NOT ONLY ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PIANISTS IN TODAY’S JAZZ SCENE, FRED HERSCH HAS ALSO BRANCHED OUT INTO OTHER MEDIA. A FEW YEARS AGO, HE PUT TOGETHER THE PERSONAL PLAY MY COMA DREAMS WHICH BROUGHT HIS MUSIC AND LIFE DEALING WITH AIDS TO A NEW AUDIENCE.
THIS PAST YEAR HE HAS ALSO WRITTEN HIS MEMOIRS, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN SLOWLY; A LIFE IN AND OUT OF JAZZ. IN THIS PERSONAL BOOK, HE CAREFULLY WALKS THE TIGHTROPE, BALANCING HIS LIFE AS A JAZZ MUSICIAN AS WELL AS DEALING WITH HIS PERSONAL REVELATIONS
HIS LATEST ALBUM, OPEN BOOK, ALSO HAS THE ARTIST STRETCHING OUT. USUALLY KNOWN FOR CAREFULLY CRAFTED ORIGINALS AND INTERPRETATIONS, FOR THE FIRST TIME HERSCH HAS RECORDED A COMPLETELY IMPROVISED WORK, LASTING OVER 15 MINUTES. IT’S A WONDROUS PIECE OF MUSIC.
WE RECENTLY HAD A CHANCE TO CHAT WITH MR. HERSCH, WHO, LIKE HIS MUSIC, WAS CLEAR, THOUGHTFUL AND OF COURSE FREE IN IMPROVISATIONAL MELODICISM.
YOUR BOOK WALKED THE TIGHTROPE BETWEEN GIVING MUSICAL INFO FOR THE JAZZ FANS AND YOUR PERSONAL LIFE. THAT IS A TOUCH BALANCE TO MAINTAIN IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
We really strove for that. It’s a major publisher, so it’s not just for jazzheads. It’s for people who want to know how I became what I became, what I went through and what things were like in the late 70s growing up and learning jazz the old fashioned way, being gay on the jazz scene and all of that kind of stuff.
AND JAZZ ON THE GAY SCENE!
Exactly! (laughs) That came a little later.
WHY DID YOU WRITE A BOOK LIKE THIS AT THIS STAGE OF YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
Part of it was just sort of events that happened that way. I had done a big interview on (pianist) Ethan Iverson’s Do The M@th (sic) blog, and he said I should write a book.
I got to know writer David Hajdu (author of Billy Strayhorn’s biography Lush Life-ed) , and he said “I think you have a story here.” We worked on it together, looked around for a collaborator and David said he would do it, which was perfect, as we’d known each other for 25 years.
Five different publishers bid on the book; Crown came out the winner, and of course that’s a big imprint. They’ve done Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. It’s definitely not your University Press kind of situation.
I’ll be doing Fresh Air, which is the best place to sell a book.
LOOKING BACK ON THE BOOK, WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU ABOUT WHAT YOU WROTE?
I’ve never been one to hold back, so I knew I was going to pretty much tell everything.
There were some things that were tricky. My parents are still alive, so I had to figure out a way to talk about them. Obviously, not everyone has a perfect childhood, but I didn’t want to be unkind, and be sympathetic to what those kinds of marriages were like in the ‘50s and ‘60s without being ugly about it. That was tricky.
Writing about my partner was tricky; that took some thought. But, I knew that I was going to come out about pretty much everything.
ONE THING I FELT WAS MISSING: YOU TALKED ABOUT YOUR PARENTS, BUT YOU DIDN’T ADDRESS THE “NATURE VS NURTURE” AS FAR AS BEING GAY
I kind of subscribe to the “born that way”…I think I was just born that way.
I mean, in some ways (my upbringing) is a classic; slightly smothering mother and absentee father situation which a lot of gay men seem to have. But, I think it was just the way I was. I can’t say that I’m gay because of who parents were or where I was raised. I’m pretty sure of that I just was.
YOU JUST CAME BACK FROM A SILENT RETREAT. WHAT DO YOU DO THERE? IS THERE SOMETHING YOU SPECIFICALLY SET OUT TO ACCOMPLISH?
