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AS ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY Ben Stone on NBC’s Law & Order, Michael Moriarty earns his pay by putting criminals behind bars. Offscreen the 50-year-old actor prefers to sing in them.

For 20 years late-night patrons of Manhattan’s jazz clubs have sat as judges of Moriarty’s jazz piano and vocals. Now the actor is hoping to spread beyond those venues with a new album, Sweet ‘n Gritty, which features the composer-pianist backed by bassmen Scott Lee and Jay Leon-hart and drummer Terry Clarke.

Music, says Moriarty, has long been “a well protected passion” of his—one that he discovered early. Growing up in Detroit, the son of a surgeon with a wall of records and a mother who played piano, “I could hear Bach, Brahms and Art Tatum from my bassinet,” he says. “I was born into eclectic taste.” Moriarty first studied piano at age 5, and later, when he majored in theater at Dartmouth and went to London as a Fulbright scholar, he kept his music close. It became “the central building block of my artistry,” he says. “Even now, I think of acting in musical terms. I think of scenes as duets. Pauses I consider like pauses in music.”

While earning impressive reviews for those onscreen duets in such films as Bang the Drum Slowly and TV’s Holocaust in the ’70s, Moriarty formed a trio and began playing at Michael’s Pub—a showcase favored by amateur clarinetist Woody Allen—and other New York City clubs. When his first wife went into labor, Moriarty was onstage, finishing a wee-hours set.

Now married to second wife Anne Martin, 49, a psychiatric social worker, the actor keeps his keyboard by a window of their Manhattan apartment near Carnegie Hall, so “I look out for inspiration,” he says. With Law & Order heading for its winter taping hiatus, he may soon be spending lots of time pondering the scenery. His next project: composing a symphony for strings.