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Joe Alterman

Joe Alterman shares the joy of his own music and Jewish culture.

Joe Alterman

Musician Joe Alterman lost his best friend and mentor when legendary jazzman Les McCann died at age 88 in December.

More than half a century apart in age, the two bonded over their joyful approach to jazz piano, highlighted on one of two albums Alterman released in August, Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann: Big Mo & Little Joe. “It meant a lot to him, which meant a lot to me,” Alterman says. “Songs that he never thought would live on are living on, and it brought us together more.”

The Sandy Springs native, who also recently released Solo Joe: Songs You Know, performs locally and around the country, and participates in special events, including opening for comedian Paul Reiser at a benefit for Dunwoody’s Marcus Jewish Community Center in January.

Additionally, he has a second career as the executive director of Neranenah, the Jewish arts and culture series that was known as the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival until mid-2020. In June, he’ll mark his sixth anniversary at Neranenah, Hebrew for “to come together and sing.” He shares an artistic life with his wife of one year, Stephanie, an actor and the director of arts and culture education at the Marcus JCC.

Tell us about your two recent albums.

One was my first solo piano album. There are a lot of tunes by people like James Taylor and Carole King that are modern standards. They are really arrangements I put to jazz tunes during COVID. I didn’t get into jazz through the solos, like the improvisation. It was hearing the way jazz musicians interpreted songs that I already knew. So hopefully people will hear what I first heard when I came to jazz.

The next one was really special. Les McCann was my hero, my mentor- turned-best buddy. We met 12 years ago, and barely a day went by that we didn’t speak. This album showcases his compositions plus one that we wrote together. When I was doing release shows for the album, we’d be FaceTiming before the show, and I’d say, “I’m about to go play your music,” and he’d say, “Our music,” and he was very serious about it.

Do you have any mentees like Les McCann had you?

I do have a crew of mostly college- age students, a few in high school, who gravitate to my music and want to talk to me. It’s so special, but it is so bizarre that they look at me like I looked at a 35-year-old piano player when I was their age.

How do you balance your personal music with Neranenah?

Every day is just crazy, honestly. But I like what I’m doing, so it works out. If I didn’t have Neranenah, I’d be itching for something else because I love having something that takes me away from the piano for a little while so that it’s even sweeter when I come back.

What’s ahead for Neranenah?

Every year, we like to pay tribute to a Jewish-owned record label. I’ve always been fascinated by Commodore Records and Milt Gabler, the producer who recorded Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” when nobody else would, and he also recorded “Rock Around the Clock.” His nephew, coincidentally, is Billy Crystal, and I was able to arrange a virtual chat with him. Our season opener next year will be an evening weaving that virtual conversation into an evening of great Commodore Records music.

Crystal grew up around his uncle and all these great jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong used to go to their seders when he was a kid, and I said, “What was it like having seder with Louis Armstrong?” He had that raspy voice, and Crystal said his grandma one time looked at Louis and said, “Can’t you just cough it up?”



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