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.

AAJ: Did you exchange writing with one another?

FH: He would transcribe my audio notes from interviews he did and send them to me. He would write sample chapters, and I would go in there and write some parts, because I was there when the events happened. And we had a great editor at Crown, a very music-savvy young guy named Kevin Doughten. So we had a great team, and we got it done. Things happen because they're meant to happen.

AAJ: There's so much going on in your life so quickly. Perhaps you could explain then why the book is entitled Good Things Happen Slowly.

FH: It has a dual meaning. One has to do with my career, which has become slowly more and more visible and larger over the years. There's been a slow but steady increase in the level of gigs, the awards, the acclaim, the size of my audience, which is very gratifying. The other meaning has to do with the scene in my book where, during my coma, the Intensive Care Unit doctor comes to my partner Scott and says, "In the ICU, good things happen slowly, but bad things happen fast." So the dual meaning is: Yes, there's this great blossoming of a career that's happened in fits and starts over a forty-year period. And at the same time, there's my awareness through my life-threatening illness that this could all be over in an instant.

Life as an "Open Book"

AAJ: The book is so honest and authentic, disclosing some things that most folks would share only in confidence to a therapist or close friend. What led you to make your life an "Open Book," which also happens to be the title of your latest album (Palmetto, 2017)?

FH: It goes back about 25 years, when I decided to come out about being a gay jazz musician, also having HIV, which at that time was more or less a death sentence. On a personal level, I decided I wanted to get it all off my chest, get it all out and not have to think about it anymore. There's a high price to being in the closet. If you're going to be the creative artist you think you can be, it's hard to live a closeted life. But it also came from a sincere desire to be helpful to others. I knew a number of men like the jazz pianist Dave Catney, who was not forthcoming with his parents about being gay. Then, when he got sick from HIV and came out, they shamed him, shunned him, and disowned him. So the message I was giving at that time was, "You need to know who's going to be in your corner if things take a turn for the worse. And the only way you're going to know is by being out about it." That was the beginning of my being an activist.

Specifically in terms of the book, my parents are living, and I had to find a way to be open and honest with my parents, to say to them that they had a flawed relationship that impacted me. They were a product of their times, doing the best they could, but it wasn't a good relationship, So I put that in the book, and anyone who reads it will see that my parents made some decisions and non-decisions that were helpful and others that were not. And part of the problem was that they didn't really communicate with each other. It was one of those 1950s marriages where each them lived in his or her own world.

I also wanted to be honest about my struggles with addictions and compulsions. But I didn't want to sensationalize anything. So I tried to present everything as part of the story but not the ultimate "take away." The "take away" is the whole arc of the book. It's one person's story about how I got to where I am and what made me the way I am. This was not to be a book to be read by just a bunch of jazz geeks. It's also for people who might know me because of my activism and might not be jazz fans. Or people who love music but might not know much about jazz. I wanted to satisfy the jazz fan, but a lot of other people as well. For example, my editor might ask me to say something about what was so great about Tommy Flanagan or Joe Henderson, or Jimmy McGary, my mentor in Cincinnati. I wanted to tell the non-jazz layman what was so special about these and other musicians. So I tried to put myself in the shoes of the uninitiated who didn't know about these guys, so I could make them come alive.

AAJ: It's very hard to explain to someone who hasn't heard them what is so special about particular jazz musicians!

FH: And why they're so important, not just to me but to the music.

AAJ: In addition to your book, a documentary about your life has been released.

FH: There's a new feature film called The Ballad of Fred Hersch (Swell Cinema, 2016) that was released last year and is out now, streaming on Vimeo. They did a great job of capturing the pre-production process for My Coma Dreams among other things.

Teaching and Critiquing Jazz

AAJ: In the book, as well as in the films, you express deep gratitude to your piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff.

FH: She became my piano teacher after I moved to New York, starting when I was about 24. Barr Harris was studying with her and recommended her to me. Sadly, she died very recently at age 96. She had dementia, but before that she led a great life.
About Fred Hersch
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