It’s not really about accomplishing that much. You’re basically doing sitting and walking meditation from 5:45 am to 9:30 pm with some breaks and a little yogi job, doing vacuuming or chopping vegetables. You listen to Dharma Talks, lectures by the teachers, some guided meditation sittings. You don’t speak.There are 100 yogis and three teachers. There’s no reading, no writing, no music cellphones or contact with the outside world.
The idea is to just slow way down and become more observant of not only your environment, but you also see how your mind works when you’re sitting that much every day. 8-10 times a day for 45 minutes, you see whether your tendencies are to go to “the planning mind” or whether you are in “the future” all the time, or dwelling with some regret, dealing with the past.
Then, you just focus on your breath, and gently let those thoughts go away. Sometimes you investigate them. But you can’t empty the mind; the mind thinks. That’s it’s gig, it’s job.
So you just have to have an anchor, which is the breath or the physical sensation of sitting on a cushion, and keep coming back to that.
It’s sort of like training a puppy. You’re thoughts are the puppy, and you keep coming back to calming it down. Some days there’s more chatter, and some days less.
YOU REFER TO IT IN YOUR BOOK, AND YOU’VE MENTIONED BEFORE THAT WHILE YOU ARE AN ATHEIST, YOU LEAN MORE TOWARDS THE EXISTENCE OF A SPIRIT OF SOME SORT. YOU ARE NOT STRICTLY MATERIALISTIC IN YOUR ATHEISM.
No. Buddha is not a deity; he was just a very enlightened and awakened person. He never portrayed himself as a god. I see the spiritual through my settings of Walt Whitman, who was definitely a spiritual guy, and not that far out of line with Buddhism. Being in the present moment, loving nature and being kind…all of these things are what I believe in, whether they are put in terms of God, or not God.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE SUCCESS OF YOUR JAZZ THEATRE PLAY COMA DREAMS?
We were able to do it 4-5 times, and we got a dvd out of it. I’m very happy, because it was a very expensive and complicated production. Twelve people on the stage, a crew of five, with video projections. It was very complicated.
It was certainly the most personal piece that I will ever write. I’m glad that I had an awesome collaborator with Herschel Garfein, who kind of conceived the whole thing. I had amazing musicians and a great actor.
It was pretty trippy getting that deep into those dreams that I retained from the coma, and telling those dream/stories each in a different way. It was a real challenge, and I didn’t confine myself to the jazz genre. I just wrote what the dream suggested. It was a unique piece; there is really nothing that you can compare it to.
IN YOUR BOOK, YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU LIKE R&B
Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, The Stylistics; starting around 1965-6. 1054
YOU SPEND A LOT OF TIME AS A TEACH, HAVING TAUGHT BRAD MEHLDAU AND ETHAN IVERSON. WHAT DO YOU TRY TO EMPHASIZE TO YOUR STUDENTS, BE IT IN CLASSROOM OR IN A PRIVATE SETTING?
If it’s a pianist, I work a lot of work with the physical relationship with the instrument and sound. If I’m teaching a Master Class, I’m stressing the value of doing deeper listening to more music, getting back into the history of jazz, reading more and knowing more about the music and also how to listen to each other when they play; not be fearful and have their heads full of rules. “You have to do this and you shouldn’t do that.”
I try to give them the message that it’s supposed to be creative, and it’s not easy to do.
I think jazz education gives the mistaken impression that if you learn this and that, and transcribe this and that and put it together, you’re going to be a jazz musician. It’s just not that way; not everyone can do it at an elite level.
I mean, you can cobble some stuff together and be functional, but that’s not being an artist. I always try to raise the bar if I can.
DID STUDENTS LIKE BRAD MEHLDAU AND ETHAN IVERSON HAVE SOMETHING SPECIAL THAT YOU SAW IN THEM?
Oh, yeah. And Sullivan Fortner , whom I work with now. And Jeremy Siskind and Dan Tepfer whom I’ve worked with in recent years. I have a 14 year old right now who’s super-gifted. You can tell by how quickly they absorb things, by how their imagination works…you can tell whether or not they have the physical gift, and how hard they want it. These are things that you can tell.
