Pianist Michael Wolff Brings Close-To-Home Inspiration To Film

Musician connects spontaneity of jazz, Tourette's Syndrome with 'The Tic Code.'

In his 1985 best-seller "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," noted neurologist Oliver Sacks pointed out the connection between jazz performance and Tourette's Syndrome.

"Sudden and wild extemporizations would arise from a tic or a compulsive hitting of a drum and would instantly be made the nucleus of a wild and wonderful improvisation, so that the 'sudden intruder' would be turned to brilliant advantage," Sacks wrote. "In its 'highest' forms, Tourette's Syndrome involves every aspect of the affective, the instinctual and imaginative life."

Pianist Michael Wolff, 48, knows whereof Sacks speaks. A jazz musician suffering from a mild case of Tourette's, he composed the score for "The Tic Code," a new film about a 12-year-old piano prodigy (Christopher George Marquette) who suffers from Tourette's, a neurological disorder most commonly associated with random vocal outbursts and uncontrollable twitches and tics.

Wolff's wife, Polly Draper, 44, wrote the film and co-stars as the boy's mom. She is best known for her role in the television series "thirtysomething."

In the film, Gregory Hines plays a brilliant saxophonist also afflicted with Tourette's, whom Draper introduces to her son. A relationship develops between the Hines and Draper characters, and "The Tic Code" thus covers interracial romance, the art of jazz performance and the alienation and social isolation that accompanies Tourette's.

The film has won prestigious awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor (Marquette) at the Berlin Film Festival, Best Picture and the Grand Jury Prize at Italy's Giffoni Festival, Best Picture/Reel-to-Reel Award at the Vancouver Film Festival and the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Musical from the Hamptons International Film Festival in New York.

Emotional Freedom

"There's a total connection with Tourette's and jazz because of the emotional freedom," Wolff said. " 'The Tic Code' is about a person who has no inhibitors in their brain, so everything comes freely — and that's what jazz is."

Wolff's jazz résumé runs deep. He's been a sideman in the groups of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, vibist Cal Tjader, tenor great Sonny Rollins and trumpeter Tom Harrell. The pianist was musical director for vocalist Nancy Wilson and has released highly regarded solo projects.

Two releases in 1995, 2:00 AM and Jumpstart!, team Wolff with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tony Williams. In 1997 Wolff released Pool of Dreams, a duet with tenor saxophonist Alex Foster, and 1998 brought Portraiture, the Blues Period, a quintet project. It features the song "Blues Period."

Wolff had a day job in the early '90s as the leader of the "Arsenio Hall Show" band, which is where he met Draper when she was on the show as a guest.

Wolff leads his own group, Impure Thoughts, which will put out a CD on Oct. 10 on Indianola Records.

Life Translated On Film

"The Tic Code" could have been some sappy drivel, or as Draper put it, a "disease-of-the-week" thing. But it works because of its sharp writing and close-to-home inspiration.

"Both Greg's character and the kid are me," Wolff said. "It is kind of based on my situation of being a musician with Tourette, and Greg represents my denial. I didn't grow up like these kids where they have been diagnosed their whole lives. Things have changed in early diagnostic tests and so on. So the film is not really autobiographical but inspired by me.

"Look, we all have ailments or conditions or whatever, that we are not happy about," Wolff continued. "When I was on the road with Cal Tjader in 1972, we were one f---ed up crew. One guy had this stutter, one guy had a bad heroin habit, one was a drunk, and here I am with my tics. But when we hit the bandstand, man, it was beautiful."

A moving scene in the end of the film depicts this sentiment. Sitting out on a pier, overlooking the Hudson River, the Hines character talks to the kid:

"It's all relative. You know, I was on the road in '72 with one guy who stuttered, one guy who shot up in the back of the bus every hour and one guy who had no legs, and compared to them I was the pillar of the community. But we were like angels as far as anybody cared. Because our sh-- was so tight."

Soundtrack Crew

The "Tic Code" soundtrack was released Aug. 8 on Razor & Tie Records. It features Wolff, Foster on reeds, John B. Williams on bass and Dick Berk on drums. This is the group seen backing up Hines in the film.

On the soundtrack, Wolff plays all of the kid's piano parts. "It was a challenge to play on the soundtrack," he said. "When trying to play like a really good 12-year-old, I had to play more blues-based riffs. But when [Hines] is playing, then we could open up a bit more."

Also included on the disc are original recordings by Wayne Shorter ("Ponta de Areia"), Adderley ("Mercy Mercy Mercy") and Thelonious Monk ("Straight, No Chaser," "Don't Blame Me.")

"The Tic Code" is playing in New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and its run will extend into San Francisco, Boston and Chicago on Sept. 1.