Mark Twain — or Confucius, some say — coined the phrase, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Whoever said it, jazz pianist Joe Alterman is living it.
He has been interested in music since he was a Sandy Springs toddler.
“I remember when I was like three or four going to my parents and asking for piano lessons,” Alterman said. “I do not remember why at all, but I remember asking them. They gave me the lessons, and I took a few and hated it. I wanted to quit. They wouldn’t let me.”
His parents were smart. He went on to earn praise from jazz legend Ramsey Lewis: “Joe Alterman is an inspiration to me! His piano playing, his will to explore, and his ability to swing is a joy to behold.”
Alterman, 32, credits Doc Watson’s “Freight Train Boogie” with turning his piano hatred to love. He said he wanted to learn that song on the guitar.
“My dad made a deal that I could take guitar if I kept up with my piano,” he said.
“The teacher eventually told me, ‘You know, boogie woogie is piano music. Doc Watson put that on the guitar,’” Alterman said.
That brought him back to the piano around the age of 13.
“I was always getting into trouble for changing a note or two,” Alterman said. “I didn’t know there was any kind of music at the time where you could be encouraged to do that.”
Or that it would end up being his career.
“I didn’t know it was a business,” Alterman said. “I just thought it was fun to play music.”
He earned a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music in New York University’s jazz program. One of his fondest memories is playing New York’s Iridium Jazz Club.
“The sound guy said, ‘This guy is going to win a Grammy one day,’” Alterman said.
New York also is a special place because of trips he took with his dad – arguably his biggest supporter.
“He knew I had talent, but I don’t think he really was encouraging it as a career,” Alterman said. “But now he just loves it. He travels with me to everything. It’s great.”
As a teenager, he begged his dad to see Oscar Peterson at Birdland Jazz Club – a venue Alterman played for three nights in July and will play for five nights in January.
“To play at Birdland with my dad in the audience now, sitting at the table he and I sat at when I was 16 to see Oscar Peterson, it’s really powerful,” Alterman said. “It’s really special.”
In fact, Alterman said it’s the connection with his heroes that provides many of his career highlights.
“The most special and things I’ll take with me forever are the times when I was able to connect with the real people who created the music and share the stage with them,” he said.
Meeting Les McCann was meaningful for a different reason.
“He said, ‘How much do you practice?’ I was kind of excited to tell him how much I practiced. I said, ‘Six hours a day.’ He said, ‘Man, that’s way too much.’ I was shocked to hear one of my favorite piano players tell me I was practicing too much. He said, ‘You’ve got to live a little so you have something to play about.’
Alterman said he now practices about three hours a day. It’s plenty to keep him in top shape for upcoming shows to support his new album, “The Upside of Down.” The album is taken from live shows at Birdland in November 2019 and February 2020, but the title came to him during the pandemic.
“I had more time than ever to be at the piano, but I had nothing to prepare for,” he said. “I was trying to look for some good in all the bad. And that’s when the title ‘The Upside of Down’ came to me. It’s what I’m all about. And I think it is what jazz is all about. There’s something very uplifting about music. Even the sad stuff has some happiness to it.”
Alterman said he is happy with his musical path, but he still has goals.
“I’d like to grow the listenership,” he said. “It’s really more of the same, but more of it. I just want to play my piano and get people to hire me to do what I do.”
Alterman (with Kevin Smith on bass and Justin Chesarek on drums) will be at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center on Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. for Jazz on the Lawn.
“Bring a sweater,” Alterman advised. And an interest in jazz by an artist with a lifelong love for it.