Joe Alterman’s Timeless Jazz

Although I have been writing about jazz for over 70 years, I don’t like to think of myself as a jazz historian. Being described as a “historian” implies that what you are writing about is dead and in the past. When it comes to writing about jazz, nothing can ever be further from the truth.

I first came to New York City in 1953 as a civil war was raging among the so-called jazz critics. The traditionalists, known then as “moldy figs,” thought that jazz had died if not with Louis Armstrong, then not too long after. The music of Parker, Dizzy and the young Miles Davis was not even considered jazz at all by many of the writers.

The “moldy figs” are still among us today, applying the same labels and temporal limits on jazz. The only difference is that they now insist that real jazz died with Parker, Dizzy and the elderly Miles Davis.

While it is true that most of the musicians I used to write about in the ’50s and ’60s are gone, real jazz is timeless. It lives on in new musicians, like my young friend Joe Alterman, an accomplished jazz pianist who is making his debut performance at NYC’s iconic Birdland jazz club on April 7.

In a 2013 profile of Joe for The Wall Street Journal, I recalled my reaction upon hearing his music for the first time: “Talk about the joy of jazz! It’s a pleasure to hear this music.”

In the early ’50s I was a regular at the original Birdland, located on Broadway, just north of West 52nd Street in Manhattan; “the jazz corner of the world,” as the neon sign reminded me each time I entered its doorway and descended down the steep staircase. All the musicians who are now considered jazz legends played there: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington, among others.

Alterman would have been able to hold his own jamming with any of them.

“Joe Alterman has tremendous taste and a passionate respect for swing and space,” Marc Myers wrote in a review of Alterman’s 2012 recording “Simple Life.”

“His touch on the keyboard is reminiscent of pianists from earlier years who listened carefully, felt expressively and actually cared about what the listener heard. Joe is a remarkable swinger and poet.”

Alterman, a white kid from Atlanta, graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from New York University. He has been mentored by the 81-year-old black saxophonist Houston Person, whom he met while Person was teaching a master class at NYU. According to Person, “Joe has a great sense of what is most meaningful in the history and tradition of our music, and a real solid musical vision of where to take it.”

Person, who played on four of the tracks on “Simple Life,” was also the producer of Alterman’s latest recording, “Georgia Sunset,” which was selected as a Downbeat Editor’s Pick and reached No. 6 on the JazzWeek radio charts. All of Alterman’s recordings, along with his calendar of appearances, can be found on his website:

Alterman has already headlined some impressive jazz venues, but his debut at Birdland has particular significance for him. In 2006 Joe was still a senior in high school when he and his father flew to New York City to see Oscar Peterson at Birdland, in what turned out to be the legendary jazz pianist’s final New York appearance. It was a transformative experience.

“I’ll never forget how silent and warm the entire room felt as soon as the lights dimmed and the announcer came on the speakers,” Alterman recalled.

“From the moment Mr. Peterson emerged from backstage, his enormous charisma and aura seemed to envelop the whole room. I’d never been around such a powerful presence before in my life. Ever since that evening, it’s been a dream of mine to perform at Birdland. For a long time I figured it was impossible. How could I possibly perform in the same room as the great Oscar Peterson? And now, that dream is coming true.”

If you are in NYC, and can catch Alterman’s gig on April 7, expect to hear the ghosts of the original Birdland on that stage. After the lights dim, and you hear the announcer on the speakers, you will be listening to the timeless personification of the past, present and future of jazz.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.