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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.

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.

AAJ: What was it about her that left you with such a debt of gratitude?

FH: She helped me connect with the piano in a very easy, natural way. She helped me pay more attention to my sound and to the emotional rhythm of my playing. So part of her teaching was mechanical and technical, but in addition, she was a very enlightened person, great to be around, very well-read. She had a great vibe and was very supportive. She was a classical piano teacher, but she loved jazz. She was very open to all kinds of music—she wasn't a snob in any way. We became good friends, and we shared some students like Ethan Iverson. The affection and appreciation was mutual between us.

AAJ: I'd like to get your take on jazz journalists and critics like myself. A musician friend recently asked me to think about my purpose for doing what I do, and I really didn't know because I just started doing it without any particular justification. But I realize now that there's a purpose to it other than sheer enjoyment, somehow to contribute to the betterment of music and the arts. So I'm curious what you musicians think about people who write about your music. I wonder what concerns you have about critics and reviews, and what you feel is the real and legitimate role of the jazz writer and critic.

FH: Well, off the top of my head, there are certain jazz critics who are like cheerleaders, who are fairly positive about almost everything. As a consumer, I will sometimes buy a record based on a really positive review, and then when I listen to it, I will go like, "how did this get five stars?" It's a very personal thing whether you like a particular recording or performance. I have been blessed to have gotten generally great press. My most recent album, Open Book (Palmetto, 2017) has gotten some of the best reviews of my career. It's up for two Grammys. But one critic obviously didn't get it. Basically, he said it was boring. And in the same column he praised another pianist, who shall be nameless, who he thought was great. That kind of explained it, because if he thought that pianist was great, it would also make sense that he wouldn't like me. That pianist is basically flashy and not particularly emotional or introspective.

For me it's not as important what others think as what I think about one of my albums. I had a very good feeling about Open Book, like I did with my last trio album, Sunday Night at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto, 2016). I thought they were two of the best albums I've made so far. That was borne out by Grammy nominations and a lot of great press.

When you get off the stage, it just matters how you yourself feel about the set. Of course, I've learned to be polite, so if someone tells me they enjoyed the show I'm not going to respond to a compliment by saying, "No, it was terrible." I'm just going to say, "Thank you. I'm really glad you enjoyed it." I've also learned that some musicians are never going to compliment you, no matter how good it is. They'll say something vague like, "Yeah, man!" Or, "Nice to hear you." So, like most artists who "make stuff" -that's what artists are for -we have to go with our instincts.

For example, when I composed Leaves of Grass, no one had ever done anything quite like that. So I didn't have a template for it. It wasn't quite an opera or oratorio, musical, or song cycle. It was simply a personal interpretation of selected poems by a poet whose words I really loved. I just had to follow my instincts. You have to be comfortable enough to follow your instincts.

My new recording, Open Book basically started from a 20 minute open improvisation, "Through the Forest," that was recorded in South Korea before a live audience. I'd never done anything like that in public before. When I got home they sent me the recording and I didn't know if it was good or not. So I asked a trusted friend who thought it was really special, and so months later I went back to South Korea to the same hall, with the same engineer and piano, but without the audience, and recorded a bunch of other tracks so that it would all have the same sound. Only two tracks are with an audience in the room.

AAJ: The Steinway piano you use in the recording has a wonderful, resonant sound.

FH: Yes, it's a beautiful piano and beautiful sound.

AAJ: Is that piano part of the auditorium, or did you have it brought in?

FH: It's the house piano in this hall. It was there in this small 200-seat concert hall. So, getting back to how I did the album, I didn't know in advance how I was going to sequence the album. I just recorded a bunch of stuff. Then, I realized that the track "Through the Forest" needed to be in the center, and it ended up being flanked on either side by three pieces each. So it's a symmetrical design.

AAJ: Did you woodshed or plan the pieces at all? Your version of Benny Golson's "Whisper Not" is especially complex, unique, and well thought out. Did you devote a lot of time to working out its structure?

FH: No. It's just that I've been playing that piece for a long time. I didn't originally plan to include it in the album, but it turned out to be a strong performance, and it's up for a Grammy for Best Improvised Solo this year. I did something unusual: I started with the improv and played the melody at the end. It puts you in a different space. If I start with the solo, and state the melody at the end, it can be a little more engaging for me as well as the listener.

AAJ: Bebop players especially have done that on occasion.

FH: It's certainly not an original conceit of mine, but I enjoy doing it sometimes.

AAJ: It's a very impressive solo.

FH: Thank you.

