African American Studies
Born in 1943, Barry Altschul grew up in the West Bronx in the forties and fifties. Altschul is a jazz drummer who first learned to play the drums at age eleven. He grew up playing shows in the Bronx and Harlem while also attending “jam sessions” where he received pointers from jazz musicians such as Philly Joe and Art Blakey.
Altschul attended elementary school at PS 70, junior high school at PS 117, and then attended Taft High School. Altschul’s elementary school’s ethnic makeup was mostly white, whereas in high school Altschul recalls that the student body was 21% black. Altschul recognizes the cultural exchanges that would happen between himself and his friends when visiting homes or when his friends visited his family. At the time, Altschul felt that people of all ethnic groups got along unless there were gang rivalries between groups. While he knew people in gangs, as many people at the time did, Altschul spent his high school years on the swim team as well as singing with a group both in school as well as in neighborhood jam sessions with many other musicians. Not permitted by his parents to attend Music and Art in Harlem, Altschul improved his music while learning from musicians at jam sessions in various clubs, bowling alleys, and apartments, such as Elmo Hope’s.
For a period, Altschul attended the bar Slugs in Manhattan every night, a bar in which he, Paul Bley, and Dave Izenzon were the first band to ever play. At the time, along with other musicians, Altschul was using heroin, but was clean by age fifty. Altschul has played bebop gigs in Montreal with guitarist Billy White and a variety of other musicians. He also toured Europe, visited Argentina, and traveled from Africa to Brazil to Haiti to study the roots of the drums.
Altschul went on to teach both privately and at Sarah Lawrence and played music with Billy Bang and Joe Fonda. While playing with so many musicians, Altschul recognized a commonality among Bronx musicians, a recognizable playing style particular to those who grew up playing jazz in the Bronx.
Altschul, Barry. February 18, 2008. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
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