Born in the Bronx on January 6, 1943, drummer Barry Altschul was quickly ensconced in the hard bop scene of the late 1950s, but it was a gig with pianist Paul Bley's trio that put him among the ranks in New York's burgeoning free-jazz scene of the next decade, one which resulted in tours of Europe and a slew of recordings with Bley. Altschul also worked regularly with staunchly avant-garde reedmen Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers throughout the 1970s, though his familiarity with "the tradition" landed him work with Lee Konitz, Art Pepper and Tony Scott as well as leading his own free-bop units. Following a Paris sojourn in the eighties and nineties, Altschul is back in New York and as busy as ever. Thankfully, his schedule allowed for a conversation with Clifford Allen in January 2008.
Barry Altschul: I studied with Charlie Persip and another teacher by the name of Sam Ulano. I really started playing drums when I was about eleven; a guy in public school was already playing drums and he showed me how to play a roll, and that fascinated me and just took me out. I was born in the South Bronx and there was music everywhere in the streetsjazz, music from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the Dominicans had just started coming in at the time. There was blues, tap dancing, basketball dribbling, shoeshine rags, all that stuff. The South Bronx and Harlem were kind of bordering each other, and we went into Harlem quite a bit.
All About Jazz: Was there much familial encouragement to play music?
BA: To a point. My sister is a Julliard graduate, a pianist, and she's six-and-a-half years older than me. When she was practicing, I used to go to the piano after her and pluck out the tunes she was playing. You know, classical music, and I got these themes in my head and I would play them on the piano. That was at about age two. So piano was my first instrument because they forced me to study until I was fivefrom two to five I took actual piano lessons with my sister's teacher.
But it was too much; it shouldn't have been done, actually. I then rebelled against the piano till I was about sixteen. In the meantime I tried clarinet, and the drums were at age eleven. That got me, and from then on there were people in the streets and jailhouse musicians, friends and I listened to a lot of music that's pretty much how I started learning.
AAJ: It seems like with a fertile ground present in the South Bronx and Harlem, that it would've given you a diverse range of influences at an early age. I am not sure how the other boroughs would compareI'm not from New Yorkbut I would guess that you had a very unique experience.
BA: Oh yeah, sure, Hunt's Point Palace was a couple of blocks away where Tito Puente and Pachaco and all these Latin salsa bands were playing. The superintendent of my building was a blues singer and he hung out with all the super heavy bluesmen and they used to get together in this cement garden, singing blues all the time.
Jazz was in the streets too; I lived in a neighborhood that was very close to [pianist] Elmo Hope's house, and when I was olderabout sixteenI went over to his place all the time. Junior Cook was there, Jimmy Lyons (who was a Charlie Parker player at that time), Philly Joe and all these people came by. There was Arthur Sterling, a pianist who was very influential on a number of kids, and he still plays around. He got known with Leon Thomas, and he lived in a building with Donald Byrd. When Herbie Hancock came in from Chicago, he moved into Byrd's house. Jimmy Cobb lived up around there for a whilethis was all in the South Bronx.
AAJ: Where did you meet Persip?
BA: Persip was in Manhattan; he was from New Jersey and he was with Dizzy at the time. I had heard that he was teaching, I called him and we had an interview, and he took me on as a student. He's one of the guys that was very involved with the Jazzmobile later on.
AAJ: Who did you first come into contact with for gigs?
BA: As a kid, there was a whole group of musicians in the neighborhood, most who have since died. If they'd have lived, they would've been motherfuckers. They were great at fourteen and fifteenvery mature players. I have some tapes, as a matter of fact. There's one tenor player by the name of Frank Mitchell who eventually joined Art Blakey and did some recordings with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley, and he got killed when he was in his early twenties. Frank and I grew up together.
The boroughs got togetherall the musiciansbecause of jam sessions. There was one place in every borough, so a different borough every night of the week would have a jam session. Wednesday nights was the Bronx, Thursday was Harlem, and Sunday was in Greenwich Village. There was one in Brooklyn and one in Queens, and that's how all the people got to know each other.
There was this pianist named Jimmy Hunter; at twelve or thirteen he was told by Cedar Walton "I can't teach you anything; you just need experience." He became Harry Belafonte's musical director at eighteen, and he burned up in a fire when he was around twenty. He was also just about to go with Art Blakey. And of course [pianist] George Cables and [drummer] Lenny White, all those cats, a drummer by the name of Lonnie Rudstien, so there were a bunch of people who all got to know one another.
I don't know what one of my first gigs was because we all knew one another and most of the time we didn't really get paid. There was one guy, Alfie Wade, who was older and had come into the city from Montreal. He was working as an engineer in a recording studio. On Sundays, he would have all the neighborhood kids come in and play big-band arrangements. He had a band called Mixed Birds; Billy Cobham was the other drummer, and all these cats who became studio musicianskids from the Newport Youth Band, so that was going on. I was also going up to Montreal at that time, playing with the guitarist Billy White and Errol Garner's brother Linton, Sonny Greenwich, Nelson Biddles and Nelson Simons, another guitarist.
One of the first gigs I do remember was at the lounge where we had jam sessions. I got a New Year's gig for a trio; I must've been sixteen or seventeen, and it was Larry Willis on piano, Walter Booker on bass, and myself. Larry was from Harlem and we knew each other from the scene.