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Pianists Les McCann & Joe Alterman: That’s what friends are for

Cover of Joe Alterman album
Cover of Joe Alterman album 'Big Mo & Little Joe'

Atlanta based pianist Joe Alterman and his trio have a new Les McCann tribute album that covers all the periods of the legendary pianist and composer's career. Joe Alterman Plays Les McCann: Big Mo and Little Joe is available on Joe Alterman Music and features bassist Kevin Smith along with drummer Justin Chesarek. I spoke to Les and Joe about the record and Les's legacy, but also about the lovely story of a friendship that's been going on for more than a decade.

Listen, above.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: It's really clear that there's a special friendship that's going on here. Let’s start at the beginning. How did the two of you meet? I think it was at the Blue Note, right?

Joe Alterman: It was. I was asked to open for Les at the Blue Note one day. I was just obsessed with Les’s music at that time and so excited. I remember I was on stage sound-checking when he came in the club. I saw him coming up to the stage and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I'm about to meet Les McCann.” But he didn't say hello. He said, “Play me some blues.” I was so nervous, so I did my best. I played a little blues and after a few minutes I heard him say, “Amen,” so I knew I was doing something okay.

Then he said, “What's your name?” I said, “Joe Alterman.” He said, “Alterman? Are you a rabbi?” I said, “No,” but I was trying to think of what to say. He said, “Are you a Hebrew?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “From now on, you're my He-Bro.” It was about a decade ago. Barely a day has passed since then that we haven't spoken.

That's pretty incredible. What was it that you liked about Joe's playing when you first heard him, Les?

Les McCann: Well, everything. His way of playing, his approach. It was connected to it. It wasn't from something else. It wasn't even from me. It was just him, the way he is and his approach to the music, period. It's like when I see young people at that level, I know they're the old souls.

A lot of times too, when we meet a kindred spirit, we just kind of know it. It's something you feel more than anything else.

Les McCann: That’s the only thing it is. It's about feeling and the way people react to his music reminds me of everything I went through. It was all beautiful, all feelings.

I've had a long journey with you, Les.  My dad was a great lover of jazz, and so there was always a lot of music around our house. But I remember the first time I heard you was with Lou Rawls, because my dad played that Stormy Monday album to death with Lou Rawls and Les McCann LTD. Those were some really great times, weren't they?

Les McCann: Well, that was a special moment, knowing Lou and the story that goes with all of that because I was playing in a jam session and when I finished, Miles had been there and he asked me why didn't I play when he was on stage. I said, “Well, I just wasn't ready yet.” Everybody was leaving and a guy walked up to me and said, “My name is Nick and I work for Capitol Records, at World Pacific too.” He said, “Have you made a record?” I said, “No, I have not.” And he said, “Well, would you like a contract?” And right there on the spot, he pulled out a contract.

But the story goes, when he took it back to the company, he was fired for signing me up because the owner of the record company wasn't really into me, so he told me that just give him some time and he would get hold of me again. A few months later, he was hired by Capitol Records and he said, “I found this new young guy named Lou Rawls. I want you two guys to come here and make a record together.” That's how it happened. We did that whole album in one night.

That partnership is legendary. That music is legendary. And so is just all the great music that you have written.  Joe's new tribute album really covers it all—that whole acoustic swing of the Les McCann Trio period, all the funk with Eddie Harris, all the great things that you did with electronic music, really ushering in a new age in contemporary jazz. It's been a pretty cool ride, Les, especially for us fans. We got to thank you for all that.

Les McCann: It's going to be Joe and Les together in Birdland.

Joe Alterman: "Right On" (Live at Birdland)

Hey, I don't see why not.

Joe Alterman: We need the Mo and Joe show.

We do. Tell us about the title, Big Mo and Little Joe.

Joe Alterman: Over the years, Les started referring to us as, he's big Mo and I'm little Joe. It's just perfect. Growing up hearing Les’s music, nothing musical resonated with me as much. I grew up in Atlanta hearing bluegrass music, and that was my way in to jazz, hearing the way people who play jazz would play some kind of bluegrass songs. Les is from Kentucky and the way he played, it felt like a mix of everything that I grew up loving and I'd never heard anyone do that. It was just so exciting to know, not only do we resonate with the music, but we resonated with each other and we have the most special, beautiful friendship. It's really a treat to be able to share some of my favorite music of his on this album.

