When Jonathan Wolff left his native Louisville for Hollywood at 17, he only knew he wanted a career in music. He didn’t know what, precisely, that meant.
He slept little and took every job that came his way, he said.
Wolff, over the course of decades, developed a distinctive career in music—as the creator of theme songs and music for some of the most popular shows on television.
“Seinfeld” and “Will and Grace.” Maybe you know those shows’ distinctive theme songs. Wolff composed them.
I spoke with Wolff ahead of his appearance Wednesday for the Kentucky to the World at Actors Theater, which I’ll moderate. He said Louisville provided him the learning experiences that helped him thrive in Hollywood. He’s returned to the city and is focused on spending time with his family.Louisville's Jonathan Wolff talks about life composing music for some of the most popular TV shows like Seinfeld and Will and Grace. And about his return to Louisville and family.
Did being from Louisville help your career once you moved to Los Angeles?
I got great training in Louisville. I was really, really well prepared for work when I got to L.A. And the reason is, at the time Louisville was kind of a small pond. And as a kid I was able to work in professional situations where, if I had been in Chicago or New York or L.A., a 14-year-old kid would not have been able to work full time as a musician.
Also the training I got—I had teachers like Jamey Aebersold, who is a world renowned jazz legend and he was my teacher. The skills I learned in his basement I applied everyday in my career. Even though, as it turned out, I never became a jazz musician for my career. But those skills of improvisation and being able to visualize music in my head and make it so—make it recordable, make it communicable to other people, which is what improvisation is—also apply to composing and this I learned from Jamey Aebersold.
When you recall your body of work, is there one thing you worked on that you love or that you fell in love with while doing?
It’s hard to say that you favor any of your children more than the other and every time you create a piece of music it’s a part of you that you’re putting out there—and not that they’re all semi-precious gems. I wrote a lot of formulaic dreck—but there was kind of a special vault of music that had special meaning to me and to my staff, and there were probably 300 or 400 titles in there that had more meaning than the others.
Is there a television show that had more meaning than the others?
Well, you’re going to find a consistent theme here. The shows that enabled me to eventually spend more time with my family are the shows that are dearest to my heart. And those are the ones that became the most successful and ended up in perpetuity reruns. Shows like “Seinfeld,” “Will and Grace,” “Who’s the Boss?”, “Married with Children,” the most popular, most performed shows have a lot of meaning to me because of what they do for me and my family.
When did you move back to Louisville?
In 2005, my family and I escaped from Hollywood and found our way to Louisville, Kentucky, and we’ve been here ever since.
You love this city.
We do. We weren’t sure we were going to love it. The deal with my wife Stephi was that, “I’ll finish the work and you find a place for us to live.” And every place that she researched, every place that we talked about and visited and looked at websites we would compare ultimately to Louisville. We’d say, “Wow, this place is really great, but the parks in Louisville.” Or, “This place is really nice, we could live there. Hmm, it doesn’t really have a good airport to get in and out of. Louisville has a pretty good airport.” And after a while she said, “What are we doing? Let’s look at Louisville.”
Is music still one of your top passions?
Not really. I don’t really focus a lot on music anymore. I did so much music for so many years. I’m over did it. I loved my job. It was a great job. It was a great career. I had a wonderful wild ride, but I think I burnt out. I created way more music than any human is supposed to create. And when we moved to Louisville I just wanted to escape that for a while and let that part of my person, that part of my brain, rest—and it did. My kids were each at ages where they needed me and I focused a lot on that.
Who inspires you now?
The inspiration for most of what I do now is my family. What I do, when I do it, why I do it, it’s because I do it for my family. Maybe it’s out of some guilt because for so many years I was not available to them when my normal work week was 100 hours because I was doing so many TV shows at once that I would rarely come home. I would try to come home once a day, maybe have dinner, read a story, say goodnight and then go back to work. But that didn’t always happen. Sometimes there were days at a time that I didn’t come home. It’s possible that the reason I focus so much on my family now is because I wasn’t able to do it then. So my inspiration mostly comes from that.”