Home- Grown Jazz
Va-Hi’s Joe Alterman returns to his roots for musical inspiration
STORY: H.M. Cauley
PHOTO: Stephen Payne
Joe Alterman can drop jazz names with alacrity. Though he grew up in Sandy Springs, he headed to New York University to hone his musical talent as a jazz pianist, and along the way he made connections with celeb artists such as Ramsay Lewis, Les Mc- Cann, guitarist John Pizzarelli and singer Philip Bailey. He’s performed on some of the country’s leading stages—the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Birdland and the Blue Note in New York. He’s recorded four albums; his most recent, “Comin’ Home to You,” was released last year.
Despite his success and access to elite circles, something was missing. While Alterman loved New York, where he stayed after graduation in 2013, it didn’t provide the inspiration he was looking for.
“New York was great: I got to not only do music but study with musicians I grew up looking up to,” says the 29-year-old. “It’s great for making connections and getting a start, but in terms of being inspired, I realized, whenever I was writing or thinking about music, I was inspired by what was here in Atlanta. I wanted to be back with my family. And as much as I loved New York, it felt like a nature museum. Here, there’s something about walking in the parks that feels very free and open. All the trees and spaciousness put me in the right mindset to play something.”
But it wasn’t an easy move to make, especially when friends told him it was a mistake to walk away from a full performance schedule that most young musicians would kill for.
“To survive in New York, you have to say yes to every opportunity, and I was working every night but only enjoying about 40 percent of the work,” he says. “I was really nervous about moving, but I kept remembering a teacher long ago who told me you have to find your home in music. I figured if I kept doing what I was doing in New York, I’d burn out. Music is too important to me for that to happen. So I moved here to find that home and to be in a position to take the jobs I really wanted to take.”
The move paid off, as Alterman was recently appointed director of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, which will celebrate its 10th year in March 2019.
For the last two years, Alterman’s home base has been Virginia-Highland, where he writes music and rehearses with a drummer and bass player who round out his trio. By taking selective gigs for private and corporate events in town and around the country, he’s able to concentrate on developing his own style and introducing a new audience of listeners to the world of jazz.
“If you say you’re playing ‘jazz’ to a lot of people in my generation, they don’t want to come hear it,” he says. “But if you don’t say it’s jazz, they love it. People have pre-conceived ideas of what jazz is, but if it’s presented in the right way, anyone can like it.” Alterman smooths the way for younger listeners by opening with familiar tunes such as “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” “Over the Rainbow” or works by jam bands they recognize. “People will say, ‘That’s neat, what you did with that song.’ It’s my way of making jazz approachable and finding new ways to turn people on to the music. That’s what I love about jazz: all the cool, intricate things you can do with melodies you know.”
Alterman’s been jazzing up the classics since he was a kid. He started piano lessons at 5 and attended a local music school until he was 12, when he turned his classical recital into a boogie-woogie riff that earned a standing ovation—and got him kicked out. He then studied privately before heading to college and making jazz his forte. Today, if some of his listeners don’t want to call it jazz, that’s OK.
“What I really play,” he says, “is happy, serious music.”
Details about Joe Alterman’s upcoming performances in the metro area are online at joealtermanmusic.com.