More than 23 years after “Seinfeld” left the airwaves, a soundtrack album featuring its immortal theme (and 40 more minutes of classic “Seinfeld” music) is about to be released.
WaterTower Music will release the 33-track album on Friday, July 2, on all digital platforms. It will be the first time that any of the music for Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer has been available outside of its original television context.
“It was 30 years in the making,” says “Seinfeld” composer Jonathan Wolff, with a laugh, about the new release. He confesses he doesn’t know why there wasn’t a “Seinfeld” soundtrack while the series was on NBC between 1989 and 1998.
“It struggled for the first few seasons,” he points out. “We were an accidental hit. We were busy getting episodes out, and nobody was thinking about the music. And that’s OK.” The series was among TV’s most popular shows for its last five seasons.
The advantage of a decades-later album is that Wolff was able to look back on the music from all nine seasons and assemble a collection of fun tracks. Those familiar slap bass, synthesizer and mouth-popping sounds that accompanied Jerry Seinfeld’s opening monologue every week open the album, but Wolff also had music from 180 episodes to choose from.
How did he decide on the content? Wolff explains: “Was it the primary audio of a famous ‘Seinfeld’ scene? Did it contribute in a significant way to the comedy of the scene? And upon hearing it, will it serve as an instantly identifiable signature and bring warm fuzzies to a ‘Seinfeld’ fan who will remember that scene?”
The range of styles is surprisingly broad: hip-hop for “Kramer’s Pimpwalk,” happy whistling and guitars for “Jerry the Mailman,” a “Mission: Impossible” vibe for “Jerry vs. Newman Chase,” suspense-thriller scoring for “Cable Guy vs. Kramer Chase,” ’90s rock for “Kramer’s Boombox,” Eastern mysticism for “Peterman in Burmese Jungle,” and vintage guitar-and-harmonica blues for “Waiting for the Verdict” from the series finale.
A highlight turns out to be music that was intended for, but never heard in, the show. When Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) dates a saxophone player in a seventh-season episode, the original script called for several scenes in a jazz club where he was playing.
“So I needed to create a whole bunch of jazz, but all those scenes went bye-bye,” Wolff recalls. Three tuneful jazz numbers, reflective of Wolff’s pre-TV-scoring career as a pianist-arranger-conductor in both Hollywood and Las Vegas, remained, all featuring a four-man combo led by saxman Bob Sheppard.
Most of the “Seinfeld” music, however, was created by Wolff himself in his Burbank studio, where he scored an estimated 75 series, mostly sitcoms, over two decades beginning in the mid-1980s.
He got the “Seinfeld” gig because Jerry Seinfeld was unhappy with the original music in the 1989 pilot and his friend, comedian George Wallace – with whom Wolff had worked for years in Las Vegas – recommended the composer.
“His main concern was for the opening and closing credits, which were standup comedy,” Wolff recalls. “He would stand in front of the audience and tell jokes, they’d laugh, and he wanted music to go with it.” At the time, he notes, “sitcom theme music was melodic, with a lot of sassy saxophones and silly lyrics, but that was not going to work in this case.”
He told the comedian: “What if we consider using your voice, telling jokes, as the melody of the theme? My job will be to accompany you in a way that does not interfere with the audio of your standup routine. The organic nature of your human voice might go well with the organic nature of my lips, tongue and finger snaps, doing stuff like this (makes familiar ‘Seinfeld’ noises). He came over by himself, I put one of his monologues on the screen and showed him how I could build the music around it.
“The bass line was designed to stay in a frequency range that didn’t interfere with his voice. That slap-bass sound could start and stop to make audio holes for the timing of his jokes and his punchlines. It served as a kind of old-vaudeville rimshot for his jokes. It meant I was going to have to rebuild each piece of music for each monologue, to fit the timings and lengths, but that was OK with me. It helped give a signature to the show.”
NBC executives declared it “weird, distracting and annoying,” Wolff notes, but co-creator and producer Larry David refused to alter it, even after Wolff offered to find a new musical direction. “Larry was deeply offended, and didn’t change anything,” the composer says.
Wolff wrote 44 original themes, in all, during his time in network television, including “Will & Grace” and “Caroline in the City.” He retired to Louisville, Ky., in 2005, largely on the proceeds of his “Seinfeld” music after its huge success in syndication. He no longer composes (“it’s someone else’s turn,” he says) and now frequently lectures at colleges and universities.
Hulu’s “Seinfeld” deal recently expired; the series moves to Netflix in the fall.