BRUCE WOLOSOFF: Pianist And Composer

Ilene Roizman | November 16, 2000

At the tender age of 2, Bruce Wolosoff knew he would be a pianist. "But the teacher said my hands were too small," he said recently, "and to come back when I was 3." His older sister had been taking lessons on the family piano, and the young boy had a sense that there was something special about the instrument.

He decided that "different sounds on the piano can change the room," he said, and "certain notes became my friends." Quite a revelation for a toddler and quite a vivid memory for a man to hold onto more than 40 years later.

Today, Mr. Wolosoff is a composer and musician working on a commission for the Smithsonian Institution in celebration of the millennium. It's the fifth time since 1992 that the Smithsonian has commissioned a piece from the composer, and the seventh time an orchestra will play a piece of his there.

Struck By Lightning

Throughout his childhood, Mr. Wolosoff was encouraged by his parents, who valued music. But, he said, "I've had a bifurcated musical existence my whole life." There were formal lessons and concert performances of classical music, and there were the jazz and boogie-woogie the young musician loved. It was a matter of "this is what I do publicly, this is what I do privately."

Mr. Wolosoff, who grew up in Great Neck, received a bachelor's degree in music from Bard College in 1977, then headed to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. There, he met Jaki Byard, an experience Mr. Wolosoff compared to being struck by lightning.

As the aphorism goes, when the student is ready the teacher appears. "I knew he was my teacher," Mr. Wolosoff said, and he "became a disciple."

At the time of Mr. Byard's death by gunshot in February 1999 at the age of 76, a story in The New York Times called him "one of the jazz world's most enduring and eclectic musicians." In Mr. Wolosoff's view, "he had the whole history of music at his fingertips and used it like Dali." The composer has recently completed a suite in Mr. Byard's memory called "many worlds."

In 1980, Mr. Wolosoff received a master's degree in music from the New England Conservatory and returned to New York to study further with Mr. Byard, as well as with Richard Goode, a classical piano teacher whom he called "the pre-eminent musician's musician performing on piano today."

Continuing to take "what I thought was the high road," he said, he went on writing works from the traditional European model, while at the same time feeding his passion for jazz and blues. It was not easy, he said, to have a foot in each musical realm.

On The Ferry

Having written himself into a corner, he happened to meet William Bolcom, a well-known pianist and composer, on the ferry from Long Island to Connecticut. Someone was playing what sounded like a familiar piece on a guitar; it was in fact a Bolcom piece, Mr. Bolcom was on board, and the guitarist introduced them.

What stuck in Mr. Wolosoff's mind were these words of wisdom from the elder musician: "Just come from the fire. That's the only thing that matters."

This inspired the composer to look within and rediscover that what he really wanted to write was boogie- woogie. "I was claiming that energy, that enthusiasm from my childhood," he said. It's ironic that, as he was letting his "blues and jazz passion come to the fore," the Smithsonian came along with a commission for something classical. He has combined the two with this latest work.

The Right Language

The piece, titled "Blues for the New Millennium," "uses a jazz and blues-based vocabulary without sounding tongue-in-cheek," Mr. Wolosoff explained. "It's the language I grew up with and it's the language I speak as a composer." The work will premier at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington on Jan. 27.

Serendipitous occurrences such as meeting Mr. Bolcom occur with some regularity in Mr. Wolosoff's life, which he finds utterly delightful. In 1984, he was an artist in residence in the Great Neck schools; years later he met up with a student who, he was happy to hear, had followed in his teacher's footsteps.

The artist Jack Youngerman's son "was my college roommate at Bard," he said. "He's now a composer in France, living with small children. We're living sort of parallel lives," said Mr. Wolosoff, who, with his wife, Margaret Garrett, has two young daughters.

Musical Portrait

And he has a connection to The East Hampton Star. In the early 1990s, while living in New York City, he said, "I got a phone call from a poet named David Rattray who heard I was an unusual teacher. He came to me with an unusual project. He wanted to produce Elizabethan keyboard music."

The late Mr. Rattray, who was also a serious student of the piano and later played clavichord, grew up in East Hampton, a member of the Rattray family who own The Star.

When he begins composing, Mr. Wolosoff has a specific instrument in mind, and frequently a specific musician as well. "I picture that person playing. I see them holding their instrument, and how it would be in the moment of performance," he said. What results is a musical portrait.

Charmed By Island

When he finishes writing the scores, "then they have to enter the world somehow," he said. "And that's through the post office," to send out his work. In particular, the Shelter Island Heights Post Office, which is one of the charms that drew him and his wife to the island, he admitted with a chuckle.

Ms. Garrett is a former ballet dancer who decided to get out of dancing early enough to pursue another career, which is painting "beautiful, lyrical abstract canvases," as her husband described them.

Their children are Juliet, 6 1/2, and Katya, just 2. The couple had lived in lower Manhattan, but "then my daughter was born and it was a no-brainer," he said of moving to the East End.

Teaching Too

Besides the quaint post office, Mr. Wolosoff and Ms. Garrett were also charmed by the open sky and quiet of Shelter Island. It takes some planning to get Juliet to and from the Hayground School in Bridgehampton every day, especially with the North Haven bridge out of commission, but they seem confident that it's worth it.

And Mr. Wolosoff will be bringing his teaching skills to the school as well. Hayground has no music program now, attempts to start one in the school's five-year history having been unsuccessful.

"It's a very special place with very special needs," said Mr. Wolosoff. "You have to be sensitive to what's going on there and not superimpose something on top of it."

"From The Soul"

Instead of getting kids to follow a standard method of learning notes and songs before making a personal connection with the music, he believes in beginning "from the soul, from the inside, then build on that." He encourages kids to play with musical instruments, to explore the sounds and their own feelings. That's how Jimi Hendrix learned to play guitar, he pointed out. Just picked it up - upside down, no less - and fooled around with it.

Though he's been able to support himself and his family as a musician and composer, Mr. Wolosoff admits to relative obscurity. But it's not fame and fortune he's after.

"Having music is being rich. Having something you love deeply is being rich," he said. Of course, it also helps to have the natural talent to bring that love affair to fruition.