My Coma Dreams

AAJ: Let's talk about My Coma Dreams. Aside from all the praise it received, to me it is a true phenomenon of human experience, expression, and understanding. It's based on several dreams that you remembered after you were in a medically induced coma! Were those dreams similar to the ones you ordinarily have had, or were they unique to the coma?

FH: Ordinarily, I don't remember any of my dreams! Those were the only dreams I really remember. When I awoke from the coma, this series of dreams were etched in my mind. I experienced all the smells, colors, sounds, and they just stayed in there until I was ready to put them into a composition. I wrote one paragraph on each dream and gave it to my collaborator, Herschel Garfein and told him I want to do something really original, maybe include video, something more theatrical. So he took them and came up with a scenario that started with me getting sick and ending with me in rehab, and then sprinkling the dreams within the plot. Garfein was the librettist, and he wrote the script.

He also wrote the lyrics to "The Knitters," which is the song that has the most Freudian implications. The Fates knitted, or they could've been the nurses at the nursing station; there's a lot of room for dream interpretation. It's a creation dream and a liberation dream. We knew that it had to be the center of the work, and it's the only song with words.

AAJ: Do you ever play any of the music from My Coma Dreams at clubs or concert gigs?

FH: The only two pieces I ever play as individual pieces are the one called "Brussels" (Pastorale) and "Dream of Monk."

AAJ: The narrator plays the part of your partner, Scott Morgan, who was totally devoted to you during the course of your illness and coma. Did Scott participate in the creation of the work?

FH: Herschel interviewed him before he wrote the libretto. He also interviewed my doctor and me. Some of the libretto comes from these transcribed interviews.

AAJ: Did the drama and its creation affect your relationship with Scott?

FH: Until Scott saw the world premiere of "My Coma Dreams," he didn't want to know anything about it! He didn't even know he was a character in it or was so prominent. He just wanted to see it like anybody who walked in off the street. And of course he was surprised! The premiere performances were very freaky for me, because there I was on the stage playing the piano while an actor is portraying me and Scott right there next to me. I've written all this music, which due to the medical crisis, by all rights I shouldn't even be alive to write. The pianist -me -was sort of a character in the piece. It was very tricky and very emotional for me.

I was also surprised that, when we played Leaves of Grass this past September at Lincoln Center, it too had great emotional resonance. People were really moved by it, as I was too. It's held up well almost fifteen years since I composed it. And we have bunch of performances of it coming up in 2018-19. We'll be taking it on the road again, which is very gratifying.

AAJ: These compositions are unique, and they reflect both jazz and classical influences.

FH: I try not to write "crossover" music, I just think of the music as a "big soup" of different influences that happen to come out at different points.

AAJ: Yes, I don't get a feeling of an artificial combination of genres. And, in any case, so much of modern jazz has been influenced by classical music anyway. But I do hear shades of American classical composers like Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem somewhere in the background in a lot of your composing.

But, getting back to "My Coma Dreams," the scene that really knocked me out was when you are looking at yourself in the mirror at the rehab and trying to figure out who it is! It seemed to reveal something profound about what it is to be human. You wonder who you are looking at in the mirror. Who is that self in the mirror? To me, it seemed to say that little by little, you had to reconstruct who you are. FH: Absolutely! When I woke up from the coma, which actually took several days, my life as I knew it had totally changed. I couldn't walk or swallow or eat or talk! I certainly couldn't play the piano. Everything that I took for granted was off the table. I had to redo my whole life. I couldn't eat or drink for nine months. I would dream about ham sandwiches and milkshakes! Our daily routine is based partly on mealtimes, and that was gone. Things we take so much for granted were very difficult for me to do. Scott felt guilty that he could eat and I couldn't, so I had to tell him it's OK, somebody has to enjoy himself!

AAJ: So, when you were standing at that mirror, how were you able to discover who Fred Hersch is? Was it the music that brought you back to yourself?

FH: I had lost all the music. When you're that stripped down, all you have are your animal instincts. Animals know what's happening in the moment, in the now, but they don't have much of a sense of the future. They may have some memory of the past. So I was pretty much living in the moment, but I was very determined to improve, so I was focused on accomplishing very basic things. I lifted small weights to get my strength back. The small muscle movements necessary to play the piano were the last things to come back. First came walking, standing, moving my arms. The fine fast-twitch muscle movements weren't there, and I didn't know if they would come back or not. But they did, and I probably feel a bit better about my playing than before. I feel I'm more accepting, more in the music, not trying to control it as much. In view of what happened, and at this stage of my career, I don't have to prove anything to anyone. Right now, my health is actually very good, and I'm just going to move forward and keep trying to challenge myself, just do what I can to get better and keep things interesting.

