“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”
-Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
Joshua Wolff moved to Harlem in the 1990s to become a more highly-evolved craftsman in his jazz-musician mission. What he may never have expected was as a part of this quest, he would also become a brightly beloved member of not just the jazz scene, but his adopted Harlem community as a whole.
A native of Lake Stevens, Washington, Josh began his career playing guitar and saxophone, and by high school he was already performing at jazz festivals worldwide. As a young man, driven by his passion and the truth of his art, Josh would spend countless nights learning with his ears and eyes on Seattle’s jazz scene. Un-distracted by the popularity of the grunge movement there at the time, he stuck to the songs and lyrics that held a timeless, poignantly human touch that had enveloped him like a sweet strain of George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” come to life.
After excelling in his studies of music at the University of Washington, he was told by close friends that it was critical and necessary for him to move to New York City. With his brother David already hard at work as a musician in Harlem, Josh took to the challenge with indomitable fervor. Soon he found himself enraptured in his own personal Harlem Renaissance, learning firsthand from the greats and contributing to the vibrant jazz scene recognized worldwide as the birthplace of an art form.
Performing with creative colleagues such as Mark Murphy and Maria Muldaur, Josh honed his craft touring in America and internationally. He appreciated the jazz scene in Japan so much that he was fond of carrying around a variety of phrase books so that he might better facilitate conversations on his performances, interpreting icons like Ray Charles and George Gershwin not just musically, but interpersonally with his faraway fans.
At venues outside of the luminous New York scene, audiences were enthralled to watch Josh completely captivate a crowd with his striking skill, even if the crowd was one that he’d never met before, the venue one he’d never played before, the band a collective he’d just met earlier that day. His hours of practice had already perfected his professionalism. Numerous beautiful singers cherished his handiness at effortlessly transposing music into different keys, immediately giving them a fresh range of musical options to work with. Nicknamed “Elephant Ears” in his youth, Josh’s talent for innately comprehending, processing, and interpreting music was admirable to his peers and audiences alike. This also brilliantly facilitated his career as a music educator, giving lessons in vocals and piano to a spectacular array of people from all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life.
Wherever Josh went, his love of all forms of knowledge made his life and the lives of those around him truly rich, whether he was telling jokes, stories, or just carrying on an ever-lively conversation. His knowledge of art, gleaned from wandering the halls of Louvre and other institutions, also infused his splendid shared knowledge, and his appreciation for great works across a variety of genres and periods led him to divine the inspirational artistic mantra of “Picasso, Picasso, Picasso.”
His appreciation for all forms of knowledge and truth was particularly well expressed where he held court in his diverse, ever-engaging neighborhood. At Soundz, the bar below his Morningside Heights apartment that was the locus of many friends and adventures, chats with Josh were a welcome staple in the days before faces buried in smartphones or glued to omnipresent TVs. Once engaged, Josh’s humor was well-timed, witty, and always thoughtfully observational. One evening during a refurbishment of Broadway, we speculated as to what might be underneath the torn-up cement. With a look of sincere pondering, Josh nodded and said, “Hardwood floors.”
Sometimes things could get scary, and Josh would respond with a preternatural calm. One evening at a local bar, a hoodlum tried to pick a fight with Josh, and decided to escalate their discussion by smashing a full-size wooden bar chair over his head. With casual ease, Josh lifted one arm, blocked the attack, and forced his assailant backwards under the thug’s own weight, all in one fell move. A kind man, Josh didn’t pursue the attack, and instead he turned to the shocked girl next to him (who would have been directly in the chair’s brutal path) and asked if she was okay. Where other men might have beaten their foe much further out of pride or fury, Josh simply allowed him to be removed from the premises, preferring to maintain the integrity of his affable demeanor as well as the hands that were the tools of his trade.
A natural storyteller, he could expound on any number of themes from literature, news, or experience, and stories about his family were always delivered with luminous love. Whether he was proudly discussing his brothers’ talents and extended families, his tremendous work ethic instilled early on by his father, or his mom’s astounding abilities in the adventure of raising four boys, it was like they all lived just down the street, and not on the opposite coast. His storytelling found a new outlet in his work with the “Harlem Today” magazine, in which he contributed to expressing love for local events and restaurants. Though he eventually rose to status as a head editor of the publication, even the most minute detail of the deliciousness inherent to a local barbeque sandwich or an innovative pork bun would not escape his meticulous reporting. Even though he constantly contributed to the community with his friendship and musical talent, his research and writing took loving his neighbors to the next level. As Kurt Vonnegut, a former Harlemite (and one of Josh’s favorite authors) wisely noted, “So it goes.”
Before succumbing suddenly to pancreatic cancer on May 19th, Josh’s final concert had been a wildly successful piano duel, which began as an ever-escalating lifelong musical challenge with his brother David and ended in front of a sold-out 700-seat theater in North Carolina. With wit, charm, and an abundance of aural excellence, the Wolff brothers squared off behind the ivories, one-upping each other with lively and diverse renditions of “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Josh concluded the show with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, a fitting finale. Although the concert was in North Carolina, Josh had used the quintessentially New York ethos of Frank Sinatra: he’d made it here, and thanks to that, he could make it anywhere.
So it did go, and so far. Armed with only a trusted New York brother and scores of memorized songs, he’d set out to chase what other people might have called a dream, but what he knew as a mission. To him and through him, the art of jazz music became not just some abstract New York notion from the days of the Harlem Renaissance, but rather an evolving yet timeless means of expressing complex emotions through poetic lyrics and truly elegant musical stylings. Most beautifully, outstanding as his passion and performance of jazz was, his love of the craft of music itself knew no bounds. Piano and guitar jam sessions at his apartment were joyous multi-genre endeavors. As his friends enjoyed seeing Josh play at the Metropolitan Room or Birdland, he’d be similarly smiling watching his pals’ raucous rock band play at Dinosaur or Le Poisson Rouge. He understood implicitly, both from his teaching and his own experience, that the art form of music was best enjoyed like many forms of riches, knowledge and truth: with other people.
Ever a student as well as a teacher, Josh was fond of citing a quote one of his early musical mentors had taught him, that he in turn used for his own pupils. He said that every time he taught a lesson, it was like giving the student a big bag of groceries, and if the student didn’t listen properly or practice, it was like seeing pieces of food fall out of the bag, one by one. Thus, the students would always have to stay devoted in their lessons, lest they lose this very special nourishment. What Josh gave to his family, friends, and community was enough groceries to cook a feast, and by keeping his memory alive, that special sustenance will last us a lifetime. Many are proud to have been able to sit at that table, and to him we will always raise a glass.
For donations to The Joshua Wolff Memorial Music Education Fund, please contact The Carolina Philharmonic, 460 Midland Dr., Pinehurst, NC, 2837. Tax-deductible donations can be made by calling 910-687-4746.