For the two of you, why has your connection in your relationship been so easy? It's like you recognized each other when you first saw each other. And from then on, you have this great friendship and mentorship. What do you guys talk about?

Les McCann: Anything and everything.

Joe Alterman: It's just been easy. It's just natural. I think when I heard his music for the first time, I couldn't really play piano very well, but I heard something of myself in that music. I cannot explain to you what it was at the time, but there's just something here that makes it easy. It’s just how friends work.

You’re not the only one, Joe, who loves Les. I understand the rest of your trio also has a pretty special connection to him. Do you like these young guys?

Les McCann: Yea, it's a two-way thing

Joe Alterman: It is pretty cool.

The record is lovely.  I'm kind of partial to piano trios anyway, but this is lovely and it's got all of the vitality of…well, first of all, it's hard to mess up a record that's got all of Les McCann's compositions on it. I think that he is probably underappreciated for just the body of work that he has contributed to music. He's been swinging for a long time.

Les McCann: That's all I know how to do. Even when I'm here, I got to keep something going in my head and in my heart, just get along with the people here. I think I've learned a whole lot just being in this facility because my music and myself, It's a transfers to these people to where there's another feeling going in and say healing is is going to be easy.

Well, it's like that name of that album you made with Groove Holmes that heal and feel it.

How hard was it to pick these songs when there's so many to choose from Joe?

Joe Alterman: That was a job that was quite a challenge. I have so many favorite songs of Les’s and one of my goals here was really to showcase so many of Les’s songs that I feel are under-appreciated. When I came up with my initial list, I probably had like 60 favorite Les McCann songs. So to narrow it down to these was definitely a bit of a challenge, but I wanted to try to have something from each of his eras in his career. He has so many different amazing periods in his career. So that was a challenge, but it was fun.

"Gone On And Get That Church" (Live at Birdland, 5/7/2023)

I think you did that too. I was really happy to see “Beaux J. Poo Boo” on this album. I've always wanted to ask you this, Les, so I have to take advantage of this opportunity. I want to hear the story behind that song.

Les McCann: When my first great moment to go to New Orleans, I met a bunch of guys who were telling me, “You ought to change your name to Beaux J. Poo Boo.” They was givin’ me all these ideas. I said, “Well, at least I can incorporate those titles into my old music because they would feel in a way that it was part of where they was. I feel a great connection to New Orleans.

You can hear it in that music too. There's a really special story behind “Don't Forget to Love Yourself.” I understand the two of you wrote that one together. Tell us about that.

Joe Alterman: I remember Les called me a few years ago and being from Kentucky, Les was inspired to rewrite the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.” I think it does need an update. He initially called me and said, “I have the melody.” And he sang this melody to me that was so beautiful. He said, “Put your thing to it.” So that means I had some chords and changed a few notes or something. And when I called him back after I put my thing on it, he said, “This is definitely not supposed to be the state song of Kentucky. This is meant to be a beautiful ballad.” He asked me to come up with a title and I thought back to his voicemail machine before he went in this facility and the voicemail was always, “Hi, this is Les. Give me time to get to the phone, but don't forget to love yourself.” That’s how “Don't Forget to Love Yourself” came to me. That's really a special title. I think it means a lot, especially today, because it's really a nod to our friendship. One of the first things Les ever told me was to not forget to love myself and to choose love.

It's important to love yourself, but it's also kind of cool when others love you, and I know it's gotta mean a lot to you, Les, to see how much this music still means to people. How does it feel to know that your music has really registered now with about three generations of people?

Les McCann: First, I want to say that I don't know if you've ever heard the Kentucky state song. It has a lot of references to the Black people that were there. “The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home, and the darkies are gay.” So, they hit us on two sides there. For many years, I wanted to come up with something that would be nice and right that all Kentuckians could sing. But after I met Joe, I said, “I'm just going to do beautiful music here.”

I understand that goal though. I'm from Virginia. Have you heard the Virginia state song—“Where the old darky’s heart is long ago”?

