Music

Fred Hersch Opens the Book on His Life in Jazz

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Open Book, Fred Hersch’s new solo-piano recording, begins with softly stated intervals that soon cohere into “The Orb,” a ballad deriving its force from harmonic complexity. Hersch wrote it several years ago, as the emotional touchstone of My Coma Dreams, a large-ensemble multimedia piece based on a life-threatening two-month coma he endured in 2008, the result of pneumonia run rampant. It was also an ode to his domestic partner, Scott Morgan, who had massaged Hersch’s immobile hands each day in the hospital, and whose heart leapt when the pianist regained consciousness.

Just one month out of a rehabilitation clinic, Hersch began performing again. By January 2009, he led a quintet with confidence at the Village Vanguard. His subsequent recordings display not just renewed vigor but a deepened intensity — a clearer, more complete musical vision. At 61, he stands among jazz’s first rank of pianists and composers, possessing rare and wide-ranging gifts yet promoting no particular style. He plays it his way, always shaping a personal sound.

In The Ballad of Fred Hersch, a new documentary by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano, Hersch says that, when onstage, “I want to disappear. I want it to just be music.” Minutes later, Jason Moran, one of the many distinguished pianists who credit Hersch’s powerful influence, explains that, like a tenacious mouse, Hersch “wriggles through holes” in the music of Thelonious Monk or J.S. Bach to announce his distinct presence. “That kind of flexibility is a rare, rare thing,” Moran says.

Making his musical presence known came naturally. In the film, Hersch’s mother recalls him, at 3 or 4, picking out melodies by ear on piano; by the 1980s, not long after moving from Cincinnati, he earned a place on New York bandstands alongside standard-bearers such as saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Art Farmer. A fuller declaration of identity took more time and care. The film gives smart focus to Hersch’s decision, in the 1990s, to go public as an HIV-positive gay man, and to what that meant then and now, right down to his daily pill regimen.

In Good Things Happen Slowly, Hersch’s new autobiography (written with David Hajdu), the pianist describes feeling like an outsider even within jazz’s outsider milieu, hiding his true self while pursuing an aesthetic that prizes self-expression.

“What am I doing here?” he recalls thinking onstage at the Village Vanguard, alongside Henderson, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Foster (a 1980s dream team). “I’m a gay Jewish kid from Cincinnati. How the hell did this happen?” When critic Whitney Balliett described him in the New Yorker as “a slender, bearded, light-fingered poet of a pianist,” he wondered if light was “a loaded word.” In 1988, when saxophonist Stan Getz visited his Soho loft, Hersch panicked: He feared the second toothbrush in his bathroom, his live-in boyfriend’s, would give him up as a gay man loitering in Getz’s manly world. “I decided then and there,” he writes. “This will have to stop.”

Coming out wasn’t easy, but it created ripples of impact, from opportunities to help with pioneering AIDS activism to one unexpected phone call. (“Fred, this is Gary Burton, and I think I’m gay”; Burton made that revelation public soon after, through an interview with Terry Gross.)

Jazz mythos is based on bold men making their marks in brash style while still young. As his book’s title indicates, Hersch gained his status gradually, and through subtle artistic statements. His career began when gay identity was still marginalized; it was also when a wave of neo-traditionalism threatened jazz’s ethos of exploration. That environment felt alienating, too. Perhaps Hersch is an unlikely jazz hero, but his autobiography reveals, less through declarations than through graceful anecdotes, what it means to make jazz today in an honest way: how to internalize tradition without leaning toward mimicry; how to balance improvisation and composition; what an expansive jazz landscape might look like.

Much like jazz, this book centers on temporal matters. Hersch was, understandably, always watching the clock. Around the time 1984’s Horizons was released, he was diagnosed with HIV. “My first album could be my last,” he writes. At one point, Hersch discusses note lengths and the “space between each note.” A Chick Corea eighth note is thinner, Hersch maintains, than one played by Herbie Hancock.

Early in the book, a seasoned musician pulls a teenage Hersch aside after a gig. Silently, they listen to a Duke Ellington LP, soaking in the elegantly swinging beat. “That’s time,” the musician tells Hersch. “Now, you have to have time.” Hersch’s book tells how an ambitious and impatient man learned — slowly, in fits and starts — to lay back and be patient while negotiating the challenging rhythms of a song, and a life.

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