Fred Hersch: Celebrating Walt Whitman

Victor L. Schermer By

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Certainly, this 'Leaves of Grass' piece is a fairly positive uplifiting piece spiritually... encouraging us to look at the present and be alive in the moment
Fred Hersch is a working jazz pianist and composer based in New York City, with an outstanding resume of accomplishments (see his website for full details). In addition to his three-decade long daily fare as a leader and sideman on a multitude of gigs and recordings, he has, over the course of his career, undertaken a variety of special projects, such as solo performances, duo collaborations, his own trio and other ensembles, and composition.

In an understated way, Hersch has shown himself to be a major creative force in jazz, and with the recent release of the CD, Leaves of Grass and its associated concert tour, he burst further upon the scene with an innovative and profoundly moving Leaves of Grass, a composition set to Walt Whitman's poetry for a jazz octet and two remarkable vocalists. Recent All About Jazz reviews are instances of the glowing media reports on this piece. When I myself listened to the CD for the first time, I experienced the equivalent of an epiphany. Here was something genuinely original, refreshing, and powerfully awakening. I felt a sense of wonder and knew that a universal yet deeply personal statement was being made. The seamless integration of the words of a great poet, with jazz improvisation, special effects, and, above all, vocalizations that express the gamut of human emotions, was electrifying.

So, even though Fred has been previously interviewed by AAJ, I requested another conversation with him, primarily to garner some his thoughts about the Leaves of Grass project, but also to catch up with some of his reflections about his musical and personal life. I spoke with him by phone at his living loft in lower Manhattan, reaching him in the evening a few days after he returned from Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the locations of a nationwide tour. Taking precious time out for an interview, Fred conveys a naturalness, honesty, and warmth that is refreshing in a business that—as he fully acknowledges—is perfectionistically demanding and "pressure cooker time-consuming. Here is what he had to say in conversation with me:

All About Jazz: Let's go right into Leaves of Grass. You just completed your concert tour, which was coordinated with the release of the CD. What are some of your reflections about the tour?

Fred Hersch: It was great! Everything went well, in terms of not having any major travel problems or technical problems. Shuffling ten people around the U.S. is not easy. Pretty exhausting in a lot of ways. But I'm glad I did it. It was great to do six performances in the month, and get the piece up in front of an audience. We got some very nice local press, sold out Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and received a great review in The New York Times by Ben Ratliff. So there were many good things that happened. And it was just good to play the piece multiple times. We'll have a few more performances through the end of this year, but this was the big CD release tour, and I'm pretty exhausted! But it was well worth it!

AAJ: You found it fulfilling.

FH: Absolutely. I think the piece has a lot of power when it is experienced live. And a lot of people got to check it out.

AAJ: The last concert of the tour was in Lincoln, Nebraska at a Walt Whitman poetry conference.

FH: It was at a Walt Whitman symposium in honor of the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1855.

AAJ: Did you get feedback about the performance from any of the Whitman scholars?

FH: I did a post-concert Q and A. People were generally very positive. There may have been people who didn't attend the Q and A who didn't like it or were offended or thought I left out things they wished were included — but this was not an academic project and I didn't feel compelled to include "Whitman's Greatest Hits". I just set the poems and parts of poems that resonated with me.

AAJ: How did you first become interested in Whitman's poetry and specifically Leaves of Grass?

FH: Well, I've been interested in Walt Whitman since college. More recently, a friend of mine in England, the person who used to represent me and books gigs for me in the U.K., suggested a large scale setting of Whitman's poetry for an ensemble. And that was around 2000 to 2001. It wasn't until 2003 that my manager here in the U.S. was able to secure some live dates for the piece, even though it wasn't written yet! That way I had a reason to write it. For me, deadlines are always a good thing! Then I wrote the piece: I spent a large part of 2002 putting the libretto together and deciding which parts of what poems I wanted to set. Leaves of Grass is 600 pages in the complete edition, so that took 8 months. And then I wrote the actual piece in sketch form in January, 2003, up at the MacDowellColony in New Hampshire. That took about three and a half weeks. After that, it took three weeks to orchestrate and 10 days to copy the parts.

AAJ: Quite a time crunch!

FH: It was down to the wire! We had three performances that were well received, and on the basis of those, we got an archival recording and then secured future performances. At this point, the piece has been done ten times live, and there'll be four more performances this year. And hopefully we'll continue booking it. It's difficult to book because there are ten people involved, it's not cheap to present, and there are a lot of schedules to deal with, and so on. But I have faith that we will keep it going somehow.

AAJ: Were there any specific musical influences on the composition?

FH: You'd have to make that call! That's not anything I can say.

