The Atlanta Jewish Music Festival enters its 10th season with a new director and a lineup that appears designed to attract a more “adult” audience, one better positioned to financially help sustain its growth.
Jazz pianist Joe Alterman has succeeded Russell Gottschalk, who conceived the idea of a Jewish music festival and established its place in the local cultural landscape.
Through its first nine years, AJMF presented an eclectic mix of genres, reflecting Gottschalk’s belief that “There are infinite ways to live Jewishly and, by extension, ways to celebrate Jewish culture.”
Alterman views Jewish music as “a cultural phenomenon that touches on every genre of music.” In some cases, “it’s more the story behind the music that makes it Jewish,” he told the Atlanta Jewish Times.
“When I think of why I’m proud to be Jewish, it’s because of the contributions Jews have made to music, and especially in America,” Alterman said, restating the festival’s theme, “Celebrating Jewish Contributions to Music.”
“The fact that this year’s theme may have specific appeal to one particular age demographic wasn’t necessarily intentional, but we are delighted with the response and the chance to extend our name recognition to new audiences,” AJMF board chair Rich Walter said.
An example of that appeal might be the festival’s opening act on March 7 at the Atlanta History Center, the Bill Charlap Trio performing jazz arrangements of music composed by Leonard Bernstein.
The festival operates with a budget of $180,000. To enhance fundraising, Alterman wants to attract people who may support such institutions as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Woodruff Arts Center, and the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University.
Walter said that “a commitment to quality” topped the goals in planning the 2019 festival.
“This is not to say that we weren’t focused on quality in past years, but in the past, if any musical act that was coming to town had any connection to Judaism, then we would often add it to the lineup without taking into account whether it was the right fit or even good,” he said.
In Alterman’s first year at the helm, AJMF presents a lineup of six events, roughly one-third the number of the previous year.
“Over the past few years, the festival had grown a little unwieldy, and we were offering shows that were often competing against ourselves. Our preference was to have fewer, higher quality shows that would sell out as opposed to too many shows with smaller audiences,” Walter said.
An estimated 6,300 people attended concerts during the 2018 spring event.
“Obviously with fewer events, we are expecting fewer attendees. That being said, one of our goals for this year is that each program during the festival will come as close to being a sellout as possible. We are predicting about 1,700 during the festival and that we will reach 8,000 during the year with our ongoing events and partnership programs,” Walter said.
Ticketing has been centralized on the AJMF website, alleviating the necessity of buying tickets from the individual venues. As for Alterman, the 30-year-old Sandy Springs native may be celebrated for his work at the black-and-white keys, but he knows the business side of the ledger. He functions as his own manager, agent and marketing team, using skills learned away from the piano.
Alterman put his fingers to a computer keyboard at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York for seven years, including three years in which he also performed. As a marketing associate, Alterman created social media content for the club and for then-Blue Note artists McCoy Tyner and Jon Batiste.
Alterman also interned with recording producers, learning the business from inside the control room. His writing ranges from blog posts to assisting piano great Ramsey Lewis with his autobiography.
“Our strategy was to hire someone with a passion for contributing to the Atlanta Jewish community. We saw this as a priority. The fact that Joe brought an extensive and accomplished music background as both a performer and disseminator of content was certainly a plus. But it was his vision for expanding our reach and audience to ultimately add something of value to the community that was most important for the board,” Walter said.
Alterman envisions AJMF becoming a Jewish heritage festival with music at its heart.
Future festivals might explore such topics as the Jewish-black relationship through music as well as the Jewish fascination with “jam band” music. Alterman would like to pair music with panel discussions, annually honor a musician and continue to highlight a record label. This year’s closing event at Venkman’s March 16 features the ATL Collective performing music associated with Chess Records.
Oh, and perhaps add comedy, which has its own rich tradition of Jewish performers.