Fred Hersch: No Limits
AAJ: What were the circumstances which found you moving to New York?
FH: I moved one week after graduation from New England. When I was in New England, I didn't really invest in playing locally in Boston. There were a limited number of places to play, and in Boston you're kind of always a student. You felt like there wasn't really anywhere to go. I always knew that Boston was sort of a halfway stop between Cincinnati and New York. It gave me a chance to live completely on my own, deal with public transportation. Just being in an East Coast city with all that it had to offer in way of art and music was a real eye opener.
AAJ: Often the jazz scene of the 1970s is portrayed as not as exciting nor artistically "pure" as the decades which preceded it. Yet during this time you were playing with some heavy hitters like (Lee Konitz and Joe Henderson. What do you remember of the jazz landscape of this time?
FH: The '70s was the beginning of fusion and smooth jazz started then. It was a time when the line between what's jazz and what isn't jazz got a little vague. But it was also a time when the playing field was pretty equal. Major labels did not have a lot of jazz on their rosters. Stan Getz or Miles Davis maybe, but almost the whole time I worked with Joe [Henderson] he didn't have a record contract. This was before Wynton Marsalis and the pursuit of young talent.
In the '80s, and particularly the late `80s, the role of the institution/schools had started to solidify. The '70s were great because at a place like Bradley's you could go up to the bar and end up standing next to Art Blakey and have a drink. If you hung out late at night after they closed the doors, all kinds of people would hang out: Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles. They would play stump the pianist with each other, they would get into philosophical discussions, show each other chord changes or tunes...really just kind of hung out and played gigs. It wasn't so much about marketing or managers or publicists or any of that kind of stuff. People had booking agents, and that was basically it. It was a more wide open scene.
Also when I came to New York in the '70s, there was the whole loft scene. Sam Rivers had a loft; Joe Lee Wilson had a loft. You could really see some exciting improvised music that was accessible and not expensive. There was a lot of energy on that scene too. I was kind of drawn to that as well and fascinated by it.
Just yesterday I was up at Ornette Coleman's loft playing duets with him, which is a complete thrill. We just sat and played. It was just thrilling.
AAJ: Now there are many more jazz programs and conservatories nationwide, but is something lost to today's up-and-coming players with the death of such a journeyman education?
FH: Initially when I played, and for a very long time, there were never any music stands on the band stands. Someone would just call out a tune and you were expected to know them.
Later on, I started playing with different people like Art Farmer, and they had a book of pieces that they had collected or some that they had written. In Art's case, he wasn't much of a composer but he had a good ear for unusual tunes that we played.
A lot of the younger players now have incredible facility and ease in dealing with very complex concepts and rhythms, but their relationship to the classics of jazz and the great American songbook is very dutiful and tangential. It is not something that interests a lot of them or excites them. So people are more likely to play gigs and play their own music, no longer calling tunes or having simple lead sheets.
You can't say it's better or worse. Things evolve and I still believe in the values of playing songs of all kinds. Songs are great frameworks for me to improvise with and I feel very comfortable with it, but it isn't for everybody.
I think there is a lot of interesting stuff now that has come out of the schools and out of the workshops; that has moved the music in a different direction. Who's to say where it will all shake out?
AAJ: The jazz/supper club Bradley's was your launching pad in New York. You were an up-and-coming artist who often had to play before not just the patrons, but already established players who came in to socialize and have a few drinks. How did you first come by your association with the club?
FH:A bassist friend of mine from Cincinnati and I got a loft on 11th street in the Village. Back then, it was like $350 per month for 2500 square feet. It was right around the corner from Bradley's. That is where I made my big breakthrough just playing at Bradley's and hanging out there. It was a great piano spot and just incredible social scene.
When I got to New York I worked a lot of $25 gigs, played in the Catskills and accompanied singers, played private parties. I did a lot of dues-paying gigs that I think young musicians need to do, before I started at Bradley's and playing with some great bass players.
I used to go down there all the time, sip an orange juice and listen to Jimmy Rowles or Roland Hanna or whoever happened to be playing there. Jimmy particularly was very kind and would let me sit in. I began to meet some of the bass playersparticularly Sam Jones.
One night after hours I played with Red Mitchell, and we really enjoyed playing with each other. Red said to Bradley that he thought I should get a week. At that time, Bradley had never hired a young pianist. He used only pretty much established guys. So I had the good fortune, or dumb luck, to call Sam Jones and we really hit it off musically. Then I started playing with him and his quintet or trio or 12-piece bands. Once I had the stamp of approval from Sam, it kind of meant that I was ok in terms of the post-bop jazz world.
He taught me a lot about the business and about rhythmjust about how to be in the community. Some very great lessons I learned by observing. He was really great to me.
Sam recommended me to Art Farmer who then recommended me to Joe Henderson; then I started serving some long apprenticeships with those guys. I was ambitious and I put myself out there. I came to New York to play with the best players in the world, and that was what I was going to do!
Then I began to play at Bradley's regularly. I played with Sam, Charlie Haden, Red Mitchell and Buster Williams, Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Bob Cranshaw, George Mraz. When you play a whole week with a bassist, just duo, you really get to know each other.
Bradley's was a late club, so people would get off their gig at the Vanguard or whatever and they would come by for a drink. You would still be playing at quarter to three in the morning.
AAJ: While some of the country's larger cities still have jazz clubs, going to one has become a far more staid affair, with other musicians rarely coming in just to relax or jam. Has jazz lost something in the disappearance of this atmosphere?
FH: I think so. There are a few places in New York where there is a little bit of a hang and where things are loose. Once you play there a few times, they know you and you don't have to pay the cover charge, you can just come in and have a drink. The expensive clubs suck up the energy. There are alternatives: places in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, places on the Lower East Side; many of them unfortunately don' t have pianos, but at this point I am kind of established and playing at the Vanguard or the Jazz Standard. I don't really play in the smaller clubs except Smalls now and then, just to try something new and check out a new player, just to keep my fingers in it between major appearances.
It's a low under-the-radar thing. I try to get together with other musicians and find out what they are listening to or talk shop. I always try to go hear young players that I have heard about and check them out, go out to support my friends when they're playing. One of the reasons I live in New York is to be able to hear live music at any time.
The socialization that took place back then is of a particular time and place. Truth be told, people were high or drunk a lot, and it was just a part of the atmosphere of the late `70s/early `80s. The music was a club music with rare exceptions.
On one hand, it is nice for me to go travel somewhere, play in a beautiful concert hall on a really nice Steinway, whether it's solo or with my trio or some other configuration. The money is good and the circumstances are good, but it is still not as satisfying as playing a week at the Vanguard or playing a few nights in a row in a club. That's, in many instances, where the best music happens because you have a chance for things to develop.
When you are playing just one concert or a festival where you are one set on a double bill, you feel like you have to present something. It's very hard to just kind of relax and let things go where they want to go. There is a temptation to be more structured about the affair. You are conscious of the clock; I'll more typically plan the set, whereas in a club I'll more typically call a song I feel like playing. It is just a different atmosphere.