Jazz pianist Mike Wofford once performed with Michael Jackson. Sort of. “This was when it was the Jackson Five,” says Wofford. “It was a summer TV show. I’m thinking it was about 1969 or 1970…I’m guessing he was about 12. He was still a kid. He was still Michael.”
Wofford was living in Los Angeles at the time, working as a studio musician and playing in television-studio bands for programs such as The Bill Cosby Show and The Jacksons. “This was ‘the Five,’ you know, and they’d had those first big hits, and I worked in the band that backed them for several months.” Wofford remembers Michael as “in the studio situation with primarily adults, and in those situations he wasn’t probably as outgoing and as confident maybe to chitchat with all of us. He was kind of a shy kid…at this point, it [the Jackson Five] was all still kind of a beautiful success story.”
Talk to any of Wofford’s former employers, and you’ll hear that Wofford can pretty much play anything pop, jazz, or rock. He was Ella Fitzgerald’s music director/pianist for a decade. Phil Spector? “I was on one of those legendary sessions where he shot off a gun.” Wofford worked on John Lennon’s Rock ’n’ Roll. “He was nice. I talked to him a little bit.” Wofford also performed with pop stars Harry Nilsson, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and contemporary jazz leaders such as Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, and Benny Golson.
Now Mike Wofford follows his passion for straight-ahead jazz. How to describe his style? Personal, elegant, ripping at times, but with that mysterious ability to charm sounds from a piano without appearing to manhandle the keys. Do the heavyweight pop credentials dilute the jazz? “I’m not a purist,” he says, “where you have to do one thing or another.”
MIKE WOFFORD: Athenaeum Jazz at the Neurosciences Institute, Saturday, November 28, 8 p.m. 858-454-5872. $25 members; $30 nonmembers.