Jeff Goldblum slipped behind the piano in Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel one afternoon this week, to tinkle away at “Stella by Starlight” and to practice for the shows that he and his jazz band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, will begin playing at the Café Carlyle on Tuesday night, in the group’s first New York engagement.
But, as Mr. Goldblum, the idiosyncratic star of films like “The Big Chill,”“The Fly” and “Jurassic Park,” impishly recounted the tale on Thursday morning, his impromptu rehearsal did not last long: He was asked to stop playing by two aggrieved hotel patrons sitting outside the bar in the lobby.
“I was crestfallen, mortified, stricken,” said Mr. Goldblum, 61, who naturally talks as if he were reading from a thesaurus. “I said: ‘So, so sorry. I was just playing a little piano.’ They said: ‘We love piano music. But that was discordant, whatever you were doing there.’ ”
Mr. Goldblum, whose professional trajectory has been as been as felicitous and haphazard as the sentences he enunciates, has sung and played piano for several years with his jazz quintet. (The other members are the guitarist John Storie, the bassist Tim Emmons, the tenor saxophonist Zane Musa and the drummer Kenny Elliott.)
Before a series of five Café Carlyle shows, he explained how this side project has played a central role in his artistic evolution and perfectly suits a life without too much premeditation. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q. Can you explain how your band owes its creation to both Woody Allen,your director on “Annie Hall,” and Peter Weller, your co-star in “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”?
A. Here’s what happened. Peter plays trumpet. So he would come over to my house, and the two of us would play a little bit. And then he did a Woody Allen movie [“Mighty Aphrodite”] and got to talking to Woody about us playing. Woody says: “You should do what I do, have a weekly gig, and you’ll get better. And it’ll be fun.” When Peter came back to L.A., we started to play out and about. And we got other musicians. In the years since, Peter’s living all over the world, but I’ve maintained this group. It’s Woody Allen’s fault, in a way.
Q. When were you introduced to the piano?
A. I’m from Pittsburgh and was one of four kids, so our parents got us music lessons, very wisely and nicely and life-changing-ly. I had a facility for it. But I didn’t yet know the joys of discipline. I’d be ill prepared for the lesson, and he [my teacher] wouldn’t be so happy. But then after a couple years, he gave me a piece to learn that was kind of jazzy. “Alley Cat,” and then “Stairway to the Stars,” maybe “Deep Purple,” with some interesting harmonies, chords, that were not in the exercises that I’d been doing. And that did something to my innards. That’s when I got better, because I wanted to learn that thing.
Q. How did you get your earliest professional gigs?
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A. I’d shut the door, sneakily, and take the Yellow Pages and look up cocktail lounges around Pittsburgh. I thought I was a scam artist of some kind — I said, “Hey, I hear you need a pianist there.” Many places would say, “We don’t even have a piano.” Some places would say, “Well, come over and play, and we’ll see.” And I got a couple of jobs that way. Now I’m 15, 16. These are ripe years for the idea of getting involved with show folk and girl singers, too.
Q. What has it been like to do this as an adult, and as an established actor?
A. When I first did it, I was like, “Gee, I’m playing out in public and with good musicians.” But it became, “Gee, I can do this, and it really is fun.” I like offering it to people. It’s different than practicing on your own. Even with acting, even early in rehearsal, I like to have another person there who’s watching, so you’re using the muscle that tells the story. I like this idea of sharing the thing. Music is meant to be like that.
Q. Is it possible, if events had turned out differently, that you’d now be making your living as a musician rather than as an actor?
A. One could imagine without too much difficulty. I’m not careerist about it. Acting was always a mission of passion, and the chips fell nicely for me. But in a different way, I was not out to accomplish anything or get anywhere with music. As I’m still not. We purposely did it under the radar and didn’t advertise, until the Playboy Jazz Festival somehow had us do it several years ago. They said, “We’re going to put you in the program.” And so I said, “Well, we don’t have a name.” I thought of this funny name.
A. She was a friend of my mom’s and my family, and she lived to be over 100.
Q. How do you choose the songs you play in your shows?
A. I like the technology of surprise built into it. I’m never doing anything that feels like a recital. It’s really more like a public rehearsal or a hangout. Somebody figures out, besides me, what we’re going to play. But they don’t tell me. I do a little unplanned extemporizing. And the band starts playing whatever they’re playing, and I mosey back over to the piano and I go, “Oh, I’ve never played that,” or “What’s that? That’s kind of interesting.” It’s nothing I’ve been clued-in about. That’s the show.
Q. Does it ever feel like a novelty act, that it’s keeping you from doing more substantial work?
A. First of all, my work of substance, so-called, it feels like I have enough. There’s something that could be low-class, lowbrow, and frivolous about it, and wasteful. But I like it. My sister is a wise person and has devoted her life to the arts, and I recently said to her: “Have I just become a song-and-dance man? Am I trying to work my way down the rungs of sophistication and substance?” She says, “Music, beyond language, comes from someplace deep in yourself and can be offered to somebody in a place that’s impactful.” That was encouraging.
Q. Are you someone who prefers not to have your life mapped out too far ahead of schedule?
A. At its best, life is surprising. Maybe because that’s my appetite, the frontier is uncharted. But it suits me fine. I’ve gotten used to that. Some people couldn’t bear it, but I like that life.
Q. You got engaged over the summer, to the actress Emilie Livingston. Will you play with your band at your own wedding?
A. Our band, and a piano, is going to be there. It’s going to be very small, but I’m going to play. I think. If I feel like it. And the musicians are going to be there, and they’re going to be playing. Isn’t that nice? I’m a nontraditionalist.
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Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.