By Web Behrens
The opportunity to witness an artist at their peak doesn’t come around every day. But that’s a possibility for your summer, when acclaimed pianist Fred Hersch makes his Ravinia debut on Wednesday, July 3.
This bold claim is all the more impressive, considering his biography. Having overcome multiple hardships and hurdles in life—most significantly, working his way back to jazz-maestro status after lying comatose for two months in 2008—Hersch, now 63 years old, has spent the last few years finding new summits in his long career.
Both acclaimed and prolific, Hersch just came out with a new recording in June, Begin Again, featuring the WDR Big Band, a Cologne-based jazz ensemble. That’s the latest in a long discography; Palmetto Records released two albums least year, featuring two different incarnations of the Fred Hersch Trio. Meanwhile, Hersch earned six Grammy nominations in the past three years—including for his most recent solo album, 2017’s Open Book—bringing his lifetime total to 14. (His first Grammy nom came in 1993.) Other recent accolades include being named a Doris Duke Artist in 2016 and Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2016 and 2018.
Among the countless plaudits Hersch has earned in the press is the Los Angeles Times’ observation that he possesses an “unerring ability to play music that is as intelligent as it is touching, as virtuosic as it is swinging.” And from The New Yorker: Hersch “has developed an intensity of intelligence and emotional directness unparalleled among his peers.”
It’s a remarkable place to be in life, riding high in the estimation of peers and critics with a busier-than-ever life of composing and performing. It’s especially so for a sexagenarian who had to fight against a vast array of discrimination: first as a young prodigy drawn to a particular art with a macho vibe that didn’t feel welcoming to gay men; later, as an HIV-positive musician battling both social stigma and dire health issues.
“I felt like separating parts your life, keeping some sort of closet, comes with a price tag,” says Hersch, talking to Ravinia from his longtime home in New York—an artist’s loft in SoHo where he’s lived for 40 years—having just returned from performing in Belgium and Spain. He came out to his family at age 19; a much more public coming-out occurred in 1993, when he was in his late 30s—by then an acclaimed fixture in the jazz scene. “Artistically, I was really tired of living a dual life,” he explains. “I mean, my friends knew, and maybe it was common knowledge [in jazz circles]. But it’s a little different than making a statement in Newsweek or CNN or DownBeat.”
His public statement about living with HIV was particularly bold, given that Hersch talked openly about the virus during a time when contracting it was practically a death sentence. “A lot of people said, ‘Fred, you shouldn’t do this. It’ll kill your career. Nobody will want to book you. They’ll figure you’ll be dead by next year.’ Which was possible,” he recalls. “But as time went on, I’ve beaten all kinds of odds in terms of my health. My career is bigger and better than ever. People have seen, ‘Hey, Fred seems to be doing great. He’s happy, and his music’s getting even more personal. Maybe I can come out and the world won’t end.’ I think there’s a generation of jazz musicians who might have taken some inspiration from the way I handled it.”
A Cincinnati native, Hersch is the fruit of a musically gifted lineage, with talent found on both sides of his family tree. His maternal grandfather, Fred Bloomberg, was a semiprofessional violinist and a founding member of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra; his paternal grandmother, Ella Hersch, was a trained pianist with a music degree. “I got a lot from both of them,” he says.
“I remember my grandmother had a very nice old Steinway in her living room,” Hersch continues. “She didn’t really perform much, except for services at the synagogue, but I spent a lot of time at that piano.” He inherited her 1921 Steinway Model O piano in 1997, although it’s not currently in his possession: He loans it out to gifted students who can’t afford their own piano. Currently, it’s with the third such young musician.
Little Fred Hersch was, unsurprisingly, always drawn to the piano. Even during his early childhood, he says, “I would climb up on the piano bench and pick things out by ear,” everything from classical pieces to children’s music to the theme song from The Flintstones. Recognizing that he had talent, his parents enrolled him in a piano class at age 5, which he quickly outgrew, and then solo lessons soon followed. “I got a very early education in music that’s fueled everything I’ve done since,” he says. “Between third and sixth grade, I did what a freshman or sophomore would do at a conservatory.” And when he discovered jazz in his late teens, “I found this really cool language. I loved the culture, I loved the rhythm. I decided to make it my life’s work.”
He wasted no time, meeting older musicians from Cincinnati’s jazz scene when he was just 19. “It was a bunch of misfits,” Hersch recalls. “You know, people who hung out around the music, who were diverse in age and background, in race, in income, in levels of addiction or not. If you could play and the cats approved of you, then you could be a member of this club, this society.” The misfits label applied to himself too, in large part because Hersch harbored the secret of his sexuality. He didn’t feel like he entirely fit in with the older guys, who talked about women, cars, and baseball; neither did he fit in with the gay guys his age, who lip-synched songs by Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.
