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Longtime criminal defense attorney and jazz broadcaster Don Wolff dies

Don Wolff was so good at representing soldiers accused of wrongdoing in the military that Army officials asked him to work for them as a prosecutor.

It was the 1960s. And Wolff was serving in Germany, where he met the second love of his life, Heide.

He met the first, jazz music, as it echoed from clubs he wasn’t old enough to enter while he sold newspapers in St. Louis’ Gaslight Square district, according to friends and relatives.

He balanced both along with his passion for the pursuit of justice, they said.

Mr. Wolff died Friday (Nov. 20, 2015) of leukemia at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 80.

Mr. Wolff’s father was a grocer and owned a small neighborhood corner store in an African-American area, said his son, Nelson Wolff, of Clayton. “He grew up in poverty and was born into the Jewish faith, so he was very aware of discrimination and was particularly sympathetic to racial discrimination,” Nelson Wolff said. “It ignited his passion for the law.”

He also was a track star at University City High School, where he graduated in 1955. His talent earned him a scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied law.

As a soldier, Mr. Wolff would frequent the Army Post Exchange to hear bootlegged copies of jazz performances. He also saw live concerts as American jazz surged in popularity while rock ’n’ roll swept the states, said Madeline Dames, who worked with Mr. Wolff on various jazz endeavors for nearly two decades.

He returned to St. Louis and served as a prosecutor, known for taking on cases no one else wanted, his son said.

“In the late 1960s, he had to prosecute a sitting judge,” he said, adding that an artist’s rendering of the trial now hangs in his office. “That was a hot potato ... he was successful in bringing the case.”

Mr. Wolff later became one of the area’s most celebrated criminal defense attorneys.

Mr. Wolff handled capital cases and felonies involving porn and First Amendment issues, as well as cases where police officers were accused of crimes. He didn’t accept fees from other attorneys or officers for their cases, his son said.

“People would ask him, ‘How can you represent a murderer?’” his son said. “But by representing the accused, he could ensure the rights of all people were adequately protected.”

In addition to Nelson, Mr. Wolff and his wife had two other children.

“Growing up in the house of a trial lawyer, you didn’t win many arguments,” Nelson Wolff recalled. “We constantly felt like we were being cross-examined, because we were ...

“All those years of losing arguments to him prepared me to take on the role of a lawyer.”

Mr. Wolff approached his appreciation for jazz with the same conviction, Dames said.

The Wolff Jazz Institute at Harris-Stowe State College is built around recordings and memorabilia Mr. Wolff and his wife donated in 2002.

Mr. Wolff’s radio show “I Love Jazz” aired on various stations, including KMOX, from the mid-1990s to 2008, when it became a TV show on HEC-TV. Dames worked with him for 18 years.

He concluded every program with a quote from Duke Ellington, which said in part: “Music will always ease your pain and produce peace and love. And that’s my wish for you.”

Visitation will be 2 p.m. Monday at United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road. A New Orleans-style jazz funeral is set to follow at 3 p.m.

In addition to his wife and son, among the survivors are another son, Michael Wolff of St. Louis; a daughter, Kristina Hourihane of Glenview, Ill.; and eight grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, the Urban League of Metropolitan St Louis, or the DLW Scholarship Fund at the UM School of Law.

 

Don Wolff was so good at representing soldiers accused of wrongdoing in the military that Army officials asked him to work for them as a prosecutor.

It was the 1960s. And Wolff was serving in Germany, where he met the second love of his life, Heide.

He met the first, jazz music, as it echoed from clubs he wasn’t old enough to enter while he sold newspapers in St. Louis’ Gaslight Square district, according to friends and relatives.

He balanced both along with his passion for the pursuit of justice, they said.

Mr. Wolff died Friday (Nov. 20, 2015) of leukemia at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 80.

Mr. Wolff’s father was a grocer and owned a small neighborhood corner store in an African-American area, said his son, Nelson Wolff, of Clayton. “He grew up in poverty and was born into the Jewish faith, so he was very aware of discrimination and was particularly sympathetic to racial discrimination,” Nelson Wolff said. “It ignited his passion for the law.”

He also was a track star at University City High School, where he graduated in 1955. His talent earned him a scholarship to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied law.

As a soldier, Mr. Wolff would frequent the Army Post Exchange to hear bootlegged copies of jazz performances. He also saw live concerts as American jazz surged in popularity while rock ’n’ roll swept the states, said Madeline Dames, who worked with Mr. Wolff on various jazz endeavors for nearly two decades.

He returned to St. Louis and served as a prosecutor, known for taking on cases no one else wanted, his son said.

“In the late 1960s, he had to prosecute a sitting judge,” he said, adding that an artist’s rendering of the trial now hangs in his office. “That was a hot potato ... he was successful in bringing the case.”

Mr. Wolff later became one of the area’s most celebrated criminal defense attorneys.

Mr. Wolff handled capital cases and felonies involving porn and First Amendment issues, as well as cases where police officers were accused of crimes. He didn’t accept fees from other attorneys or officers for their cases, his son said.

“People would ask him, ‘How can you represent a murderer?’” his son said. “But by representing the accused, he could ensure the rights of all people were adequately protected.”

In addition to Nelson, Mr. Wolff and his wife had two other children.

“Growing up in the house of a trial lawyer, you didn’t win many arguments,” Nelson Wolff recalled. “We constantly felt like we were being cross-examined, because we were ...

“All those years of losing arguments to him prepared me to take on the role of a lawyer.”

Mr. Wolff approached his appreciation for jazz with the same conviction, Dames said.

The Wolff Jazz Institute at Harris-Stowe State College is built around recordings and memorabilia Mr. Wolff and his wife donated in 2002.

Mr. Wolff’s radio show “I Love Jazz” aired on various stations, including KMOX, from the mid-1990s to 2008, when it became a TV show on HEC-TV. Dames worked with him for 18 years.

He concluded every program with a quote from Duke Ellington, which said in part: “Music will always ease your pain and produce peace and love. And that’s my wish for you.”

Visitation will be 2 p.m. Monday at United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road. A New Orleans-style jazz funeral is set to follow at 3 p.m.

In addition to his wife and son, among the survivors are another son, Michael Wolff of St. Louis; a daughter, Kristina Hourihane of Glenview, Ill.; and eight grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, the Urban League of Metropolitan St Louis, or the DLW Scholarship Fund at the UM School of Law.


 
 


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