Fred Hersch: Celebrating Walt Whitman
FH: No, not full time playing live is too important to me and too much fun! I do continue to write concert music, and I'm sure I'll find another large project. Now, I'm focusing on recovering from these extraordinarily busy last couple of months, and writing some tunes for my trio. I've got some big solo concerts next season. I've gotta write some new pieces or dig out some old stuff and kind of freshen my solo and trio repertoire. The trio will be at the Vanguard in July. It's just time to play some new things. I love what we've been playing, but it's been the same music for the last couple or three years.
AAJ: To change the subject to your personal life for a moment, I want to say that I appreciate that you're open about being gay. I feel that it's very refreshing.
Tell me if you agree with the following, namely, that the jazz community is very "hush-hush about sexual orientation issues and has maintained a kind of "don't ask; don't tell policy over the years.
FH: Well, maybe. I was sort of a pioneer about it when I came out publicly in 1993-94, not only about being gay but about having HIV. It became quite a big media story And I was in Newsweek and on CNN and CBS Sunday Morning. That was in association with some benefit projects I've done for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I continue this work and have now done four benefit CD projects and countless benefit concerts around the country. It has become an important part of my life many musicians have donated their services for these projects which have raised over $200,000 for AIDS services to date.
Of course, my medical prognosis then was not nearly as good 10 years ago as it is now, but I decided to get it off my chest. Also, for artistic reasons, it's important to be comfortable with who you are and not be afraid of whatever- it's just a kind of a waste of energy in my opinion. So I've become sort of the role model for other gay jazz musicians who have come out after me. Sometimes I get emails from young gay jazz musicians or musicians with HIV, just wanting information, or to talk, or how I handled it, what effect it had on my career. And I can certainly say that it's had no detrimental effect. Everybody knows. Nobody seems to care. As a matter of fact, I do several performances a year simply because I'm gay, when they're looking for a gay artist. So I'm very visible that way, and it feels like the right thing to do. As I can say, it really freed me up creatively.
On the other hand, I hope I live to see the day that being gay is a non-issue, like some people wear glasses and some people don't. On the face of it, it's really not that interesting.
AAJ: Yet, I think it's important to be open about it because so much of jazz expression is personal and autobiographical. As Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn. When one plays jazz, one is in a certain way talking about oneself. Being open about who you are and what your life is like seems to me to be in the best spirit of jazz.
FH: Yes. But I don't want people to read too much into my sexuality, and start thinking, "He plays gay music or gay jazz. There's no such thing. I'm a creative artist, pianist, composer, collaborator, teacher, mentor - who just happens to be gay. I don't identify myself as a gay 'this' or a gay 'that' - unless possibly they're writing about me in a gay publication. But in general, that's not the first thing on the plate. It's part of who I am, but I don't write or play gay music, so to speak.
Walt Whitman may have been gay, but homosexuality didn't really become a "category until the modern development of psychiatry. It was really Havelock Ellis who defined homosexuality as a category prior to Freud in the late 1800's and early 1900's. So - who knows? It has been theorized that Schubert was gay, Handel was gay, Michaelangelo too. But they themselves wouldn't have identified themselves as gay, because there was no label for it in those times.
AAJ: But today, the taboo is unhealthy and not productive for jazz.
FH: Well, it's not taboo any more. Gay people are visible and out everywhere. All this flap about gay marriage is a bunch of crap. It serves as a way for the Republican Party to energize the Evangelicals and homophobic people. But that's another discussion.
AAJ: Moving on, who are some of your closest friends, and what do you value in them?