“I’m 100 per cent myself,” says Fred Hersch, guru of solo jazz piano, multiple Grammy nominee and author of a recent memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly. “I don’t feel like I ever hold anything back and certainly, in this book I held nothing back. I mean, what’s the point of writing your story if you’re going to edit what the truth is?”
Hersch’s new book is a vulnerable account of his lifelong journey to reconcile his artistic prowess in the predominantly straight, male jazz community with his identity as an HIV-positive gay man and AIDS activist.
The memoir follows Hersch from Cincinnati to Boston to New York, where he came to musical and personal maturity in the post-Stonewall era of gay liberation. He takes us through the tragic and confusing emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic at a time when, in a parallel universe just streets away, jazz legends were still packing clubs and Bradley’s jam sessions into the wee hours every night.
We recently invited Hersch to our Manhattan studio for a wide-ranging conversation ahead of his upcoming solo concert at Upstairs Jazz Bar in Montreal. Here are highlights from that interview, in his own words.
On his own musical coming of age
I didn’t make my first record as a leader until I was 30. I had been working as a sideman for many years with a lot of legends, but I waited until I felt like I had people I wanted to play with and something that I could put out that I thought was personal.
It’s very different now. People make records when they’re still in undergrad. And also it’s very easy now to make a record. Back in those days, people were pressing vinyl and you needed to have a record company. So I waited, until I was about 30, and that was right around the time that I was diagnosed with HIV, so really from the beginnings of my career as a bandleader/recording artist, that cloud was sort of in the background (or sometimes actually in the foreground).
On Thelonious Monk
Monk’s music is fascinating and like little puzzles, some of which you have to live with for many years to discover how they work. And of course, Monk was a great pianist and we have recordings of him playing his own music. You could say, “Well, maybe these are definitive so why bother to record them again?” But with any composer’s music that I play, I have to find a way to be myself while honouring the composition and the spirit of it, but I have to put it through my own filter.
On playing duo and solo
I have a record [that just came] out with a clarinettist, Anat Cohen. I really like the duo format. It allows me to use the whole piano and a wide range of dynamics — sometimes I feel like I’m a drumset or an orchestra or another horn player.
When I go out and play a solo concert, which I do a lot of, I walk out on the stage and I sit on the bench and I know there’s all this possibility — that maybe I’ll play something that I’ve never played before. And just like if I sit on a meditation cushion in the morning, I don’t know really what I’m gonna get. I could get a lot of chatter, or I could be pretty connected to my breath, or back and forth between the two. I don’t really know, but I know that it’s all OK. And when I play, even if there’s a bad patch, or moments where I might get distracted or it’s less than ideal — if you’re really wrapped around the axle with something that you just played, that you didn’t like, or if you’re worrying about what you’re not playing, then you’re not really in the right mind space. So I just have to walk out there, sit down and put my hands down, and see what comes. I very rarely plan sets.
On reconciling his personal and professional lives
The values that I value as a musician are the same values I prize as a person. Ultimately, you play who you are if you’re an artist. And that’s not saying that some terrible people haven’t made great art — they don’t always correlate. But I’d like to think that I’m a good person, and I’m an activist, and I try to help people and do the right thing. And when I play, I think people respond to my level of honesty and emotional connection. And that’s pretty much how it’s been for quite a while.
Hersch performs 'Through the Forest' from his most recent solo release, Open Book (2017).
On the next generation
You should always try to play with people who are better than you are. That’s the one way to get better fast. The other thing to remember is that playing jazz is not easy. It’s really not for everyone. I know that the jazz education establishment would say otherwise, but just because you know what so-and-so played in 1963, you have a Real Book, and you can fake your way through some tunes, that’s a far shot from people who are actually artists. I think if you really want to play this music, you have to be pretty driven and you have to realize that it’s highly competitive and just being OK may not really be good enough in the end.
The landscape has changed. When I came to New York at 21, I knew a lot of tunes, I could swing, I could play various styles, I could accompany, I could transpose. Now, young musicians are kind of expected to be composers, bandleaders, [to] manage their own social media. Attachment to the canon, whether it’s standards or jazz tunes by the great jazz composers — a lot of musicians are kind of bypassing that and just playing their own music. And that’s an interesting development. I came up the old way where you served apprenticeships first. And now, because of the way things are, people can skip that step and they seem to be wanting more to play their own music their own way with their own band, and it’s just apples and oranges. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. It’s just different.
On what’s next for him
The WDR big band in Köln, which is one of the best jazz orchestras in the world, is going to do an album with me arranged by Vince Mendoza. That’s been kind of a dream project. And just keeping the trio working. I’m feeling really very good about where things are right now. As I wrote the book, talking about all these experiences, there were a lot of kind of "pinch me" moments. Like wow, I actually did that. I’ve had some not so great luck where it’s come to my health, but I feel like there’s still room for improvement and things to look forward to.
Fred Hersch will play two sets (7 and 9:45 p.m.) of solo piano at Montreal's Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grillade on Friday, March 30.
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