Movie fans famously know him as the genetically altered Seth Brundle, but there’s more to Jeff Goldblum than meets the fly.
The towering (he’s 6 foot 4) actor has been practicing his craft for more than 40 years in movies, television and on stage. He honed his skills with the best in the business, including the legendary acting teacher Sandy Meisner. And his film credits are indicative of the versatility he’s cultivated over the years: “Jurassic Park,” “The Big Chill,” “Annie Hall” (his one-line on-screen time has become a cult classic movie moment), “Independence Day,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” On TV, he’s shown up in a variety of series, from “Portlandia” to “Will & Grace.” He can be charming, wry, creepy, sly — whatever the characters demand of the lanky actor, and frankly, one never knows what to expect from Goldblum on screen.
Jeff Goldblum & The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Tickets: $65-$80 (18+over)
Or in real life. Which brings us to Jeff Goldblum and The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra. Goldblum is an accomplished musician — a jazz pianist to be exact. It’s a craft he’s been passionate about almost as long as he’s been alive.
“I grew up in Pittsburgh [he has three siblings] and my parents gave us music lessons when I was just a kid,” Goldblum says during a recent conversation. “We had a piano in the house. I was coordinated, but I was a bad student and I hated to practice.”
Everything changed, he says, when his father gave him a couple of pieces of sheet music, including “Alley Cat.”
“That was the first one,” Goldblum says excitedly. “Then ‘Stairway to the Stars,’ and ‘Deep Purple.’ And I was like, oh my gosh. I’m gonna sit down at that piano for however long it takes until I learn to play them. I just loved it so much.”
Goldblum learned to play them and many, many more since. To this day every place he’s called home has included a piano in the living room. He plays every day, he admits.
“I moved to New York in 1970 right after high school because I had decided when I was 15 that I was going to be an actor,” Goldblum says. “But I was so passionate about music, too, that at 15 I literally picked up the Yellow Pages and just started cold-calling lounges telling them, ‘I hear you need a piano player.’ Most said no. Others said we don’t even have a piano. But a few said yes. I got my earliest gigs that way.”
Once in New York it didn’t take long before Hollywood came calling, and Goldblum moved to the West Coast, and where, in his free time, he “started playing gigs around Los Angeles with wonderful musicians.” That was 30 years ago. He still plays L.A. clubs, most notably the Rockwell, something he’s done nearly every week since the 1990s, and anywhere else he and his jazz orchestra (the aforementioned Mildred Snitzer combo, named for an old family friend) can hold court. Which brings him to the Park West in Chicago on Friday night, where he’ll be accompanied by John Storie on guitar, Colin Kupka on tenor saxophone, Alex Frank on bass, Joe Bagg on organ and Kenny Elliott on drums.
That, and the release of his debut album, “Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra: The Capitol Studios Sessions” (Decca). An homage to the Golden Age of jazz, or what he describes as “very Blue Note stuff” (in reference to the legendary jazz label), the disc is awash in pretty heady stuff, though Goldblum and company (including guest vocalists Sarah Silverman, Hailey Reinhart and Imelda May) manage to keep it lively and unpredictable. Much like jazz itself.
“I had studied classical music here and there but it wasn’t until I heard jazz — it just did something to me,” Goldblum says with a chuckle. “I was exposed to dance early on; tap dancing was what I liked the most because it was kind of jazzy and rhythmic and syncopated. Just like jazz! I dug all these jazz chords early on that were complicated, sometimes discordant and beautiful and ugly at the same time. I couldn’t articulate it at the time but it did something to me. I was very excited about it.”
“I guess it was sexy, too,” he continues. “Now that I think about it, around the time I found jazz it was my early adolescence, [laughing] so I’m sure all my molecules were banging together in all sorts of ways!”
Whether patrons come to his live gigs for the music or just to hear him recount movie anecdotes peppered throughout his shows, Goldblum is thankful audiences have faithfully turned out.
“I’m still a humble student of jazz ,” he says, citing Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane among his favorite artists. “One of the things I really like about these gigs, and I’m so excited about playing Chicago, is that people come and they have different degrees of experience with jazz. Sometimes we’re responsible for introducing some of these classic songs to people, and it’s been thrilling to turn people on to this music. Because I know jazz in some of its academic forms can be a little inaccessible. … What we do is not academic or cerebral when it comes to jazz. It’s just very enjoyable. … And if they’ve seen ‘The Fly,” in which I played the piano for a moment, or they’ve heard the record or seen me on a TV show appearance, they have no idea that I can play anything. Trust me — one way or another I’ll play something! And every show is completely improvised. So I’m just as surprised as the audience.”