Jazz as Story Telling, Spontaneously in the Moment

AAJ: Do you set goals for yourself?

FH: Goals are nice, deadlines are important to get things done. It's good to have a project, a "next thing," but I also realize that I want to enjoy my life. Not everything has to be about my music or my career. I don't play the piano every day. I get more motivated when there are things coming up or when there's music to learn or music to write. But I'm not slaving at the piano every day. It's just not how I work or how I've ever worked. At this point, I feel that I'm playing my experience rather than my technique. The technique is there, and I'm just playing what's in front of me at that moment, not micro-managing it. You play a phrase, and then the next phrase—hopefully you play a story. Hopefully it's a good story and you didn't drop the ball.

For me, the best jazz is performed by storytellers. Like Sonny Rollins or Monk or Miles. They just tell a story -it exists phrase to phrase, it's sort of conversational, it's hip, unexpected in places. Sometimes they'll play a cliché, but it's an earned cliché: it makes sense. As a jazz improviser, Sonny Rollins is my hero. There's intelligence, humor, amazing technique, complete mastery of his instrument, of rhythm, of the elements of jazz. There's this great feeling in his playing. He's a generous musician, an incredible performer. To me, he puts everything together as well as anybody does.

AAJ: He's been known to play hour-long solos, a medley of standards that are continually interesting and imaginative.

FH: He can play a silly little calypso melody and make it interesting. I listen to a lot of music, but not all the time. When I do, I like to sit on the sofa and really listen to it. I don't have background music. It's called active listening, when you intentionally sit down and really listen to something.

AAJ: Unfortunately, at clubs the audience can be distracted by so many things rather than the music.

FH: Or they're texting someone: "Great bass solo!" instead of listening to the bass solo! There's this need to constantly communicate instead of saying, "OK I'm just gonna take this in."

Listening in Silence and Invisibility

AAJ: I recently spent two days at a monastery where they have a code of silence. I found it really hard to not say anything for a long period of time.

FH: I've done some retreats myself, up to nine days of no communicating, no reading, no muisc. It was a Buddhist retreat in Massachusetts. If you see a flower there, you can't say to someone, "Hey, look! This is a great flower!" You just have to take it in. We're so conditioned to want to tell somebody about it. But when it's just you and you can't talk, you just observe it as it is. That's a very important thing. I try to meditate every morning and just sit with whatever is for 35 minutes. It's a good way to start my day. Some days I'm squirming and thinking of all the to-do's I have to get done. Other days, I'm just able to be with my breath and be pretty chilled out. And it's all good! I just sit there until the timer goes off.

It's like when people come into the Village Vanguard to hear a set of 75 minutes. I'm asking them to trust me to give them an interesting experience, to entertain them but not kiss their ass. Maybe I'll play something they know but play it in a different way, take them on a journey of some sort. It's a little like planning a menu -you want to have a variety of tastes and colors, not all the same. Hopefully when you go to hear something artistic, you leave having experienced something that's deep, as opposed to going to a Hollywood franchise movie about the car chases or the 3-D costumes of the space aliens, or whatever it is. A lot of entertainment is not really about nuanced characters or the plot or things that are subtle, that you might talk about afterwards, or that two people might view differently. The car chase stuff is about escape, and art is more engaging.

AAJ: That's exactly how I think of jazz. To me, the best jazz is when I lose myself in it.

FH: Right!

AAJ: Do you feel at times that when you're playing, you're so involved that the audience sort of disappears?

FH: For me, the audience disappears most of the time. I'm just in it. I close my eyes, and I'm just in it. Terry Gross, the host of the NPR radio program "Fresh Air," has had me on her show three times, twice as a musician, and most recently as an author. She does all her interviews by telephone from the NPR studios because she says she doesn't want to be distracted by the face of the person she's interviewing. Since radio is only sound, she wants to do her interview the way her audience will experience it. Similarly, when I'm playing, I feel as if I'm hearing myself on a recording but in real time. That's why I close my eyes. I want the listeners to experience it with their eyes closed as well. Music is sound. That's why, when I play, I eliminate visuals as much as possible.

Inevitable Comparisons

AAJ: When I listen to your album, Fred Hersch Plays Jobim (Sunnyside, 2009), I particularly find myself so absorbed in the music that I almost disappear into it. That's in sharp contrast to some of my other favorite pianists where I imagine myself in a club and I visualize their face, body movements, and fingering.

