Tuesday, August 19, 2014

‘Seinfeld’ composer on Louisville, retirement and 25 years in TV

There may come a day when we’re not still watching, referencing or thinking about “Seinfeld,” but that day’s not coming soon. “Modern Seinfeld” is a hot spot on Twitter, spoofing how much urban life has changed since the series ended in 1998.

Two years after its finale, the show’s composer, Louisville native Jonathan Wolff, decided to also end his run as the king of TV sitcom music. The empire he had built was so large that he gave himself five more years to wind down, hand off jobs to trusted associates, and truly walk away from it all.

"Seinfeld” wasn’t Wolff’s first break, or his last, but that rubbery, slap bass-driven, mouth-popping theme will likely be his most popular contribution to the world. The very retired Wolff will make a rare local appearance at Actors Theater on Wednesday, Aug. 20, for an edition of the speakers’ series “Kentucky to the World,” moderated by WFPL’s Devin Katayama for Idea Festival’s IF University. The talk was originally scheduled at the Green Building but high ticket demand caused its move to the larger venue. All this for an event Wolff said he agreed to for a very specific reason.

“Funny thing about that,” he says. “The only reason I’m doing this is because my wife told me to say yes.”

Born in 1958, the Atherton grad’s career in music began in Louisville before he had finished high school. A student of jazz legend Jamey Aebersold, Wolff was playing at parties, in restaurants and hotels, for theater groups, at fashion shows and composing music for local TV stations while still a teen.

Wolff moved to Los Angeles for college and stayed for almost 30 years, adding some 80 or so TV jobs along the way: “Who’s the Boss,” “Married with Children,” “Will & Grace,” “The King of Queens” and “Reba” are among the best-known.

He made a lot of money, but he also worked a lot of 20-hour days. His relationships with his wife and four children (then between 5 and 10 years old when they moved to Louisville) suffered, and his decision to start a new life at 47 coincided with a change in TV programming, as reality shows took over some of the slots previously occupied by the scripted series’ he had mastered. After becoming a dominant force in a notoriously fickle business, he also began to see that he would never again be the hot, flavor-of-the-month discovery so vital to that world. When the Wolffs’ youngest children, twins, were babies, the couple looked at each other and agreed, “This can’t go on forever.”

“There’s this idea people go by – ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as enough money,’” says Wolff. “We decided to challenge that and say, ‘However much we’ve got, that’ll be enough. In 2005, we’ll leave. We’ll go someplace.’”

Why Louisville? It wasn’t about it being home for him, or having family here, at first. The Wolffs looked at several possibilities, but everywhere they went, they would compare those places to Louisville, where real estate prices were especially attractive to a family used to paying L.A. prices.

“We’d go somewhere and it’d be pretty good. But we’d go, ‘I wish they had parks like Louisville.’ Or, ‘There’s no real airport. We’d have to drive for an hour to get anywhere.’ … ‘There’s no real arts here. We’d have to go travel to hear music or see a play.’”

The parents have stayed busy raising their kids – Wolff proudly declares that he goes to every extracurricular activity – and working on house projects. He doesn’t watch much TV these days.

He promises show business stories at the “Kentucky to the World” talk – ask him to tell you about how he wound up onscreen on the ’80s soap “Knots Landing” – but he doesn’t miss it for a moment.

“No,” he says quickly, laughing. “It became a grind. The routine was really brutal when you’re doing as much work as I was doing. I burned out … The human body does really bad things when you go for days without sleep.”

After almost a decade back, few locals know that the guy whose music they hear in reruns every night at 11 is their neighbor.

“I’m in kind of a self-imposed Hollywood witness relocation program,” Wolff jokes.

Jonathan Wolff
Aug. 20, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main St.
2nd Floor
$25; 5:30 p.m.

photos by Isaac Wolf

c. 2014 Insider Louisville

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