DO ANY OF THEM HAVE DIFFICULTY BREAKING FREE INTO THE WORLD OF IMPROVISATION?
I encourage them to do open improvisation and make things up and that not everything has to be a tune.
On my new album, I have a 20 minute “not tune” and that happened organically, but I improvise like that at home all of the time; I just don’t do it often in concerts. That’s why that particular performance was special and why I built the album around it.
I try to get them to connect with the material that they’re playing with, whether it’s a standard or a jazz composition or something that they wrote. If they compose, we talk about the craft of how they put the tune together or how we could improve it.
Every lesson is different. It’s like being a psychotherapist; the student walks in, they play a couple of things, we see where they’re at, and we kind of go from there. I then assess as quickly as possible where we can start. Sometimes we start with the physical. Sometimes we start with how they’re connecting or not connecting with their playing. Sometimes we start with the jazz language. It’s really different.
I don’t do much institutional teaching. I’ll do the odd Master Class, but I don’t have a super steady teaching position. I have a little artist position at Rutgers, but it’s very minimal.
“When I’m playing something that has a structure, the goal is to be free within the structure. When you’re playing without structure the challenge is to generate a spontaneous structure that doesn’t just sound like random this-and-that”
YOU DO SOLO, TRIO AND SMALL GROUP FORMAT AS WELL AS DOING A SERIES OF DUETS WITH SINGERS AND OTHER MUSICIANS. FOR EACH SETTING, DO YOU NEED TO CHANGE MENTAL GEARS, OR DO YOU SIMPLY LISTEN TO THE PARTNER(S) AND FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU FIT?
I also do a tremendous amount of duo playing. I’m going to play differently for a tenor player like Chris Potter, Donny McCaslen or Josh Redman than I am with a tenor player like Joe Lovano or Mark Turner. I try to get into their world, and I hope that they’ll be willing to cross into my world.
The only way that I now play with a singer is as a duo. I don’t play with a backing trio reading charts; I gave that up quite a while ago. I’m only working with the best singers. Kate McGarry, Kurt Elling, Cecile McLoren Salvant..people that are really amazing musicians and can be spontaneous, flexible and listen.
There are a lot of pianists in New York that are in the “accompanist” pool, and they do lots of singer gigs, write charts and music directors. I kind of did that in the ‘80s for jazz and cabaret singers, and I just realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
If I was going to go out on my own I just had to give that.
But, every person that you play with is different, not in that I give up my style completely, but we need to find the common ground to create something.
I have an ongoing duo relationship with (guitarist) Julian Lage and Anat Cohen, and these are people that I play with from time to time throughout the year. We’ve developed a repertoire and depth in the playing that happens when you play more than a one-off.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU’RE SEEING THESE DUOS MORE AS A RELATIONSHIP THAT HAPPENS TO BE MUSICAL THAN JUST “PLAYING MUSIC.”
Absolutely. The relationship that I have with my trio has been for eight years, so there’s a tremendous amount of trust…and also forgiveness. Not all of us have a great night on the same night, we’re travelling all day and the conditions are tough, the pianos are bad, basses are bad or the sound in the room isn’t great. You have to just roll with that.
We really give 100% every time that we play and try to make something that is specific to that particular evening and space, and how we feel.
WITH THE NEW ALBUM, YOU DID A FREE FORM IMPROV THAT SEEMS OUT OF YOUR CHARACTER
As I said, I play in that language by myself quite a bit, but I usually don’t do it in a concert. I did it at this concert in Korea, and I went back to the same piano, hall and engineer and recorded the rest of the selections. It became the centerpiece of the album.
This is my eleventh solo album; I’m getting up there as a solo specialist.
The album is kind of a companion piece to the book. It’s very intimate but also on the daring side, not holding back at all. To go to that tune to a Billy Joel tune, it’s not a summing up, but it certainly is a wide ranging album. I think that it hangs together pretty well.
I just felt like doing something different. I can always put together a solo album of nice tunes, or get a nice concert (recording) and put it out. But this was more intentional; I really wanted to dig and show something a little bit different.
