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Jeff Goldblum talks Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, the origins of his piano playing and more

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: July 23, 2023, 6:26am

ANAHEIM, Calif. — For Jeff Goldblum, the first step to founding the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra came when the Fly and Robocop discovered a mutual love of jazz.

“I usually say it’s been 30 years now – let me see,” Goldblum says of the jazz band he’s led between movie and TV roles for years. “When did I do ‘Buckaroo Banzai?’ Because that’s when Peter Weller and I started to play.”

After meeting on the ‘80s cult movie, Goldblum, who went on to play the title role in “The Fly,” and Weller, who did the same in “Robocop,” soon decided to make music together.

“He’d come over to my house and just play through the fakebook,” Goldblum says of trumpet-playing Weller. “And then he said, ‘Hey, I think we can play out and about. We got a guitarist and we started to play right here at Sunset Plaza, at Le Petit Four, on Sundays for brunch.

“We set up a little electric keyboard and basically it evolved from there,” he says. “And it’s been going since then whenever I wasn’t working.”

That earlier quartet, intentionally misnamed Three Guys From Italy, eventually dissolved when Weller’s career took him away from Los Angeles for longer periods. Goldblum decided not only to keep his side gig going but to expand it into a big band named for no reason in particular after an elderly friend of his mother in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

Jeff Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra play the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Friday. In an interview edited for clarity and length — and conducted hours before the Screen Actors Guild went on strike, shutting down movie- and TV-related publicity by actors — he talked about the origins of his piano playing, the appeal it has for fans from all of parts of his career, and more.

Q: Tell me about how you took up the piano as a child.

A: Here’s what happened. There were four kids in the Goldblum family in Pittsburgh and they gave us all music lessons amongst other things. I remember my older brother doing a little clarinet for a time, and my sister and I kind of took to the piano. I really took to it, but I wasn’t such a great disciplined student, so I would sort of dread when (my piano teacher) would come over and I hadn’t practiced.

Until a couple of years in, he gave me an arrangement after I developed my chops with John Thompson books and Czerny books and all that stuff. He gave me an arrangement of ‘Alley Cat,’ and then another one that was kind of jazzy and syncopated. Another one of ‘Stairway to the Stars.’ And I was just crazy about it.

Q: How did you move further into jazz, and when did you first start to perform?

A: My parents found this teacher, Frank Cunimondo, whom you can still look up in Pittsburgh, and he did gigs around there. He was a musician. I went to his house, in the basement, on his piano, and we did, you know, harmony stuff and chords, and modes and improvisation. That’s when I first really started to do that.

I found in the Yellow Pages, under cocktail lounges, a bunch of places that I called that I thought I was being clever with, and said, ‘I understand you need a piano player over there.’ They’d say, ‘No, you’ve been misinformed, we don’t even have a piano.’ Most of them. But then some said, ‘Oh, yeah. How old are you?’ [Ed. note: Goldblum was 15] I said, ‘Well, da-da-da-da.’ They said, ‘OK, well, come on over and play it. Let’s see what you can do.’

Q: You already knew you wanted to be an actor by then. How’d you manage not to drop the piano entirely in pursuit of that?

A: Once I left high school, I went to New York with I was 17, and I kept a piano in my apartment. And then my first gig was a Broadway musical in the Delacorte Theatre, Shakespeare in the Park. It was the rock music version of ‘Two Gentleman of Verona.’ So I get that, and then was on Broadway for a year, and in the pit was my friend Tom Pearson, who later went on to score some interesting movies. We had some lessons and saw some people playing around New York in the early ‘70s.

Anyway, I had brushes with piano here and then snuck some piano into movies and plays a little bit. Until we come up to where were talking about and Peter Weller said, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play. Let’s have a band.’

Q: I saw you play two years at the Arroyo Seco Festival in Pasadena, and I have friends who went to your residency at Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Feliz. Now you’re playing a formal concert hall. How do you plan out when and where to play?

A: We did Glastonbury Festival (in England) one year and we just came back from doing something in England. We were at Ronnie Scott’s again, and another big theater there. And we were in Berlin and Paris, kind of supporting this third album that recently came out called ‘Plays Well With Others.’ Kelly Clarkson has a song on it as do other people.

And so that’s how it happens. Tom Lewis at Decca, they go, ‘Hey are you guys going to do some shows? It would help. That’s what we usually do with albums that we release.’ And then (band manager) Jon Mastro kind of arranges it and I tag along.

Q: How do you decide what to play and record? Is it you, the band, or both?

A: It’s democratic like you said. People say, ‘Hey, what about this?’ And there’s that ‘60s kind of Blue Note stuff. There are personal favorites. You know, ‘Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day’ that was a favorite of mine, that I had the idea to do. So from all over. And when we work with singers, sometimes we ask them what they want to do. In the case of Kelly Clarkson, I think (bassist) Alex Frank had the idea to mesh ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ with the jazz standard ‘Strollin’.

Q: When I’ve seen you, you do a lot of crowd interaction. Talking to fans, playing movie trivia with them, that kind of thing. Is a theater show like the Segerstrom one like that or something more formal?

A: I believe it kind of remains the same as it is in any of those places. I come out early usually and just talk to them, because I’m interested. I’m actually interested in who’s coming. And we’ve never been to Orange County to do a gig. This will be fascinating to see who shows up.

Q: Is there a typical mix of people who come to a Mildred Snitzer Orchestra show? Movie fans? Jazz fans? Different periods of your movie work?

A: All of those. I think there are people who are familiar with our TV appearances (playing music) and maybe our albums, that have seen us and want to see us again. And then people who are curious, maybe don’t know that much about my musical life and the band, but have some interest in and connection to some of the movies.

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Because I’ve been doing this a while, and the popular ones, like the ‘Jurassic’ movies, and then ‘Independence Day’ and ‘The Fly’ and all sorts of things. And recently, you know, I had a little thing in Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City.’

And maybe people know that I’m involved in ‘Wicked’ so I’ll be happy to tell them what I know about that.

Q: In ‘Wicked,’ you’re the Wizard of Oz. In the upcoming Netflix series ‘Kaos’ you play Zeus. Why are you getting cast as all these great and powerful deities now?

A : I don’t know, I always seem to find all these. Just as in a different way, Grandmaster, in the Thor movies. But it’s a lovely world. I don’t know why there seems to be a link between a couple of them. I mean, in the Wes Anderson movie I do play an alien, or an actor playing an alien.

I guess Grandmaster is not from this planet. Nor is Mount Olympus, the residence of Zeus. One of these days I’m sure I’ll get a chance to play somebody from Pittsburgh or something.