Swell Cinema

The jazz pianist Fred Hersch in a still from the documentary film The Ballad of Fred Hersch

In October 2008, two months after waking from a coma that left him without motor function in his hands and unable to walk, eat, or speak, the pianist and composer Fred Hersch played a set at Small’s, a basement jazz club in Greenwich Village. At the time, he still took his food through a feeding tube, and as he sat down at the piano he noticed the tube bulging in his shirt.

A year earlier, Hersch, who has been HIV-positive since the mid-1980s, had, at his doctor’s recommendation, been taken off his antiretroviral regimen. Not long after, the virus attacked his brain, leaving him in a state of paranoid psychosis in which he believed he could stop time at will. Though he recovered enough by the spring to tour and compose new music, when he returned to New York in June he felt unwell. Running a fever one day, he got into the bathtub, hoping to cool down, and found he couldn’t get up. His partner had to lift him out, and at the hospital he was found to be near death. His organs slowly failing, he was placed in a medically induced coma that lasted until August.

After emerging from the coma and being discharged from the hospital, he was struck by a bout of pneumonia that left him vomiting blood and was again readmitted to the hospital in the fall. Two days after he left the ICU, he played the set at Small’s. “It was something that I really needed to do to prove to myself that this all had not taken away everything,” he said in a 2010 interview with Terry Gross.

Hersch is one of the most distinguished living jazz pianists. He has recorded fifty-two albums as leader and co-leader, been nominated for ten Grammys, has twice been voted Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association, and is the first pianist in the history of the Village Vanguard to have a solo residency. As a pianist he is perhaps best known for his classically inflected lyrical style, which has drawn frequent comparisons to the playing of Bill Evans, though Hersch has a more muscular sense of rhythm and swings harder when he wants to. He is as influenced by Evans as he is by Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Sonny Rollins, among others. He is remarkably free with his left hand, which sometimes gives the impression of hearing two pianos playing at once, producing long, contrapuntal phrases that seem to ebb and flow endlessly.

His compositions, though most readily identifiable as jazz, blur genres, and range in style from post-bop to highly structured Bach-like works to Brazilian music to ambitious narrative multimedia pieces for vocalists and chamber-jazz ensemble. Though some of his less inspired work can verge on a kind of too-pristine monotony, at his best, Hersch, as both a performer and a composer, brings to mind what Schopenhauer called music’s inexpressible depth, “so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable…it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.”

In his new memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, Hersch, working with the biographer and critic David Hajdu, tells the story not just of his harrowing illness and recovery, but of how “a gay Jewish kid from Cincinnati” broke into the highest reaches of New York’s jazz scene and became a member of the last generation to learn the music directly from the great jazz artists of the mid-twentieth century—musicians like the trumpeter Clark Terry and the saxophonist Joe Henderson. He writes frankly of his struggle to balance his life as a jazz musician with his life as a gay man and of his concerns about coming out: that he would be ostracized by the macho jazz community, known only as “that gay jazz pianist with AIDS.” The book’s release has been accompanied by The Ballad of Fred Hersch, a documentary on the process of creating My Coma Dreams, his multimedia work of jazz theater that depicts the various dreams he recalled from his coma; a new album, Open Book, a collection of solo piano pieces; and performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center of Leaves of Grass, his adaptation of Walt Whitman’s poems for vocalists and jazz chamber orchestra.

Hersch’s jazz career was largely accidental. When, according to family lore, he discovered the piano at four and started picking out the theme to the cartoon Huckleberry Hound, his parents found him a teacher. He grew up in a Cheeveresque section of Cincinnati in the 1960s, and they arranged for classical music lessons, setting him on a track that he pursued through college. Hersch was preternaturally talented—known as one of the city’s young virtuosos by the age of ten. But even as he continued along the classical path, he was drawn to improvisation, inventing melodies at the piano until his mother yelled from another room, “You’re not practicing!”


At Grinnell College he found his “eyes began to open to jazz in a more significant way.” A teacher introduced him to the work of Amiri Baraka, and through Baraka’s writings on African-American aesthetics he listened to John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Pharaoh Sanders, and Mingus. As he did so he “began to understand jazz as a lineage, how it had synthesized the blues, Creole music, ragtime, and other genres.”

But his Damascene moment didn’t come until he was back in Cincinnati in 1973—during the energy crisis Grinnell was so reluctant to pay its heating bills that it sent students home—and went to a folk club to hear bluegrass music. The club had a sign that said LIVE JAZZ UPSTAIRS, and on a whim, he went up. He sat in with the band for one tune—“Autumn Leaves”—and took a bruising. Afterward, the band’s leader brought him into the musicians’ room in the back and played him a recording that changed his life: Ellington’s band playing “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” live at Newport in 1956, a performance famous for the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’s seemingly endless solo that had the crowd dancing so hard the authorities feared a riot. He writes:

I sat and watched the record spin and listened intently. The energy was extraordinary, building with every chorus Gonsalves played. You could feel Ellington and the rest of the band egging him on, and you could hear the crowd going wild. People were hooting and hollering like it was a rock concert. It was absolute hysteria. But beneath it all you could hear the fabric holding it all together, the shared sense of swing rhythm that brought the musicians together—the basic rhythm of jazz.

