Calling its March event a “spring showcase” suggests – correctly, as it happens – that the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival has more planned for later in the year.
AJMF Executive Director Joe Alterman enthusiastically talks up the four shows planned for March 12-15, while being a bit cagey about what he is planning down the road.
Alterman, a highly regarded jazz pianist who continues to tour, is beginning his second year leading the 11-year-old festival. In his debut season, Alterman slimmed down the program and unabashedly booked acts likely to attract a slightly older audience, one that potentially could help sustain the festival financially.
The March program demonstrates the diversity in Jewish music, a term that Alterman acknowledges has no single definition. “I’m still not really sure. …The deeper you get, the more you kind of figure out that you’re never going to figure it out, and that’s kind of the beauty of it.” He does say, however, that “For me, personally, I think that the story makes the music Jewish, more than the music makes it Jewish.”
Jewish contributions to The Great American Songbook will be featured when Duchess, a trio of female voices – Hilary Gardner, Amy Cervini, and Melissa Stylianou – performs March 12 at The Woodruff Arts Center.
Alterman knows Gardner from his years in New York, including events at which they both performed, and lauds her stage presence. He anticipates that Duchess may attract an audience similar to that which attended the opening of the 2019 festival, pianist Bill Charlap and his trio, who performed jazz renditions of music by Leonard Bernstein. Stylistically, Duchess “is like Charlap meets Midge Maisel,” Alterman said, referencing the fictional lead character of the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Rabbi Micah Lapidus, director of Jewish and Hebrew studies at The Davis Academy, will lead a musical Shabbat for young professionals March 13 at the UrbanTree Cidery. Lapidus has composed most of the music for “The Well,” a program of Southern preaching, music and Judaism that is held monthly at The Temple.
Jerry Wexler, who is credited with coining the phrase “rhythm and blues,” will be remembered March 14 at City Winery, when the ATL Collective performs the music of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, among other African American artists whose careers were advanced by the journalist-turned-producer.
The tribute to Wexler gives Alterman another opportunity to explore the interaction of Jews and African Americans in popular music, as he did with 2019’s ATL Collective tribute to Chess Records, a Chicago record label created by two Polish Jewish emigres. “Not everybody knows those stories and how important they are,” Alterman said.
The quartet of shows concludes March 15 at The Temple, as the Clark Atlanta University Philharmonic Society performs “Annelies: The Diary of Anne Frank,” a
full-length choral work of 14 movements, based on the life Annelies Marie Frank, a Dutch Jewish girl who died at age 15 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1945.
Not yet written in ink, but penciled into Alterman’s planning, is another “showcase” several months away, with four to six acts, on dates yet to be announced. Without divulging the acts he hopes to book, Alterman hinted at performances highlighting the “Jewish imprint” on jazz, bluegrass, show tunes and maybe, just maybe, comedy.
Next up on the AJMF calendar is a showcase for Jewish teenage musicians to be held May 3 at Gypsy Rose, a music venue in Roswell. Alterman said contacts are being made through schools and elsewhere to attract bands and individual performers.
In December, AJMF will sponsor its second annual Christmas Eve “Egg Drop,” advertised in 2019 as “the promised land for anyone up for Chinese food, 2000’s bar mitzvah party music, and general holiday merriment.” The inaugural event, “a great party,” attracted 400 people, many in their early 20s, Alterman said
Alterman’s plans to continue discussion of blacks and Jews in American music may see a replication of the format used in November, a public conversation between musician-author Ben Sidran and the Rev. Dwight Andrews of First Congregational Church in downtown Atlanta, an event drawing 200 people co-hosted by the church, AJMF, and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.
“One of my take-aways from my first year was that I realized the programming definitely worked but that we do need to pivot in some way to become a little more inviting to non-Jews and a little more appealing to Jews,” Alterman said.
The hiring of a single staffer has freed Alterman to concentrate more on expanding AJMF’s donor base and scouting potential performers. On the business side of the ledger, the festival’s operating budget has increased from about $180,000 when Alterman took over in 2019 from AJMF founder Russell Gottschalk to about $220,000. Among the funders Alterman expressed particular thanks to were the Helen Marie Stern Memorial Fund, The Molly Blank Fund (through The Arthur M. Blank Foundation), and The Marcus Foundation.
Alterman practices his primary craft for three hours a day and maintains a busy professional calendar as a jazz pianist, performing at various venues in Atlanta, as well as at the Birdland Theater and the Blue Note jazz club in New York; Winter’s Jazz Club in Chicago; The Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, S.C., and, in April, at the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, Mont.
In addition, Alterman is writing “digital booklets” (an updated version of album liner notes) for Wynton Marsalis, possibly the best-known figure in American jazz, a trumpet player, composer, teacher and leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in New York. The collaboration came about through New York connections, leading to Marsalis reading Alterman’s other writings on jazz, as well as listening to the Sandy Springs native at the keyboard. Alterman has completed two such booklets for albums by Marsalis, the first titled “Jazz for Kids” (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” swings) and the second “Inferno,” an interpretation by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra saxophonist Sherman Irby of the first part of Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem “The Divine Comedy.” Work on a third booklet is underway, this one for a recording of Duke Ellington’s jazz symphony, “Black, Brown and Beige.”
Tickets for Duchess and the ATL Collective shows can be purchased through the festival website, AtlantaJMF.org. Tickets for “The Well” and “Annelies” are free but require registration online.