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Forrester was reared in Pittsburgh. He has played jazz piano professionally since the age of 15; his first composition (based on an Erroll Garner lick) was entitled "Tiber Rag" and was submitted as a high-school Latin project in 1962.
Forrester was further educated at Ohio University and while there furnished music for the early films of Andy Warhol, a fellow Pittsburgher. Forrester was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, registered voters in Montgomery, Alabama, in the spring of 1965 and was a draft resister during the Vietnam War, serving several months in prison in 1970/71.
Forrester and the former Mary Harrison, a dancer, married in 1970; they have had one child, Max. In 1973, following several years on Federal parole (passed in Boston and San Francisco), Forrester moved to New York City, where he has lived and worked ever since. In the late 1970s, Joel was introduced to Thelonious Monk by a friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. He received Monk's personal encouragement — Monk told Forrester, "You can play!" and advised him to concentrate on making new compositions.
With saxophonist Phillip Johnston, Forrester co-founded, in 1981, the Microscopic Septet, with which he played, composed, toured, and recorded for 12 years. When the band broke up in 1992, Forrester took his family to Paris, where they lived for a year. While there, he developed a second musical career as an improvising accompanist to silent film, earning the plaudits of the Paris Free Voice, which called him "the world's finest" at that lost art. In coming years, he would play for films in the leading museums of Paris: The Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Forum des Images.
Back in New York, Joel founded the quartet "People Like Us", featuring Claire Daly on baritone saxophone; its original drummer was Denis Charles. He recorded extensively for KOCH International, working with producer Donald Elfman. He currently (2012) maintains a quintet and trio in New York and a quintet in France.
In addition to the theme to Fresh Air, Forrester's 1650 compositions (as of 2012) include the eight-hour repetitive piano piece "Industrial Arts" and the off-Broadway satire Fascist Living, which closed after two performances in 2000.
At 71 (2017), Forrester continues to find steady work as a pianist specializing in his own compositions and gigging an average of five times a week. His piano styles include stride, ragtime, boogie-woogie, bop, and trance." He records for Elfman's Ride Symbol label; he has been selected for five years running to do a week of outdoor concerts in New York's Bryant Park; he is a perennial winner of a BMI composition award; and Down Beat commissioned and published his essay on making a life in music.
- People Like Us...No, Really, Ride Symbol
- Stop The Music, Ride Symbol
- In Heaven, Ride Symbol
- Believe it, Ride Symbol
- Fresh Air, NPR
- Ellington Ballads, Koch
- Ever Wonder Why, Ride Symbol
- Live at the Hillside, Asynchronous Records (duets with Phillip Johnston)
- The Mascot DVD (composed and performed original soundtrack), Ride Symbol
The Microscopic Septet
- Take The Z Train, Press
- Let's Flip, Osmosis
- Offbeat Glory, Osmosis
- Beauty Based on Science: The Visit, Stash
- Seven Men in Neckties: History of the Micros, Vol. 1, Cuneiform
- Surrealistic Swing: History of the Micros, Vol. 2, Cuneiform
- Lobster Leaps In, Cuneiform
Joel Forrester Official website
- Joel Roberts, "Joel Forrester and People Like Us: Ever Wonder Why".
- Ozier Mohammad, "A Piano, a Baroness and Thelonious Monk".
- Jennifer Odell, "Joel Forrester: Silents’ Buzz". Down Beat, September 2010.
- Peter Keepnews, "Liner notes for PEOPLE LIKE US, RID-CD-004"