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Fred Hersch: Life, Music, and the Creative Process

Victor L. Schermer By

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Since his arrival on the jazz scene in the 1970s, pianist Fred Hersch has developed from a sought after sideman to a multi-Grammy nominated jazz icon, creative force, and significant composer of songs, jazz standards, and original complete works, the latter including Leaves of Grass (Palmetto, 2005), based upon the poetry of Walt Whitman. As one indication of the high regard in which he is held, Hersch is one of very few musicians invited to do extended solo engagements at the Village Vanguard, where he has also played often with his trios. Remarkably, he achieved such success while suffering from AIDS, and, in 2008, recovering from a medically induced coma which formed the basis of an original musical drama, My Coma Dreams (released on video by Palmetto Records, 2014). One of the first musicians to "come out," he is an activist on behalf of AIDS care and a prominent figure in the gay community. His recent autobiography, Good Things Happen Slowly (Crown, 2017) is an authentic, sincerely felt recollection of his life and music.

Hersch's home base for many years has been a loft in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan that has undergone several metamorphorses, including at one time a recording studio, and is now a comfortable multi-room apartment space. He graciously invited us there to interview him in person where he lives with his partner Scott Morgan. In the center of a pleasantly arranged living room is a grand piano, with shelves of vinyl and CD albums to one side, a bright window view, and a chair, coffee table, and sofa for relaxed talk. It was a perfect setting to turn on the tape recorder and go wherever the conversation took us.

All About Jazz: For a warmup, what music and recordings have you been listening to lately?

Fred Hersch: I've got the Beatles' Abbey Road out here for playing. I've also been listening to Django Bates' new CD, The Study of Touch (ECM, 2017), an old Steven Stills album, the one with the track "Love the One You're With," and some chamber music. Also, I'm in the middle of putting together a new trio album with John Hébert and Eric McPherson. We've been together for eight and a half years, and this is our sixth album. We've put in two days in the studio, all original tunes, so I've been trying to get a feel for the sequence, which tapes I want, and if there's any editing to be done, so I've been listening to a lot of takes from it.

AAJ: What made you go back to that Beatles album?

FH: I never stopped listening to the Beatles. I never stopped listening to Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Earth Wind and Fire, Luther Vandross.

AAJ: Do you ever play any of their tunes yourself?

FH: I've covered Joni, the Beatles, a James Taylor tune once. But I like to listen to music just for enjoyment. I keep up with current releases. I get DownBeat and Jazz Times, and if they talk very positively about an album, I'll actually order it and check it out. I still like to buy the physical CDs, I'm from that generation, although I'm beginning to use Spotify. Even though it's sort of a bargain with the devil, it's a useful tool.

The Autobiographical Memoir: Good Things Happen Slowly

AAJ: Given that you are so busy with gigs, recordings, and so on, what prompted you to take the all the time required to write your highly regarded memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz?

FH: It evolved organically. About four years ago, I did an extended interview with pianist Ethan Iverson on his "Do the Math" blog. Ethan is a peer and contemporary who was also a student of mine. Many people read that interview in which Ethan focused a lot on the late 1970s here in New York when I was learning my craft by apprenticeship, while the nightclub Bradley's was still the place to hang out late at night, and New York was more or less falling apart. It was a very exciting time to be a young musician in New York. So it was important to focus on that time, and also what it was like being gay at that time.

A lot of people read and appreciated the interview with Ethan and said, "You've really got a great story! You should write a book!" As a result, I got a hold of a friend, Chris Calhoun, who happens to be the literary agent for David Hajdu, who wrote Lush Life (Farrar. Strauss, and Giroux, 1997), the Billy Strayhorn biography. David has been a very old friend of mine for over twenty-five years, So Chris read Ethan's interview, and said, "You have a great story. I'm going to ask around and see if there's interest in publishing a book." We needed to find a collaborator to help with the writing, and we decided to ask Hajdu, who was delighted to do it! Once he was on board, we were able to get a great book deal with Penguin Random House—with Crown Archetype, a very high-end imprint for musical memoirs and personality-driven books. So that's how it happened.

Also, I was getting close to sixty, which I felt was a good time to look back. My coma happened about ten years ago, and I felt sufficiently recovered to look back on it. Also, in Japanese culture, they say that when you turn sixty, you're reborn. My memory is still good. And at sixty years, you've learned enough to earn the right to write a memoir. David was an ideal collaborator, a very fine writer. He and I both wrote a lot. It just felt like it happened in the right way at the right time.

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