, the leader jumps off the stage and bounds up into the seats, and stands there a moment, listening. “We won’t know anything until we have an audience in here,” he says.

The group does brief run-throughs of a few more tunes, and, seemingly satisfied, Wolff says, “OK, good job. We’re finished.”

From 3:15 to 5:15 p.m., when taping begins, Wolff gets his hair spritzed, blow-dried and combed, a brief make-up once-over and then goes to the off-stage upstairs dressing room he shares with Williams, Morris and Maunu where he changes from jeans into a black outfit with matching boots, in sharp contrast to Williams in white slacks, jacket and shoes and red shirt and socks.

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The late-afternoon taping goes easily for Wolff. At the start, Hall comes out and after a Plastic-man-voiced introduction by Burton Richardson--"It’s Ar-seen-e-oooooooooooo Hall!"--says hello to the band. “This is my Posse, in case you didn’t know,” Hall says to the audience. Then he says hello to Wolff.

“How you doin’, Michael?” he asks. “Good,” responds Wolff, and that’s all the interaction between them for the day.

The rest of the taping is smooth sailing: a series of play-ons and play-offs for guests Pat Morita (“Karate Kid III”) and Marsha Warfield (“Night Court”) that include “How Sweet It Is,” “Roseanna " and “Sitting By the Dock of the Bay.”

Back in the dressing room, changing back into his street clothes, Wolff relaxes with Williams and Morris. The bassist and Wolff have made plans to hear Parodi’s new group at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks that evening.

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