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Barry Altschul: Another Time, Another Place

By Published: February 19, 2008

AAJ: You were all pretty much the same age, am I right?

BA: I think Bookie was a little older; he had already made kind of a name for himself while he was working in Washington with the JFK Quintet. I was lucky to get him, and it was nice.

Barry Altschul / Adam Lane QuartetAAJ: It's interesting to think of how many young players were putting together gigs at that time, and also one gets the impression that the jam-session environment sort of cleared out in the late '50s, when that's obviously not the case. It may not have been historicized like it had been for the previous decade.

BA: When I was young, they were happening—there were still sessions at Birdland, the original Birdland, and I remember going to the Apollo to see three bands, a comedian and a movie one time. Horace Silver and Miles Davis, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, and I forget what the movie was! It cost a dollar and started at eleven in the morning—the first thing that went on was the movie, then the show of three bands and then the comedian. It repeated until one or two in the morning, and you could stay the whole day and night for a dollar. We used to cut out of school and hear music.

Birdland was also open to young people; they had what was called the Peanut Gallery, where they served Cokes and for a dollar you could go to Birdland. Your parents could put you in the Peanut Gallery and know you were being taken care of while they were at their table, so we used to go to Birdland for dates when we were in high school.

One of the first groups that I was playing with in the Bronx was with Frank Mitchell and Jimmy Hunter and a bassist named Nat Valentine, and another bassist who has since become quite well known in soul music, Jerry Jemmott. He was Aretha Franklin's musical director and did some work with Freddie Hubbard. We had little gigs—you work at a bar on the weekend and you get local gigs 'cause you just want to play. We would try to put into action what we were practicing, and you were never alone because we all hung together, going to one another's houses dissecting records and blindfold-testing each other, learning to sing solos—it was a great education, and I was very involved in learning the bebop language at that time.

AAJ: That's interesting to me, because you got caught up with some of the more avant- garde players early on in that scene, with Paul Bley and The Jazz Composer's Guild. I'm very curious how the environment you're describing translated to your experiences with free music.

BA: The only way I could connect that—my sister is a classical pianist, so while she was practicing at home, I used to sit with drumsticks and a drum pad and play to her. It wasn't keeping time; it was becoming a melodic instrument in my head, and I was playing that with her. So that, to me, must've been the roots of a concept because I have no idea where that came from.

The way I met Paul Bley is that I was a janitor at a recording studio, Mirasound Studios, with Alfie Wade. I needed work and money, and he said, "Come down to the studio; they need someone." I was literally a janitor and a button-pusher, an assistant engineer. I helped cut acetates. So I was doing that and Paul Bley came in to do a recording; he did two around the same time, one with Don Ellis [Essence (Pacific Jazz, 1962)] and the other with John Gilmore [Turning Point (IAI, 1963)], and both were with Gary Peacock.

Anyway, Paul and I got to talking and a few weeks later I got a call from him. I was living in the Bronx and he asked if I wanted to play a gig on a Sunday afternoon. I said, "Sure," and this was about '64. The place we played, we were the first group ever to play in Slugs.' Slugs' was a few doors up the block from David Izenzon; he was very friendly with Jerry Schultz, the owner, who I have since become very good friends with. David persuaded Jerry to try and have some music at the bar, and this was a sawdust-on-the-floor bar.

align=center>Barry Altschul / Anthony Braxton Trio

Barry Altschul with the Anthony Braxton Trio, 1976

AAJ: Yeah, I've heard some of the anecdotes about Slugs.'

BA: It was really David Izenzon who talked Jerry Schultz into having a music policy, and Paul Bley, David and myself were the first group to play there. When I got there, Paul says to me, "Listen, do you want to play standards or do you want to play some of the stuff that I'm into?" I didn't really know what he was into, and I was an arrogant kid (as Persip once told me, that was what he liked about me) so I said, "Play whatever you want." So he started to play this stuff—and Izenzon had played with him, so he knew what was happening—and I just played what I heard. My feeling was coming from jazz, and whatever I played I approached something that I felt was the next thing. I was trying to extend bebop in my head, maybe not intellectually, but I thought of myself as a jazz player and I still do.

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