AAJ: You composed it basically as it came to you?

FH: The inspiration came from the words. The words suggested the music. That's pretty much how I went for it. I didn't limit myself. There are obviously places that are more jazz based, others that are "new music based, and others that have more of an "Americana vibe. But it's a big soup of stuff, just like Whitman's poetry was a big soup of stuff, so I feel as if it kind of came from him.

AAJ: Does the composition follow a particular musical form? A cantata or song cycle, perhaps?

FH: Not really. Maybe oratorio or cantata? It's a full evening piece, though. It's not just a setting of a bunch of songs. It has a full dramatic arc to it. But I don't know that there is an exact parallel in classical music for it.

AAJ: When you were composing the parts for the two singers, were you thinking of particular vocalists?

FH: Yes, it was written for Kurt Elling and Norma Winstone. They were my inspirations. Norma lives in London. So it was just impossible to include her on the recording and the tour on account of logistics and expense. But she'll be in the performance we're doing in Antwerp.

AAJ: The recording features Kate McGarry rather than Norma.

FH: She's doing all the U.S. performances as well and is sounding great.

AAJ: All the musicians in the ensemble were exceptional.

FH: It's a very strong ensemble. Everyone has real personalities. I have done it with substitute performers, but on this tour we've pretty much had the musicians who are on the CD, with the exception of the cellist, Eric Friedlander, who was unavailable. So it's a really neat thing to be able to have this same band throughout this tour. We had a great time with each other socially, and the music really flowed very nicely.

AAJ: Do you think of the composition as something specifically for this ensemble, or would you want to open it up to be performed by any fine jazz ensemble as part of the repertoire?

FH: Well, there's no real piano part - it's a scribble. So I couldn't just hand the parts to somebody and have them do it. I'd have to be part of it. And it requires two superior vocalists. I performed the piece last year with the Indiana University School of Music students, and I sat in with the students. We had several days of rehearsals, but in the end, I had to import a male vocalist, because no one at the School could really cover that part. The students did a great job, but we had two or three days of rehearsals, and with professionals that would be prohibitively expensive.

AAJ: There's a sense in which a given jazz performance is totally unique, and then there's a sense in which this piece, and a few others in the jazz repertoire, belong in the annals of jazz for many years to come. They're like large scale "standards. I suspect Leaves of Grass will emerge as such a "standard repertoire work. Leaves has that feeling about it, that it's going to last.

FH: Well, my classical publisher C.F. Peters has discussed whether or not it would be worth it to issue a score. But that would mean me having to write out a piano part and typesetting the score and parts, a big job and a large expense. And it also wouldn't be playable by classical musicians- it would have to be jazz musicians and sung by jazz vocalists. Peters is a classical publishing firm, so they usually deal with fully notated music. So, I don't know where this will end up, but right now, I'm really satisfied with the response. I've done a number of NPR shows. I was on "Fresh Air. I'm going to be on a big special on Leaves of Grass, the book. I'm taping it this week. At the end of May, the Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall performance will be aired on NPR on a series called Creators at Carnegie. There have been some nice reviews and interviews, as well. So, we're trying to keep the buzz going through this Whitman Sesquicentennial Year, if we can.

AAJ: Do you have any aspirations now to focus your life on being a composer?

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?

FH: Well, my partner, Scott Morgan, is my closest friend. And then, of course, the guys that I've played with for years, Drew Gress, Nasheet Waits, Kate McGarry, are all people that I'm very tight with. I also have a number of friends who are not musicians, who are visual artists or poets, some of whom I've met at artists' colonies, residencies, and so forth. I have quite a wide network of colleagues and people who are former students, who are now my good friends. Our relationships have morphed into more of a peer relationship or a friendly collegial relationship. I have quite a number of friends all over the country and in Europe as well. Sometimes when I'm really busy, I don't have time to keep up with people. That's one of the hazards of having an intense, multifaceted career that involves travel. So, I'm grateful that I have all the opportunities that I have, but sometimes it gets to be too much. Into this Fall, I have a lot of engagements- you can see the tour page on my website. But they're spaced out, and my partner and I built a second home outside of New York City in Northeast Pennsylvania, which we occupied last September, so this will be our first Spring and Summer out there. I'm really looking forward to spending as much time as I possibly can there.

AAJ: That neck of the woods has a large community of jazz musicians.