Afterward Hersch bought every album with “Autumn Leaves” that he could find. What drew him so much to the music, he realized, was the way it prized individuality. “With this music, musicians are completely free to be themselves within the tune. Difference matters—in fact, it’s an asset, rather than a liability.” There was “no describing how exhilarating this epiphany was”; in jazz, “difference is the key element that makes the artistry possible.”

Spurred by his discovery, he dropped out of Grinnell and enrolled in a local conservatory, ostensibly to study classical piano, but steeping himself in Cincinnati’s “fringy and tenuous” jazz scene, looking to hone his abilities as much as possible, and listening to as many musicians as he could. He heard Sun Ra, who, “dressed in a sequined kaftan and wearing an oversized headpiece with glittery stars affixed to it,” walked over to Hersch’s table and chanted “Saturn is the planet of discipline” amid slide projections and the accompaniment of two “nubile dancers.” In the early 1970s, when Hersch was touring with a trio in a local Mexican circus, wearing sombreros and ponchos and playing accompanying music for “a dog act…jugglers, a contortionist,” he went on a night off to hear Miles Davis, around the time that Davis released Get Up With It, a collection of psychedelic jazz-rock:

Miles was in his high-fashion period, rail thin with an expensive scarf, flared slacks, knockout shoes, and of course his huge square tinted glasses. The music was hypnotic, not as much about people taking solos as it was about creating a trippy fabric of sound. Miles prowled back and forth in front of the band, at times weaving in on trumpet but mostly letting the musicians use their imagination. He’d let things percolate and then pick just the right moment to play a phrase or two to move things forward. When he did play it was so compelling that everything else kind of melted away.

The description here is telling—much of Hersch’s own music, though less overtly ambient than Get Up With It, gives the impression of an enveloping fabric of sound, something that evokes subtle moods.

Eventually, feeling constrained by Cincinnati, he headed to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston to study in its fledgling jazz program before making his way to New York, where he began his career in earnest. His audition at New England, Hersch remembers, came after he cornered the pianist Jaki Byard in a hallway. “‘All right,’ he said…. ‘I think I have fifteen minutes.’ …I sat and played two or three tunes…and when I was finished he said, ‘Okay, you’re in.’”

In 1977, New York was squalid and decaying. By the decade’s end, nearly a million of its residents had fled. But the city was surprisingly hospitable to jazz musicians. The cost of living was low, and the number of clubs had risen since a nadir in the 1960s. Many of them were packed late into the night (a phenomenon caused at least in part, Hersch suspects, by an abundance of cocaine). More important, it was the last time in which a young player could go out and hear the giants of the field playing in clubs around the city, and try for what were in effect apprenticeships:


You could go to the Village Vanguard and see Bobby Hutcherson or Joe Henderson, to Fat Tuesday’s and see Stan Getz or Chet Baker, to Sweet Basil and see Art Blakey, Art Farmer, or Gil Evans. For jazz fans, it was an extraordinary time to experience the music as it was created on the bandstand by many of its seminal innovators. For musicians, it was the last time a young person like me would be able to learn directly from this group of masters.

Early on Hersch took a number of less than savory jobs to make ends meet. There was a 4 AM to 8 AM gig with the tenor sax player Junior Cook at Joyce’s House of Unity on Columbus and 83rd; “lots of hookers and pimps,” he writes, “and they were the more respectable, working people in the crowd.” The schedule was so punishing that he would often spend his earnings on coke just to make it through the set. Among the more excruciating jobs was a brief tour with the big-band leader Woody Herman, who, by this point well past his prime and working only because he was in hock to the IRS, spent most performances vengefully inert, “a paisley ascot under his polyester shirt, glowering at the audience.”

But the focal point of these years—and one of the most fascinating parts of Hersch’s book—was Bradley’s. As one Downbeat writer remembered, “Writers and media types had Elaine’s, artists had the Odeon, punkers had CBGB, and the pop and fashion bourgeoisie had Studio 54 and Nell’s. For jazzfolk…there was Bradley’s.” (The writer Frank Conroy managed to be a regular at both Elaine’s and Bradley’s, where he had a Monday night piano residency.)

Open from the early 1970s through 1996, Bradley’s was a piano bar in Greenwich Village where all the major players in the city would come when they were done for the night to listen, sit in with other players, and gossip. “I watched drummer Art Blakey hitting on a young NYU coed at the bar,” Hersch writes, and “learned to spot the coke dealers discreetly going in and out of the men’s room.”