FH: I want to play Jobim with respect, but I have to play it through my filter, I'm not a Brazilian guy. Same thing with Monk. I'm not that guy from Rocky Mount, North Carolina who was born in 1917. I'm a different person, so I have to respect Monk but not try to imitate him. I want to interpret him.

AAJ: But yet you get something of Monk or Jobim in there.

FH: Every tune, every composer, should be taken on its own terms. My trio just cut a new album, Begin Again, which should be out in May. It's all original pieces, and before we made the recording we played all the tunes live on tour, and we came up with a different sound palette for each piece. It's very organic. My bassist, John Hébert, drummer Eric McPherson, and I, we each think, how can we make it not just another tune, how can we make it into something more elevated without being pretentious about it. When we went into the studio, we played things in a totally different way than we did in live performances. We tried one tune "out of time," with no tempo, and it was magic. We let the rhythm follow the emotions rather than in a fixed tempo, sort of rubato. A lot of great things can happen in the studio, in the moment, if you have the right musicians working with you.

Most of my recent recordings, however, have been of live performances. I have a live duo album coming out in March with clarinetist Anat Cohen on her label, Anzic Records. It's from a live concert in Healdsburg, California the summer before last. I like live recordings where you aren't in a booth with headphones on. If I were as rich as Keith Jarrett, I'd record all my live performances. You never know when lightening will strike! When you least expect it, you can have one of those amazing nights!

AAJ: Given the way in which you're developing, there's a natural comparison between you and Keith Jarrett in terms of a unique style and complexity of playing. And you both play very much what you feel at any given moment.

FH: We've both done a bunch of solo and trio albums, him more than me. When Keith is on, it's a beautiful thing.

AAJ: You've gone much further than him in terms of composing.

FH: Keith stopped writing music. He hasn't recorded original music in a very long time. He's either with his standards trio or doing open improvisations. But I find it interesting that there aren't any, or many, of his tunes that have entered the jazz repertoire. In the past, he wrote some really nice tunes with the American Quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian. But composing is not really Keith Jarrett's thing.

AAJ: The similarity between you two is the sense of total involvement. It's all coming from deep inside you.

FH: I became a jazz player because of that. I didn't want to be a classical pianist practicing six hours a day. I enjoy playing with other people. I enjoy what's unexpected. I enjoy the cameraderie. I like doing solo work, but duos and trios really feed me. I need the stimulation of other musicians.

AAJ: We all need both cameraderie and solitude in our lives.

FH: Sure. Even when I'm playing solo, I'm interacting with the particular piano, I'm interacting with the acoustics, with the song, maybe with the audience. It's not totally disconnected. But it's different than connecting with two other musicians on a bandstand.

Summing Up: What It's All About

AAJ: Can you wrap it up for us with a personal statement about life, spirituality, what you're striving for in life, and what you try to get across to younger musicians?

FH: Well, in terms of what's gotten me here to this point, I certainly credit my partner Scott for saving my life once if not twice, and for being so supportive, understanding, and competent. I have a great support network of friends, my doctor, my therapist, people who are really on my team, including the people who represent me in my professional life.

In terms of my spiritual life, when I first started formal meditation in the late 1990s I bought a book by John Kabat-Zinn called Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hatchett Books, 1994). The back of the book recommended some guided meditation cassettes, so I ordered them. I started learning meditation on my own from the tapes. And in 2000, I went on a seven-day retreat and learned a lot from that. I've been probably to eight retreats in these last years. One of the things I found out is that for many years, I'd been naturally meditating on the piano bench with my eyes closed -and that instead of my breath being the focus, sound was the focus. I find that spiritual practice and musical practice are very much the same.

Regarding young musicians, if they're starting their careers, I do all kinds of career mentoring. I keep the conversation confidential, so they can share whatever is on their minds. Sometimes I just emphasize the mechanics of playing, and other times, there's more depth. Some of my former students come back for tune-ups, or just to play for me and get my impressions. Or they're looking for insight on something they're working on. I don't have students on a weekly basis now. They come when they come and I have the time.

My overriding message to anyone is "Be yourself!" Don't hold back! And if you're a jazz musician, don't play what you think you should play. Play what you feel. It's like if you choose a partner in life, you don't just check off the boxes; the feeling has to be right. It's taking me many years in light of my upbringing and other issues that I've reached a point where I play what I feel, I write what I feel, I am who I am. The Golden Rule of life is "Don't Be an Asshole!" Be real -and be kind. Especially with what's going on in the world now, it's really important to just be kind and respectful, be considerate, and have decent values.

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