FH: Actually, we may not be where you think we are. We're not down in the Delaware Water Gap or Stroudsburg. We're up north. There are some musicians in my area: Mark Murphy lives not far, and Bill Mays. But we pretty much stick to ourselves out there. We don't do a lot of socializing. We just go out there to be quiet, read, be outdoors, play the piano, listen to music. We don't have a television there. It's really nice to just get out. In the city, I live in SoHo on Broadway, and it's basically a shopping mall, especially on the weekends. I've been there twenty-seven years in the same loft, and it's very cheap, so I'm not going to give it up. It's a great base of operations, and my partner works in the city four days a week, and one day out in Pennsylvania. So, if I'm not on the road, we try to get out there for at least three day weekends. So it's just great to have an escape, and a place that's ours, with more space than in the city. I do a lot of composing out there, and so on.

AAJ: Are there any musical "mountains you still want to climb? Any particular musical passions you want to fulfill?

FH: Most of them have to do with composition projects - I'd like to do a large-scale piece with text. Perhaps something on the stage, whether a music theater piece or a small opera. I'm interested in doing more things with poetry. Things come up: I might be writing the score to a full length ballet for a small jazz ensemble. That might happen this year, just waiting to hear. Right now, I need to regroup- it's been a blizzard of stuff and travel since mid-January, and I just need some time to chill.

AAJ: Who are some of your own favorite jazz musicians, past and present?

FH: Some of the people I go back to again and again are Sonny Rollins, Ornette, Monk, Duke Ellington, Paul Bley, Miles in his various incarnations, Coltrane, Earl Hines whose solo recordings I love, Ahmad Jamal, his original trio. These are things I go back to again and again.

AAJ: Tell us about Paul Bley.

FH: I've always been a Paul Bley fan. Essentially, Keith Jarrett is a combination of Bill Evans and Paul Bley. Paul has had a lot of influence on many people, and of course he himself was influenced by Ornette, so there's that particular lineage or branch of the tree. Paul's recorded output is very uneven, but his best records are, I think, fantastic. When I get a chance to hear him live in New York, I always go. I used to hear Tommy Flanagan all the time - he's one of my favorites - it's a shame he's not with us any more. He was great for phrasing and improvising.

AAJ: Vocalists?

FH: I like many vocalists. Carmen McCrae and Billie Holiday are probably my favorites in the jazz realm. Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan I love, some obscure vocalists, Irene Kral, she's one of my faves, she's real simple, some early Rosemary Clooney. Like I said, certain records hit you in a certain way. Joni Mitchell - as a singer as well as an incredible genius composer/songwriter. As a singer, I think she's really interesting. Certain Brazilian singers I love. Leny Adndrade, Elis Regina, Caetano Veloso.

AAJ: Again, to shift around the topic a bit: like John Coltrane and others, I think of jazz as embodying spirituality. Do you agree?

FH: Certainly, this Leaves of Grass piece is a fairly positive uplifiting piece spiritually. That's the ultimate effect of it. As I wrote in the liner notes, it suggests "Whitman as Buddha or Thoreau, encouraging us to look at the present and be alive in the moment, to treat all creatures respectfully, and embrace your sensuality and be who you are and don't apologize for it. I think that's very timely with what's going on in this country and what's going on in the world. It's good for people to hear those kind of words. I never get tired of them.

AAJ: Your music goes so well with Whitman's words and brings out the meanings so well. It's a spiritually moving listening experience.

FH: Thank you. Also, whenever I play, whether solo, trio, or Leaves of Grass, I try not to overemphasize technique or "chops for their own sake. It's all in service of expression of emotion. I've worked very hard on the sound I get from the piano, and hopefully that sound resonates with people, and they get an emotional reaction, and I play with a great deal of emotion. It's just who I am. On a technical level, I hear a lot of great music being played out there, but I also hear a lot of music that doesn't move me. Ultimately, that's what it's all about - how well you move people and how well you get involved as you play and how you express yourself. And the greatest players, like Sonny Rollins or Miles or Monk, play with a great deal of feeling in addition to being incredible improvisers and having wonderful personal sounds. Those are the people who are my heroes.

AAJ: So spirituality in music is the soul, the expression of something deep inside us.

FH: I agree! And hopefully without being heavy or "new agey about it.

AAJ: Do you follow a spiritual tradition or practice?

FH: The closest would be Buddhism. I was raised Jewish, Americanized Reform Jew, so I guess that makes me a "Jew-Bu"!

AAJ: Are you familiar with Mark Epstein's work?

FH: No.

AAJ: He's a psychiatrist who studied Buddhism and wrote a marvelous book called Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.

FH: Actually, I have heard of that book.

AAJ: Well, it feels as if we're just beginning our discussions- there's so much we could get into. But I know you have a packed schedule, so let's stop here.

FH: Thanks, Victor. And thanks for your positive energy and your support of the Leaves of Grass project.

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz


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