Joe Alterman: Les came up with a great solution for the state of Georgia. We in Atlanta have a mountain called Stone Mountain that has a Confederate monument on it. Les had a great idea to replace the Confederate statues with those of Otis Redding, James Brown and Ray Charles. But you got to add a D to the end of Stone Mountain. Now it’s got to be Stoned Mountain. I think that's a great solution.

Les, you've always been famous for your sense of humor. You've always kept people laughing. And certainly your live performances have been the best. What were some of your favorite live gigs? I know Montreux has to be way up there.

Les McCann: That was one that opened our eyes and got to be the joy of being on the road with great musicians and taking that around the world and being greeted by people that already knew about us. I don't know if you want to tell that story, Joe, about the first time I ever played in France, on the beach.

Joe Alterman: Oh man, with Ray Charles and Count Basie.

Tell us about it.

 Les McCann
Les McCann

Joe Alterman: I know this was your first time in France. I think this is funny that people thought Les McCann was a band because Les in French means “the.”

Les McCann: They thought we were a dance group. The McCann's. That's what that meant. They told me, “You got 15 minutes. Get out there and get off, because Ray Charles and Count Basie are coming on.” So we did our one and a half songs. The man came out whispering in my ear, “Get off.” And when he did that, all the people started booing. I said, “Well, thank you very much.” And I got off. And they would not stop screaming until the promoter brought us back out on the stage. We did at least three or four encores, and they still wouldn't stop.

The only way they stopped the people going crazy was six beautiful young ladies up in bikinis, and the crowd kind of shifted a little bit, but as the band walked off, Count Basie and Ray Charles were at the doorway to the exit. And they looked at me and said, “You're the hardest act we have ever had to follow.” I carried that with me all my career.

That's some high praise right there.

Les McCann: After that, you can't do nothing but fly. The very next day, I don't even know how they did it, every person in the audience had a poster that said, “Les McCann: A Revolution in Jazz.”

Compared to What

Joe, Les isn't the only legendary pianist that you've been fortunate to connect with. Two others we sadly lost recently. I'd love for you to say something about your friendships with Ramsey Lewis and with Ahmad Jamal.

Joe Alterman: They were both just so kind and special. I miss them both a lot. Les and I both love their music too. They were both incredible guides and friends and mentors in a lot of ways. I was really lucky to know them. Interestingly, to tie this into Les and I, I remember shortly before I met Les, I was opening for someone at the Blue Note and Ahmad Jamal came to hear me. It was the first time I ever played in front of any of my heroes. He was sitting right behind the piano and I was scared to death. I had no idea how to approach playing in front of one of my heroes at that time. I felt bad afterward, because I didn't feel like I had done what I had wanted to do. I was kind of embarrassed with how it went, even though it didn't go bad. I remember shortly after Les and I met and really connected, I shared with him that story.

Les told me that he had had a similar experience early on in his career. He said he was about to go on stage at the London House in Chicago, the famous club in Chicago, for the very first time. Similar to how I felt when Ahmad Jamal walked in the door, Les looked out and sees Oscar Peterson walk in the door. Les went over to Oscar's table and he said, “Oscar, I love you, but I can't play in front of you.” Les told me that Oscar said something that changed his life forever. He said, “Les, I didn't come here to hear me. I came here to hear you.” That made it feel like it's okay to be yourself forever. I wish I'd heard that before I played in front of Ahmad, but it didn't work out that way. But that advice really changed my life too. It's a beautiful cycle we have here.

Les, experiences like that I would imagine are the things that inspire you to be a mentor to Joe and to other young musicians too. To pass along that feeling that was passed along to you.

Les McCann: It's a beautiful thing, but that was just the beginning because so many other well-known pianists who I thought were great would tell me how much they liked me. I didn't know they even heard me because I only had one record out, but my one record supported the whole Pacific Jazz record company and made it well enough where they were able to pay the other artists that they had and to sign me to a contract that allowed me to come in and record anytime I wanted to, any way I wanted to. It was a good way to grow up because to me, my music and the guys that I play with, It's a lifeline. Our connection to God.

Joe Alterman: That's one of the things that really inspired me about Les when we first met. I remember thinking I'm going to learn how to play like Les McCann. Then Les made me realize early on, that's not the point and you'll never sound like me because we haven't lived the same life. So lean into you. I loved the fact that Les didn’t want to play jazz, but he wanted to play Les. It inspired me to really want to play Joe.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.