Bronx-born jazz drummer Barry Altschul relocated to Paris in 1983 after working with Paul Bley, Sam Rivers and the groundbreaking quartet Circle during the ’60s and ’70s.
The drummer had moved to Europe at a time when several expatriate jazz musicians were also living there. Barry explains: "That was at the time when the bebop guys like Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Art Taylor, Jimmy Woody and Kenny Clarke were living there. And then you also had guys living there like Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, John Betsch and Don Cherry from the new-music side. And everybody was hanging with each other; it wasn’t separate because of musical style. It was a great period."
while he maintained a low profile in the States during that time, critics were still in touch with his recorded output: Barry Altschul served as a kind of house drummer for the Italian Soul Note label, one of the most adventurous and admired labels of the ’80s.
Aside from various sessions for Soul Note (including two of his own: 1983’s Irina and 1986’s That’s Nice), barry Altschul was also named artistic director of a regional big band in France. barry Altschul recalls: "I auditioned 150 musicians for 20 jobs, and I was conducting mostly. That gig lasted for two years and it was great. But after living there for 10 years I began to miss America: the feeling of the music here and the attitude of the American musicians, which is very different from the European musicians."
After returning to the United States, Barry Altschul took a job in 1995 as an adjunct professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where he remained for two years. He then moved to Maryland for a few years before returning to his native New York around the start of the new millennium.
At age 9 Barry Altschul picked up the clarinet and by 11 had his first encounter with the drums. “This guy at school was walking around with drumsticks in his back pocket,” he remembers. “So I asked him, ‘What’s happening? Show me something.’ He showed me a press roll and for some reason I just connected with that. My esoteric, spiritual belief is the instrument finds you, and that’s what happened to me then and there. The drums found me.”
Soon after, he fashioned a makeshift drum set out of fruit cans and began playing along with tunes he heard on the classic big-band radio program The Make-Believe Ballroom. It’s where he fell under the spell of Gene Krupa, in particular the 1956 album Drummer Man, which included such hip drum showcases as “Drum Boogie,” “Wire Brush Stomp” and “Drummin’ Man.”
During his early infatuation with the drums, Barry Altschul would play along on a practice pad while his sister went through her classical repertoire. “While she was practicing, I sat on a drum pad and improvised,” he says. “Not keeping time but really improvising, playing melodically, dealing with the different contours of rhythm and phrasing and so on. And I guess that was my opening to being able to play freer on the set.”
barry Altschul’s drumming interests expanded from Gene Krupa to include Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke, then Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones. “I also was listening to people like Louis Hayes, Frankie Dunlop, Roy Brooks,” he remembers. “And Roy Haynes was a major influence. So I was pretty much into all the bebop and hard-bop drummers.” By age 16, Altschul had befriended Elmo Hope and would hang out at the pianist’s house in the Bronx. “All kinds of people would come by: Philly Joe Jones, Monk, Tina Brooks, Junior Cook, Jimmy Lyons. I was in awe. That’s when Philly Joe and Art Blakey took me under their wing.”
Along with performing around the Bronx, barry Altschul began playing at jam sessions in other boroughs and meeting other like-minded musicians his own age, among them saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist George Cables. He also played in Montreal with pianist Linton Garner, the older brother of Erroll Garner, before landing his first important gig in 1964, at age 20, with pioneering free-jazz pianist Paul Bley.