YOUR USUAL APPROACH TO A SONG IS SIMILAR TO A DIAMOND CUTTER, SEEMING TO DEEPLY ANALYSE EACH MOTION. PEOPLE SEE A DIFFERENT PART OF YOU ON THIS INTUITIVE LONGER PIECE.
That’s true. My job as a jazz artist is to tell spontaneous musical stories. I think that long piece really has a narrative. It does kind of hang together.
When I’m playing something that has a structure, the goal is to be free within the structure. When you’re playing without structure the challenge is to generate a spontaneous structure that doesn’t just sound like random this-and-that.
COULD YOU EVER SEE YOURSELF DOING SOMETHING REAL EXTROVERTED AND FREE, A LA CECIL TAYLOR?
Cecil’s language is really meticulous, and very thought out on a high level. He is a towering figure. He’s certainly been influential on a number of pianists, but in the end I think Cecil and I are pretty different creatures, besides both being gay.
Cecil hasn’t played anything resembling a tune in 40 years.
SO, YOU’RE SAYING THAT THERE ARE NO GAY CHORDS
No, and there’s no such thing as “gay music.” If Ravel or Tchaikovsky were gay, it doesn’t make their music gay.
If I were singing a love song with the pronoun “he,” then you could probably say it was a gay song.
BUT ELLA FITZGERALD DIDN’T CHANGE THE SEXUAL PRONOUNS IN HER LOVE SONGS
A lot of singers don’t change the pronouns. In these days it’s not necessary. It was the thing a certain number of years ago.
Instrumental music is instrumental music, unless it has a program or lyrics behind it.
IF YOU WEREN’T A PIANO PLAYER, WHAT MUSICIAN WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY AND SOUND LIKE?
If I played the saxophone, I’d like to sound like my hero Sonny Rollins.
IN YOUR BOOK, YOU TALK ABOUT BEING A SUCCESS. WHAT MAKES SOMEONE A SUCCESS?
There’s an anecdote in the “Coma” chapter in my book that explains the title of my book. I think my career is an example of things happening slowly, just sticking at what I do. I’ve always been working; I’ve played with some of the best. I’ve never driven a cab.
In terms of me being now considered one of the elite people in my field, that has come only within the last 3-5 years. I now hear my influence on so many younger pianists.
It’s a combination of drive, talent and some luck. Interpersonal skills are important. I mean, if you’re a jerk, it’s harder.
I always tell my students who are trying to go out into the professional arena, “Be the kind of person that you’d want to hire.” Be on time, be prepared, return emails and phone calls promptly. Show up ready to play, don’t get drunk.
BUDDY COLLETTE HAS PLAYED WITH JUST ABOUT EVERYONE, SO ONE EVENING I PICKED HIS BRAIN ON WHAT HE THOUGHT OF DIFFERENT MUSICANS. ALL OF THE ONES THAT HE COMPLEMENTED, HE ENDED WITH “SHOWS UP ON TIME.”
Yeah; just be responsible and learn the music.
I don’t work that often as a sideman anymore. From time to time I’ll play on someone else’s record, and I take it very seriously. I look at the music, I’m organized and I’m ready to go; I think that has served me.
WHAT FUTURE PROJECTS ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO?
It’s too early to say, but I think that my next project is going to be a mid-sized ensemble of 9 or 10 players. So, it will be an expanded trio; I’ll feature the trio, but with six horns. That’s what I want to do next, at least at this moment.
(Jokingly) I’M A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED YOU’RE NOT DOING A MOVIE
There is a movie. it (came out) on video in September 13, 2017. It’s titled The Ballad of Fred Hersch
I CAN’T OUTSKUNK YOU!
THE ENDEARING QUALITY OF FRED HERSCH, IS THAT HE IS, LIKE HIS LATEST ALBUM TITLE, AN OPEN BOOK. HE DOESN’T PULL ANY PUNCHES, ACCEPTS TOUGH QUESTIONS WITH CANDOR, AND TAKES HIS ROLE AS BOTH AN ARTISTIC AND SOCIAL LEADER SERIOUSLY. LIKE ALL PILGRIMS, HE CONTINUES TO PUSH FORWARD, ALWAYS LOOKING FOR NEW WORLDS TO CONQUER. FOLLOW HIM ON HIS QUEST!