At the end of the night, pianists who weren’t on the bill would take a seat at the piano and show the others a tune or two. There were basses propped up in every corner from the cats who were coming from their other gigs to hear the music and have a nightcap…. All these people I knew from records and idolized—there they were, and I was there among them. I saw them drunk. I saw them stoned. I saw them when they were having a bad night and just weren’t playing well. I got to see them as people like me, and, just as significant, they got to see me.

With its legendary jam sessions, the club carried on a ritual that ran through places like Minton’s in Harlem, where bebop was first developed in what Ralph Ellison called “a continuing symposium of jazz,” to the big-band battles of the 1920s and 1930s, all the way back to competitions between brass bands in the late nineteenth century. The sessions were open to anyone who dared participate. In these pitched combats, the pianist Don Asher wrote in his memoir, Notes from a Battered Grand (1992), musicians were

constantly raising the ante, calling unconventional tunes with swift-changing harmonies in strange keys at tempos so fast you either flew or fell. I suffered in vicarious misery with a pianist who sat with his hands in his lap throughout a tune kicked off at a vicious tempo, then quietly rose and retreated with a foolish, downcast smile.

More than just making and wrecking reputations, though, at a time when jazz was not yet fully ensconced in the academy, places like Bradley’s helped preserve the music’s traditions. “In such jam sessions,” Stanley Crouch once wrote, “the fundamentals and subtleties of art were passed on.” Musicians would show one another obscure tunes that ran the risk of being forgotten, or display their own particular stylistic techniques for others to internalize and keep alive. Above all, the goal was joy.

But even as Hersch found acceptance as a jazz musician, playing as a sideman with major figures, he struggled to reconcile his life as a musician with his life as a gay man. In his childhood, Hersch wrote, “Everything I picked up from the world I occupied in the 1960s associated homosexuality with clownishness, pedophilia, or criminality.” The jazz world in the 1970s wasn’t much more tolerant. The scene has historically been dominated by hypermasculinity and a certain amount of chauvinism. As a journeyman in Cincinnati, playing in a pit band for a pop-hit revue, he remembered feeling doubly alienated from the mostly gay cast and the jazz musicians playing in the pit. Even in New York, he led a double life:

Jazz is an intimate art—you’re interacting spontaneously with other musicians, expressing yourself and responding to the way they express themselves…. My fear was that if the straight musicians I played with knew I was gay, they would mistake my intense musical connection to them for coming on to them, and I didn’t think that would go over well.

When his first long-term partner came to Bradley’s one night with some friends, Hersch squirmed. It wasn’t until the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz came to his apartment and Hersch found himself racing to hide his boyfriend’s toothbrush that he resolved to stop hiding.

Jazz in the early 1980s was in the midst of a fractured florescence. The scene, as Hersch describes it, was split into three main groups: the jazz rock crowd, which had followed in the footsteps of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew; the jazz art crowd, mostly constellated around the German record label ECM, which recorded artists like Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, and Pat Metheny; and finally what Hersch calls “a kind of Upper East Side Jazz, a meticulous and elegant but aesthetically conservative school” that was trying to canonize the music (this last group ultimately had its apotheosis in Jazz at Lincoln Center).

In the end Hersch eschewed all of these styles for his own kind of music, the development of which was quickened by his diagnosis with AIDS in 1986. AIDS, Hersch has written, posed several vexing puzzles for the artist:

How does one deal with the pressure of time, the pressure to achieve? How to walk a fine line between hope and denial?… In essence, how do I want to live, how and with whom do I want to spend my time, what are my values, what do I want to create?

Not knowing which album would be his last, Hersch wrote and recorded music at a breakneck pace. His sound in these earlier recordings was more hard-edged—he calls it “pushier”—than his current playing.* By the early 1990s, he had come out publicly and worked increasingly as an AIDS activist. But for all his accomplishments in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s—which included dozens of albums leading duos, trios, and quintets; a series of solo albums, including one of Rodgers and Hammerstein; work as an accompanist for Dawn Upshaw and Renée Fleming; and his adaptation of Leaves of Grass—it is the work he has done since his coma that has been his strongest. “I believe I am playing with more freedom and creativity and less judgment,” Hersch writes, emphasizing that since his recovery he has taken more satisfaction in playing than ever before.

Traces of this can be heard in his new album, Open Book, the centerpiece of which is a twenty-minute atonal improvisation recorded live in South Korea. But among his recent work, the albums that best capture his newfound sense of satisfaction are Alive at the Vanguard (2012) and Floating (2014), both trio albums. Though Hersch is a wonderful solo player, he is best in a trio—a deeply attuned accompanist, as inspiring to others as he is inspired by their playing. A sequence on Floating in which his short solo composition “West Virginia Rose,” a bluesy lullaby with hints of Wagnerian chromaticism, flows directly into a funky, rollicking New Orleanian jazz-rock tune is by turns lovely and pensive and then carefree, full of the joy of being alive.