The journey to discern where he belonged was a long one, continuing well into his New York years. “Just because two people like jazz, or two people are gay, or two people are Jewish, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be best buddies,” Hersch observes. But he began to find community in both worlds—and, eventually, that special person who shared both of these specific traits.
“Obviously there’s a small percentage of people who are LGBTQ—whether that’s five percent or eight percent is debatable,” he says. “If you say creative instrumental jazz music is [attractive to] about half a percent of people who listen to music, well, half a percent of five percent is not a lot of people.” Nevertheless, Hersch eventually met Scott Morgan at the New York jazz club Birdland. The two had a commitment ceremony in 2004, which was even documented in the New York Times. (Encouraged and accompanied by Hersch, Morgan made his recording debut in 2016, at age 53, showing off his baritone vocals on Songs of Life.)
That’s not the only close relationship Hersch enjoys. Although he often performs solo, as he’ll do at Ravinia, he also has a good thing going—in a musical way—with two key collaborators: bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, who round out the current Fred Hersch Trio. (July marks 10 years together for the threesome.) Hersch’s description of their musical connection, unsurprisingly, sounds a lot like someone describing a romance. “It just kept feeling good, and then feeling better. It surprised me that it got better,” he says. That’s how it goes when you play improvisational jazz as a unit. “It’s like any relationship: How do you decide to keep any relationship going? There has to be trust; there has to be surprise; there has to be respect. Fun. Shared values.”
It’s easy to imagine the title of Hersch’s forthright and compelling autobiography, 2017’s Good Things Happen Slowly, applying to any of these close personal connections. The title seems even more perfectly suited to a jazz musician’s memoir, given how it describes artistic evolution. The real beauty behind those four words is their universality—and their origin. Hersch didn’t hear them at a key point in his musical development, nor were they delivered by a teacher or professional peer. Instead, his doctor uttered them to his husband when Hersch had already spent a month in a coma in the ICU: “In a case like this, good things happen slowly. But bad things happen fast.”
The story of his near death and recovery is, naturally, detailed in the book. The short version is: AIDS is still a very dangerous disease. That fact is easy to overlook in first-world countries today, thanks to the incredible advances in drug therapies that occurred in the late ’90s (and have continued to improve since then). But some long-term survivors with HIV, including Hersch, still have health challenges, and his more serious bout began in late 2007, while on a doctor-approved “drug holiday”—a plan designed to give his body a break from years of treatment.
The virus surged in his body, and Hersch developed AIDS-related dementia in 2008. That led to a roller coaster of health issues and hospital visits, culminating in septic shock, pneumonia, and a medically induced coma. That near-death journey “was the BC/AD point of delineation in my history as a man and as a musician,” Hersch would later write in his memoir.
His artistic growth on the long road to recovery included the 2011 project My Coma Dreams, which drew directly on the visions he experienced while seemingly unconscious. With a collaborator writing lyrics and libretto, Hersch composed for “one actor, who also sings, and 12 instruments.” The multimedia work includes animated visuals based on dreams he vividly remembered after coming out of the two-month coma. (Fascinatingly, Hersch doesn’t typically remember the dreams he has during regular sleep.)
Given the complexity and uniqueness of the project, Hersch and his collaborators came up with a hybrid name for its genre: “We called it jazz theater,” he says, “because it’s not really a musical and it’s not a jazz concert. It was somewhere in the middle.” It was the second such large-scale piece he’d composed, having developed a 2003 musical adaptation of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s celebratory collection of poetry. “I would call that jazz oratorio,” he says. “The focus is on Whitman’s words, with two singers and an octet.”
Hersch still composes new music, although he hasn’t found anything to inspire a project on the scale of Grass or Coma Dreams. “I’m constantly on the lookout for something that might inspire me to tackle another big piece with text or theatrical elements,” he says. “Nothing has hit me quite yet. In the meantime, I’m writing lots of tunes.”
In addition to composing, Hersch continues to record, tour, and perform. Whether playing solo or with his trio, every concert is different; he doesn’t generally map out his sets. “I just see what mood I’m in,” he says. “I have a pretty big repertoire of original pieces, tunes by great jazz composers, and what we usually call American popular song, which goes up to Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. Then I just decide as I go.
“I hope a set of music will have variety of mood and feel and intensity,” he continues. “My goal as an improvising musician is to spontaneously explore a theme that I lay out, which is the song that I’m playing, and to take the audience with me on the journey. They’re discovering it as I’m discovering it. I hope that people trust me to tell a story in music.” ▪
Web Behrens covers arts, culture, and travel for the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business. He’s also worked as an editor and contributor for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader.