Jazz legend Fred Hersch returns home to Cincinnati for Xavier Music Series | Music function | Cincinnati
Editor’s note: This story is featured in the November 2 print edition of CityBeat.
Fred Hersch claims to be slowing down, but his schedule says otherwise.
When Hersch and his trio return to his hometown for the Xavier University Music Series on Nov. 10, he’ll be out for concerts at New York’s Village Vanguard, Italy and Chicago.
A Cincinnati native, Hersch is one of the most influential and revered artists today, especially in the jazz pantheon. His influence continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic when his creative output never stopped, with three recordings in the past two years, the world premiere of a set of variations for solo piano and a program full of concerts since summer 2021.
Talk to CityBeat over the phone from New York, Hersch is upbeat and energized by live performances over the past fifteen months with bassist Drew Gress and German drummer Jochen Rueckert, a new trio that Hersch says is “gelling well.”
“I had a longtime threesome for over ten years, and post-COVID felt like starting fresh,” Hersch says. “I’ve been playing with Drew on and off since the 80s and with Jochen for a year and a half.”
Hersch’s small stature belies his outsized presence in the jazz world for more than four decades as a performer in configurations ranging from solo to full orchestra, composer, arranger, collaborator, teacher, and author.
He’s also a survivor, a nickname he gratefully recognizes after coming out on the other side. When you consider his HIV diagnosis in the mid-1980s, a life-threatening health crisis in 2008 that nearly killed him, and a recent pandemic-enforced isolation, Hersch’s output becomes truly staggering.
A child prodigy, Hersch was drawn to jazz by Newport’s lamented AM jazz radio station, WNOP, whose offbeat announcers relied on an encyclopedic knowledge of artists and their material.
After dropping out of Grinnell College in Iowa, Hersch returned to Cincinnati and discovered the Family Owl on Calhoun Street, where saxophonist Jimmy McGary let him sit.
“I got my ass kicked,” Hersch recalled in a 2013 interview with Cincinnati Magazine. He honed his skills in local backup bands and left Cincinnati for good in 1975.
Hersch moved to New York after attending and teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
“Those days were difficult but also extremely exciting,” he says. CityBeat. “Rent was cheap, drugs were everywhere, and there were a lot more gay people than Cincinnati.”
Music has never lost its power.
“During those years, there were so many jazz clubs in the Village, and you could go see a legend like (tenor saxophonist) Joe Henderson or (bassist) Ron Carter, talk to them, have a drink or ask if you could sit in,” Hersch said.
Hersch had already embarked on an ambitious solo career when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He maintained good health and followed a strict medical regimen, but it wasn’t until 1993 that major sources media identified him as “a gay jazz musician“. he is committed to advocating for people with AIDS and HIV.
“I had the opportunity to be a spokesperson, to do good. I’m an artist and I can’t compartmentalize my life,” he says.
In 2008, his life degenerated into isolation followed by a viral illness. After drastic weight loss, doctors stopped antiviral drugs, resulting in near-fatal pneumonia that put Hersch into a coma that lasted two months.
“In the summer of 2008, when I came out of a coma, I couldn’t speak because of a paralyzed right vocal cord. I didn’t eat or drink for nine months. I couldn’t walk. I had absolutely no fine motor coordination,” Hersch says in a Cincinnati Magazine interview in 2013. “I was helpless, deep down. I was hooked up to a gastric tube to eat. I was down to 105 pounds.
But three years later, Hersch was back on the piano, performing “My Coma Dreams,” an eerie song cycle for vocal soloists and a ten-piece set based on dreams Hersch remembered during his recovery. The entire show is available on YouTube.
In 2017, Hersch reveals another facet of his protean talents and publishes Good things come slowly, a powerful and moving memoir that was on several top ten lists of the year. It is both a tribute to the musicians and places that framed him throughout his career and an unflinching account of his illnesses and recovery.
Hersch’s performances were deeply thoughtful and emotional, and often witty. We feel that he is delighted to discover new facets of the work he performs, even if it is something he has been performing for over 40 years. He never seems tense.
In 2020, Hersch released Songs from homea solo album spanning tunes from the Beatles, Broadway, 60s pop music and American folk songs, all played with an affection and ease that stems from a lifelong devotion to technique.
Hersch tells CityBeat which he credits with daily meditation and his meditation community helping him through COVID. Earlier this year he released breath by breatha suite based on his meditation ritual and accompanied by his trio and the Crosby Street String Quartet.
He followed in October with an edition of contemporary music in duet with another master of jazz, the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. In 2023, Hersch and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding (stylized in lowercase) will collaborate on a live recording at the Village Vanguard.
How, exactly, does Hersch reduce?
“I teach, but only a few private students on a very limited basis,” he says. But anyone eager to learn from Hersch can take two of his lessons — one for solo piano and a recently released series devoted to the art of duets — at openstudiojazz.com.
“I’m becoming more selective about where I play, and I’ll probably do fewer gigs as I get older,” he says (Hersch turned 67 in October).
Hersch says his return to Cincinnati is underlined by personal concerns.
“My mum is over 90, and although she’s in good health, she can’t travel, so it’s lucky for her to see me play,” he says.
“In-person concerts are the best,” he continues. “During COVID, I’ve had times where I thought, ‘If this is over, I’ve had a good career. I’ve reached heights and done more than I could have dreamed of when I was a kid in Cincinnati. I could leave after living the dream. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
Fred Hersch and his trio perform at 8 p.m. on November 10 at Xavier University Bellarmine Chapel, 3800 Victory Pkwy, Norwood. Info: xavier.edu/musicseries.