Christo­pher Car­roll

Good Things Hap­pen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Her­sch The Bal­lad of Fred Her­sch a doc­u­men­tary film di­rected by Char­lotte La­garde and Carrie Lozano Open Book an al­bum by Fred Her­sch

The New York Review of Books - - Contents -

Good Things Hap­pen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Her­sch.

Crown Archetype, 307 pp., $28.00

The Bal­lad of Fred Her­sch a doc­u­men­tary film di­rected by Char­lotte La­garde and Carrie Lozano

Open Book an al­bum by Fred Her­sch. Pal­metto, CD, $13.99

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 in­ex­pli­ca­ 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 AfricanAmer­i­can 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.’”


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 big­band 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 swiftchang­ing 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.

*An ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of his ear­lier style can be heard on a thrilling live set he played with Joe Hen­der­son at the Vil­lage Van­guard in 1985, avail­able on YouTube at watch?v=BQsZb70iVdU.

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

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