Atlanta Jazz Fest returns with Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron and Joe Alterman

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Alterman, 33, who grew up in Atlanta and still lives here, is one of the featured performers at this weekend’s three-day Atlanta Jazz Festival along with Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron and Julie Dexter. George Benson was originally scheduled to perform, but had to drop out.

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Herbie Hancock performs “Hejira” at the 31st Annual MusiCares Person of the Year Benefit Gala honoring Joni Mitchell on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Herbie Hancock plays "Hegira" at the 31st Annual MusiCares Person of the Year Benefit Gala honoring Joni Mitchell on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.  (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

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Herbie Hancock performs “Hejira” at the 31st Annual MusiCares Person of the Year Benefit Gala honoring Joni Mitchell on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

After being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and then pushed back to Labor Day weekend in 2021, the festival is returning to its traditional Memorial Day slot at Piedmont Park on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The festival, organized by the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, is free.

Saturday’s lineup includes Herbie Hancock, Masero, Tia Fuller’s Intersections, Kebbi Williams and the Wolfpack and TC Carson.

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When he moved from Atlanta to New York after high school, jazz pianist Joe Alterman sought advice from seasoned members of the music community, including saxophonist Houston Person. CONTRIBUTED BY FRAN KAUFMAN

When he moved from Atlanta to New York after high school, jazz pianist Joe Alterman sought advice from seasoned members of the music community, including saxophonist Houston Person.  CONTRIBUTED BY FRAN KAUFMAN
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When he moved from Atlanta to New York after high school, jazz pianist Joe Alterman sought advice from seasoned members of the music community, including saxophonist Houston Person. CONTRIBUTED BY FRAN KAUFMAN

Sunday’s lineup includes Alterman, Rhonda Thomas, The Baylor Project, Warren Wolf and The Pack, and the Eddie Palmieri Afro Caribbean Jazz Septet.

On Monday, the performers will be the Kenny Barron Quartet, Julie Dexter, Kathleen Bertrand, Makaya McCraven and Naia Izumi.

Additionally, the festival hosts the “31 Days of Jazz” program at various venues around the city in May and June.

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Pianist Eddie Palmieri poses for a photo in New York, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pianist Eddie Palmieri poses for a photo in New York, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Pianist Eddie Palmieri poses for a photo in New York, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

This year marks Alterman’s first appearance on the Jazz Fest main stage. He will perform Sunday at 1 p.m., joined by Kevin Smith on bass and Justin Chesarek on drums. “It’s really special,” he says. “I grew up going to this festival. It influenced me. I remember seeing Donald Byrd and Freddy Cole and Barry Harris and so many others.

He started playing the piano in kindergarten, then fell in love with jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal. Alterman studied at New York University and learned that his hometown jazz party was far-reaching. “When I was in New York, people were talking about this festival,” he says. “It makes me proud to be from Atlanta.”

His sixth album, “The Upside of Down”, was recorded live at legendary jazz club Birdland in New York and was released last August. ArtsATL said, “His music is vibrant and fresh, instantly as modern as it is retro.” In JazzWax, Marc Myers wrote, “Joe has reached a new maturity as an artist and the results are quite exciting.”

Alterman has received resounding endorsements from several legendary figures as the rising major voice of jazz piano, including Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis. Jamal called him “a special performer”. Lewis says Alterman is “an inspiration to me. . . His piano playing, willingness to explore and ability to swing are a joy to behold.

The young pianist forged relationships with many of his jazz elders, absorbing their stories and gathering advice to incorporate into his own style. But her relationship with McCann grew into a deep friendship. McCann, 86, is struggling with health issues that forced him into retirement and the two speak on the phone several times a week. McCann is bedridden and living in a long-term care facility in California.

“Joe’s music comes from the soul; it’s real,” McCann says. “It makes you cheerful and happy. There is something that emanates from him towards you.

The jazz elder regaled Alterman with stories about his career and his gigs in Atlanta. McCann and activist Stokely Carmichael, for example, joined the Atlanta chapter of the YMCA during a tour stop. And he has fond memories of playing at La Carousel, the jazz club that Paschal’s Restaurant opened when it served as an unofficial home to the civil rights movement. “Paschal’s was my favorite place to play in Atlanta,” McCann says. “It was a great place. My fans were there and it was the best food…oh my god!”

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Exterior of Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant, 1987. AJC File

Exterior of Paschal's Motor Hotel and Restaurant, 1987. AJC File
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Exterior of Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant, 1987. AJC File

McCann made Alterman realize that music is a journey of self-discovery. “He loves making me understand what it means to have a gift,” Alterman says. “He says, the gift is in you, it’s not the piano; it’s you. Being friends with Les is one of the greatest blessings in my life. I learned so much from him.

“Knowing Joe is one of the great moments of my life,” McCann says. “I am so grateful. He makes me smile every day.

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Scott Freeman is editor of ArtsATL. He is the author of four books, including the bestselling Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band (which is in development for a feature film) and Otis! The story of Otis Redding. He worked as an editor at Atlanta magazine and Creative Loafing. He was a reporter for the Macon Telegraph and News, as well as The Providence Journal.


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ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a non-profit organization that plays a vital role in educating and informing the public about the arts and culture of the metro Atlanta area. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

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