• Jam Session alerts

The new Mike Wofford biopic opens with the pianist approaching a Steinway grand. He shuffles some sheet music, then punches out a little Horace Silver tune. The film maker leaves just enough of the Silver lead-in to establish Wofford’s credentials: stellar, but relatively unknown outside of jazz circles.

“My mother was a semi professional singer when I was very young,” Wofford says to the camera, “when we first moved to San Diego from Texas, where I was born.” He says she rented an upright, and that’s where it all began.

“I must have taken to it early.”

Wofford is the latest subject in a series presented by a local non-profit called the Snapshots Music and Arts Foundation. Producer/director Jonathan Bewley says he decided on Wofford because of the poverty of information available on the national-league jazz man with a style critics have called "personal, elegant, ripping at times, but with a mysterious ability to charm sounds from a piano without appearing to manhandle the keys."

“There was just this vacuum of biographical information around Mike. I started pushing the idea to Hofmann [jazz flutist Holly Hofmann is married to Wofford and was likewise profiled by Bewley] that it would be a good time to begin putting material together.” One thing led to another, including Wofford’s consent. He’s not shy, but neither does he seek the spotlight. “Holly Hofmann,” Bewley says, “was the instigator.”

Wofford grew up in San Diego but was living in Los Angeles during the 1960s, 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.”

Meaning that Wofford can pretty much play anything be it pop, jazz, or rock. These days he favors straight-ahead jazz, but he was Ella Fitzgerald’s music director/pianist for a decade. Then, there’s Phil Spector.

“I was on one of those legendary sessions where he shot off a gun.” Wofford worked on the first version of John Lennon’s Rock ’n’ Roll. He also performed with pop stars Harry Nilsson, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and contemporary jazz leaders such as Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, and Benny Golson.

“He does not talk about any of it,” Bewley says. “I had to pull this stuff out of him: what about that time you played with the Jackson family? He does not bring this stuff up.” The Snapshots crew filmed both at the Hofmann/Wofford residence and they shot a series of private shows at the Athenaeum in La Jolla.

He thinks musicians will find a lot to learn by listening to and watching Wofford. For example, “He said he was returning more and more to melody in the playing of jazz. It’s foundational. Maybe all that got lost and abstracted during the bebop era.”

Bewley is Snapshot’s producer, director, and writer. He also works as a freelancer in video production. And, he plays the drums. “One of the smartest things I did was figure out that there are already a lot of great studio drummers out there.”

It began as a love of music, he says of Snapshots, as a means to preserve artist’s work on film. Arts Access Through Film is in Bewley’s mission statement. He favors jazz, classical, world, and crossover. The Wofford documentary is available to watch free of charge at www.snapshotsfoundation.com. Thus far, Bewley’s produced documentaries about local performers including Holly Hofmann, Anoushka (daughter of Ravi) Shankar, Celino Romero of the Del Mar-based Romero guitar quartet, Mark Dresser, and Gregory Page.

  • Jam Session alerts


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader