The wondrous resurrection of American jazz pianist Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch (© Vincent Soyez)
A probing documentary and the sincerest memoirs that you will read this year testify to the entanglement of the jazz cat and the gay man in Fred Hersch, two identities that the influential American pianist always took pains to keep separate.
"Good things happen slowly, bad things happen fast.” This is what Fred Hersch’s doctor told his partner Scott Morgan. Friends and family members didn’t have much more to hang on to when the American jazz musician fell into a coma for two months in 2008, as a result of AIDS-related dementia. Almost ten years later, the 62-year-old’s fortunes have changed.
It is true that he had to postpone our Skype call by a day because he had forgotten a doctor’s appointment, and in the intimate documentary portrait The Ballad of Fred Hersch we see him battle with dozens of pills of all sizes and colours – he has to take 33 of them every day. “But,” he emphasizes from his home in New York, “my health is much better than it was 25 years ago, when AIDS treatments were still in their infancy.”
His memoirs, which were published this autumn, illustrate that his doctor’s wise words not only convey a medical truth. “Patience might be the most important thing that my life and career have taught me,” affirms the skinny jazz musician with the supplest touch of his generation. “After my coma, everything fell into place. All the things that used to take great effort now come very easily: I play better, the critics praise me, and I get more Grammy nominations.”
When he was younger, it frustrated him that success did not come so easy, and that he first had to play his way into the limelight as a sideman for trumpet player Art Farmer or saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. During the break in a set, the latter once told him to calm down.
“‘You don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time. If there is one little aha moment during a concert, it is more than enough,’ he tempered my youthful overconfidence. It turned out to be some of the best advice I ever got. The industry used to be different. There is much more interest in musical prodigies now. Not that I wasn’t doing well in my twenties because I was playing with the heavyweights. But you were expected to wait your turn.”
Apart from the artistic challenges, the biggest obstacles were of a personal nature. In Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz, he writes openly about his difficult relationship with his parents, his double life, and his coming out. He also discusses his sex addiction and drug abuse, as well as his AIDS diagnosis, which in 1986 was practically a death sentence.
“I didn’t want the book to be psychotherapy, but you need to know those things to understand who I am and how I got this way,” Hersch explains. “It often took me a long time to make good decisions. To stop using cocaine, for example, or having sex with strangers. But they were the right decisions, and once I had made them, I stuck to them. I discovered early that pot was not a great performance drug, so I only used it to listen to music, and after one shot of heroin I knew immediately that with my personality, I should never try it again.”
“I have never liked being alone,” he answers when we ask why he swapped classical piano for jazz as a teenager. “I didn’t have the discipline of a classical musician; I was much more intuitive. I didn’t want to become the new Horowitz, and I hated endlessly practicing the same pieces. I preferred writing something new on the spot. That is why I was particularly attracted to the jazz community in Cincinnati. Music suddenly had a social dimension, and it became my social currency. At the piano, I was the purest version of myself. I could compensate for my looks.”
Hersch soon moved to New York, and started frequenting the gay bars as enthusiastically and intensively as he developed his jazz talent. He came out to his friends and family in the late 1970s, but he waited until the early 1990s to out himself in the very macho jazz community. “I was the first gay man and AIDS patient to come out, and I became a reference point for many colleagues who were still in the closet. The main reason for talking about it so extensively in my memoirs was to make clear that the price for keeping the closet doors closed is very high.”
Hersch vividly remembers hiding his boyfriend’s toothbrush when Stan Getz unexpectedly came to his apartment, or how he would tell his gay friends at the bar of the New York jazz club Bradley’s not to act so gay. For a long time, he didn’t want anybody to compare his piano playing with Bill Evans’s romantic style, afraid that people would conclude: “Of course he plays beautifully, he’s gay!”
“That all sounds ridiculous now, that inveterate form of internalized homophobia. But the stereotypes – gay people were hairdressers, florists, or interior designers – were still very prevalent. I thought my (piano) playing was more profound and rhythmically advanced than that.” [Laughs] When Hersch did eventually come out publically, he got the most hypocritical reactions from musicians who “probably thought that they were open-minded, but said that they didn’t mind ‘as long as you don’t start hitting on me’.”
In the meantime, however, the pianist had found a way to express his personality in his own compositions. “After a few albums of interpretations of jazz standards, I started writing my own material in the style of certain musicians. I later started dedicating my music to certain people. These tributes – I call them my “jazz/gay dedication pieces” – made the writing process more natural for me. I have written about forty of them, and there are three more on the new trio album that I will record in December."
"Instead of thinking about the mechanisms behind my own piano playing, I try to be in the flow of the music. I compare it to an alpine skier who slaloms down a mountain. They wouldn’t stop at every gate to take a leisurely stroll. No, they would lean forward slightly to lose as little energy as possible as they skirt the obstacle as quickly as they can.”
He triumphed over his biggest obstacle with bravura. In his autobiography, Hersch describes the moment after his coma when he realized that he could no longer move his fingers. “The worst-case scenario – never being able to play the piano again – haunted me for a while. But I soon realized that it was better to trust that my piano playing would return.”
And it did. Good things do happen slowly. “After a coma, you first develop your gross motor skills by walking and sitting, and only later do you focus on your fine motor skills, including the muscles in your hands.” Now that the healing process has been written and filmed, he can again focus all his energy on his music, which sounds livelier than ever: “That is the almost inevitable consequence of this unexpected second chance, and I have seized the opportunity with both hands.”
> Fred Hersch Trio. 24/11, 18.30 (screening The Ballad of Fred Hersch) & 20.15 (concert), Flagey, Elsene
> Album: Open Book (Palmetto Records)
> Book: Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz (Crown Archetype)