The man who created the distinctive music for the show about nothing is bringing a “concert about nothing” to Atlanta, but it’s for something: to raise money for Congregation Or VeShalom.
Jonathan Wolff composed the music for 75 prime-time network TV series (such as “Married … With Children,” “King of Queens” and “Who’s the Boss”) and wrote the themes for 44 of them (“Will & Grace,” “The Hughleys” and “Caroline in the City” among them) during a 29-year career in Hollywood.
But nothing has brought him more attention than the music, including the theme, for “Seinfeld.”
“At the end of all of it … what people want to talk about is ‘Seinfeld.’ It’s a show people genuinely love,” Wolff said in a phone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky., where he grew up “in a small Jewish pond” and where he retired in 2005 in his mid-50s.
He said “Seinfeld” represented “a unique moment of cosmic aligning” of TV success and creative excellence, thanks to its “Delta Force squadron of TV professionals.”
“It was the ‘Camelot’ of my career,” Wolff said.
It was a career that went exactly where he intended while taking him in unexpected directions.
Wolff said he was the Louisville Jewish community’s default musician while growing up. He was playing events and writing songs for Hadassah, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation as early as age 7 and was taking gigs playing simcha parties at 10. That got him the attention of managers of catering venues, which led to more work.
With the piano as his foundation while he experimented with a variety of instruments, he played as an accompanist for everything from musical theater to dance teams. He got his first taste of television by recording station identifications for two network affiliates when he was 14.
“That beginning with the Jewish community and the support there, that’s how I grew into a fully prepared, established musician,” Wolff said.
He also benefited from having master jazz musician Jamey Aebersold in nearby New Albany, Ind. “I was trained by the master himself.”
At 17, fresh out of high school, Wolff had enough real-world music experience to take his talents to Los Angeles.
He had no trouble getting work, but he also had no direction.
“Anything that smelled remotely like music, I took that job,” Wolff said. He became a valued jack-of-all-trades studio musician and made plenty of money, but it wasn’t a career.
After 10 years in L.A., he looked around his studio sessions and realized that no one in the rhythm sections was older than 45 because at a certain age, you can’t evolve with the music.
“I knew I was going to fall victim to that eventually. It’s a natural selection process,” Wolff said. He realized he was the only one who could change his path to something enduring. “I was too valuable as a utility player for people to hire me as a composer.”
So “I nuked my career.”
Wolff sold all his gear, bought a commercial building in Burbank to set up as his ideal studio, with the best equipment and musicians and singers, and wrote to all the people who had hired him as a musician over a decade to let them know he was now a songwriter.
It worked: “I proclaimed myself a composer, and people said OK.”
He also was a businessman. He figured out that the real money was in royalties on shows that could play endlessly in reruns. So he wouldn’t do music for specials, movies of the week, beauty pageants and such; he focused on prime-time network series.
He still worked like crazy. You don’t do the music for 75 series by taking on one show at a time, Wolff said. Instead, he worked on 10 to 14 simultaneously, almost never saying no and almost never sleeping or seeing his family. “It’s not a business decision that I recommend to people, to overwork and overexpose.”
He also had to deal with the disappointment of some of his best work getting lost in the failure of shows that were canceled within a season or two.
By 2000, with “Seinfeld” behind him but the work still rolling in, Wolff decided that his family needed him more than Hollywood did. So he picked 2005 for retirement and spent the next five years preparing his escape into the “Hollywood witness protection program.”
With programs such as “Will & Grace” and “Reba” on the air, “I was still the flavor of the month,” Wolff said, but “if I waited until there were no jobs, we’d never leave.”
The family moved back to Louisville when his children ranged in age from 5 to 10, and with the cushion of royalty income from all those reruns, he’s never looked back — even after Larry David kept sending him “’Curb Your Enthusiasm” scripts when the HBO series was launching.
Fortunately for “Seinfeld” fans, music fans and those who just love a good behind-the-scenes Hollywood anecdote, Wolff’s kids are old enough that they don’t need a stay-at-home dad anymore, so he can travel, entertain and share a little wisdom. As a retiree, he doesn’t feel the need to hold back from naming names.
Fortunately for OVS, he knew the organizer for the synagogue fundraiser, Ann Benator, back in high school through BBYO. When she asked him to do the show, he was happy to volunteer his time. “Doing things like this keeps me off nonprofit boards and committees.”
He’ll play the piano for 20 or 30 minutes, tell some stories, take some questions and let the audience determine how the show develops. “Ask your questions,” Wolff said. “I have answers.”
Who: Jonathan Wolff
What: Music and stories from his TV career
Where: Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St., Atlanta
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25
Tickets: $41 to $112; 404-413-9849 or rialto.gsu.edu/event/piano-concert-talk-an-evening-with-jonathan-wolff. For VIP seats, including a pre-event reception, for $200 each or $350 for a pair, contact OVS Executive Director Adam Kofinas at 404-633-1737 or Adam.Kofinas@orveshalom.org.