Joe Alterman, jazz pianist, Atlanta native, found a refuge in music

Jazz pianist Joe Alterman, who performs in Atlanta Oct. 1, had an unusual struggle as a teenager.

His days were commandeered by a compulsion beyond his control.

At night, his ritualized bedtime routine was endless. In an essay he wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2005, he described that routine: “I would get in bed only after four hours of fixing, touching, balancing, rearranging, hoarding things next to my bed, hiding all of my scissors, perfectly placing my cellphone into the charger many times, turning the lights on and off many times, looking at the picture of my grandparents many times, looking at the same picture many more times while blinking, touching all of the corners that I could find, combing my hair excessive times, washing my hands, looking behind every piece of furniture, behind every corner in every room many times, smiling into the mirror many times, opening and closing doors, fixing ‘wrong’ steps, entering and exiting rooms a certain amount of times.”

His compulsive behavior was even more tiring in the daytime because he was determined to hide it from his fellow students at Woodward Academy. “In high school, I didn’t tell anybody,” he said in a recent interview. “I faked my way through school, and at the end of the day, I’d be exhausted from faking it, and I’d play seven hours.”

The piano, he said, was “a place I could always be myself.”

With the help of a therapist, Alterman fought back against the disease by refusing to obey the voices, by disrupting his rituals, by not doing the things he was compelled to do. Miraculously, he overcame the compulsive behavior and, as a music student at New York University, developed a thriving career playing in such clubs as the Blue Note and Birdland.

Alterman, 27, will perform Oct. 1 at Oglethorpe University, appearing in a trio setting and with the Jazz Orchestra Atlanta. It’s a homecoming performance of sorts for Alterman, who moved back home this year after nine years in New York City.

He cut a significant swath through the Manhattan music scene, recording three albums under his own name, writing and performing with pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Houston Person, and generally getting tight with the giants in the swinging, soulful, bluesy genre that Alterman likes best.

Many of his most simpatico colleagues are senior citizens. Downbeat compared him to Ahmad Jamal, who is 86. Alterman’s collaborator, McCann (who recorded the funky classic “Compared to What” in 1969), is 81. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who is 91, enthused that Alterman is “the personification of the past of jazz — he’s really deep into that — the present of jazz — he has his own voice — and that leads him into the future of jazz.”

Alterman’s sound is indeed a throwback. In an age when pianists try to leave no key untouched, Alterman’s musical affinities run to spare, single-note gems, a la Horace Silver, or block-chord excursions in the mode of Red Garland.

New York is all about the leading edge, but Alterman says his heroes were players who leaned toward the blues, and cut their teeth at places like Paschal’s and the Royal Peacock. Moving back to Atlanta brought him closer to that hallowed ground, if farther from the hot center of jazz.

“I was working almost every night, and struggling to get by,” he said recently, sipping a coffee outside a Buckhead Starbucks and considering his New York career. “Now I’m working to get the gigs I want to get. It was a life decision, not a career decision.”

Alterman still has the slightly longish hair, affable manner and unstudied demeanor of a college student. But his music tells you that he’s had some seasoning.

Some of that maturity comes from his struggle against OCD. He learned patience, persistence and other skills that have been critical. “People say, ‘You’ve got a good feeling in your music. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot.’”

He has.

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