Give me ‘Doctor Jazz’

Whether medical man or piano man, the practice makes perfect

BY TOM CHESEK Correspondent


Physician and jazz keyboardist Art Topilow will sit in with the Top Dror Jazz Band in a special Fourth of July concert at the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center in Deal Park.Physician and jazz keyboardist Art Topilow will sit in with the Top Dror Jazz Band in a special Fourth of July concert at the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center in Deal Park. Viewers of the hit TV series “House” are wise to the Hollywood shorthand by which the character of Dr. House is positioned as a maverick; an innovative outside-the-boxster, especially as compared to his director of oncology pal Dr. Wilson.

House – a risk-taking saver of guest-star lives – is cynical, unshaven, pops pills like Pez, and has been known to express his more soulful side by playing jazz piano. Wilson, by contrast, is clean-cut, responsible, usually chasing the wrong diagnosis – and, without a creative outlet, generally quite dull.

Here in real-world New Jersey, however, the head of the oncology department is also the piano player, and the Shore area can proudly claim Dr. Arthur Topilow as one of the country’s pre-eminent researchers and practitioners in the fields of hematology and clinical oncology – at the same time welcoming Art Topilow as one of the baddest, most respected cats on the East Coast jazzscape.

By day, Topilow functions as director of hematology/medical oncology at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune; a facility for which the Wayside resident also serves as chair of the Axelrod Research Section.

A partner in a busy Manasquan private practice and a retired major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (where he served as director of the hospital at Fort Dix), the doctor has authored more than 30 published articles and abstracts in prestigious medical journals, and has furthermore been regarded as an authority on topics that range from radar navigation, to, we’re not making this up, the hunting of exotic frogs.

Ah, but by night – that mood-indigo time when the cats traditionally come out to play – Topilow trades the Hippocratic Oath for the more hipster-cratic code of the improviser’s craft: investing his keyboard endeavors with the same brand of scholarly intensity and passionate mastery that he brings to his much-lauded medical career.

Far more than just a hobby, Topilow’s musical explorations have gained him notice as a soloist, bandleader and accompanist – and his role as organizer of jazz concert events at the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center in Deal Park has netted him a host of new fans and heavyweight friends.

The JCC jazz series continues on July Fourth with a concert by the New York-based Top Dror Jazz Band, a septet fronted by noted saxophonist-arranger Dror Ben-Gur (who’s worked with everyone from the Israeli Philharmonic to the Manhattan Transfer) and spotlighting the vocal talents of Lorenn Peer (acclaimed soloist with the Israel Defense Forces band).

For the Wednesday evening event, Topilow will sit in; contributing some solo numbers and playing sideman to vocalist Peer.

The events at the Grant Avenue center have proven to be a vehicle by which Topilow has achieved some big dreams in his sideline gig.

Two of the past JCC offerings have featured the moonlighting M.D. in piano-duet sets with an artist he describes as “one of the greats” – the eclectic keyboard whiz and composer Dick Hyman.

It’s an association that began when Topilow was accepted into the Jazz Piano Master Class at New York’s 92nd Street Y (where Hyman served as jazz artistic director until 2004), eventually being invited to take part in the Y’s highly regarded Jazz in July concert series.

“I asked Hyman if he would consider playing the JCC,” explains Topilow, adding that he was taken aback when the legendary musician agreed, with the provision that he “get two pianos.”

Still, although New York-born, Bayonne-bred Arthur was a serious piano player long before he became a doctor – performing throughout his med-school years in hotel bands in the Catskills- he “never seriously considered playing music full time. Back then, a career in music meant classical music.”

It should be noted that the jazz-loving doctor is also a proficient interpreter of the classical piano repertoire. A personal goal was achieved in 1985, when he played Schumann’s Piano Concerto on stage with the Garden State Orchestra.

It should also be noted that Arthur’s brother, Carl, is a highly trained clarinetist and an accomplished conductor, who wields the baton for the Cleveland Pops Orchestra.

The brothers Topilow have performed in Italy and have collaborated on a trio of CD releases, the most recent being last year’s “Music of America” on medical publisher Ray McMahon’s Jazz Medicine label, an imprint that spotlights music made exclusively by medical professionals (see the Web site

Topilow, whose “dream” collaborations would have to include duets with vocalists Tony Bennett and Maureen McGovern, continues to perform at Jersey Shore parks, festivals and fundraisers with such seasoned pros as bassist Gary Mazzaroppi and guitarist Vinnie Correo.

While the pianist has worked with a variety of vocalists, his own vocal contributions tend toward such classic novelty and patter songs as Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie” and King Oliver’s “Hello Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz.”

For the future, Topilow will continue with sessions for a fourth CD – his first in a solo context – and will appear once more at the JCC on Sept. 2 in support of acclaimed vintage jazz and pop specialist Vince Giordano and his band The Night Hawks.

Until then, the master of the Steinway and the stethoscope has his own directions on how to get to Carnegie Hall.

“Music and medicine both require the ability to sit down and practice,” he observes. “It seems I’m either sitting at a computer or sitting at the piano.”