Fred Hersch: No Limits

Maxwell Chandler By

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It wasn't until I really discovered jazz that I realized that there was this great language for improvising with other people.
From the start of his career as a sideman in the 1970s for such jazz luminaries as Joe Henderson, Art Farmer and Stan Getz to his own ensembles and solo projects, there has always been a great diversity and intensity to Fred Hersch's art. Having won a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition (2003) and having been the first pianist in The Village Vanguard's 70 year history to do a week's solo residency, Hersch has managed to be both a musician's musician and resonate in the jazz public's consciousness without ever compromising his own artistic vision.

Fred Hersch

Chapter Index

  1. The Start
  2. School
  3. New York and Jazz in the '70s
  4. Journeyman Education
  5. Bradley's and the State of Jazz Clubs Today
  6. Concepts, Projects and Ensembles
  7. Making History At The Village Vanguard
  8. Leaves of Grass
  9. Outside Genres and The Self
  10. Jobim and Dream Projects

The Start

All About Jazz: Were you writing fully-realized compositions from an early age? What was the impetus behind that?

Fred Hersch: I composed music from a very young age, from about third grade to seventh grade. I had private music theory lessons, musicianship, notation; the basic toolkit which I use today. I got a good foundation in musical principles.

I wrote pieces in different styles, but I did not write an actual symphony. I did improvise a great deal, and that was usually more fun than practicing Chopin or something. I seemed to enjoy the improvising more.

It wasn't until I really discovered jazz that I realized that there was this great language for improvising with other people. That is what sold me on the whole thing: that it was music that was played with, and in front of, people—not some kind of solitary pursuit.

I liked the idea of the nightlife and in Cincinnati, where I first learned how to play, there were a lot of colorful characters around. It was kind of exotic and interesting—the kind of thing my parents wouldn't approve of too much. I took to it pretty quickly.

Throughout high school I played all kinds of music. I played violin in the orchestra, accompanied the choir—all sorts of musical duties—but I was not focused. I was not playing classical music to the level of being able to get admission to a conservatory. I wasn't good enough yet.

AAJ: Were you at least enjoying the classical stuff while you were doing it?

FH: I would listen to a record of Glenn Gould or Horowitz and basically say, "Why bother?" these people do this much better than me. It was a long time before I found a form of expression that suited me, where I could be myself. Jazz was that for me.


AAJ: Before attending The New England Conservatory (Boston, MA), you went to Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa). What were your initial studies?

Fred HerschFH: Just briefly for about a semester. It was just the beginning of liberal arts: art history and some political science. Basically, I chickened out of my auditions for some of the bigger music schools and my best friend was going to Grinnell. It seemed like a neat place to go. I figured that in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of winter, I would have plenty of time to figure out what I wanted to do, and that is kind of what happened.

I listened to some jazz out there which got me on the path. I dropped out after a semester, moved back to Cincinnati and pretty much immediately started playing professionally. There were not that many young musicians wanting to play jazz at that point. I didn't have my jazz chops totally together in terms of my rhythm, but the older musicians could see that I was clearly motivated, and they were very helpful in a sort of tough love kind of way. It was a great way to learn, and I kind of hate that this way of learning doesn't take place anymore—things being passed down more in the oral tradition.

AAJ: Did you find a big difference between the two environments, and how did that affect your art?

FH: Oh yeah! Between Grinnell and New England I lived in Cincinnati and played professionally for about a year and a half. At the time that I went to New England there were only a handful of schools in the country that had any kind of acknowledgment of jazz as an art form. Jaki Byard was teaching at New England, and I love his playing from his work with Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, and his own records. I basically went up there, played for him and got in.

When I went to New England, I felt like I was pretty well on my way as a jazz player. I just wanted to broaden my musical horizons. That's exactly what happened. I had great interactions with my fellow students and some incredibly inspiring teachers. It was a great creative atmosphere. It was the last two years that Gunther Schuller was president of the school, and there was a certain energy there that was kind of special, I think.

This year coming up is the 40th anniversary of the establishing of the jazz department at New England, which was the first in a major conservatory. Starting next month, I will be teaching there again; this is my third go around. I teach seven days each semester. I have very strong feelings about the school. I think it is a fantastic place, arguably the best conservatory in the country—superior creative music.

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