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Musician Fred Hersch Recounts A Life 'In And Out Of Jazz' In His New Memoir


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You could almost say my guest, Fred Hersch, returned from the dead. He's a jazz musician and composer who has had HIV for more than 30 years. The diagnosis came at a time when he was thinking he was ready to come out. It's hard to think of another jazz musician who was out at the time. Hersch's new memoir "Good Things Happen Slowly" is about what it was like to be closeted in the jazz world, and then come out as gay and as having AIDS.

There's been periods of his life when he's been very sick. The worst was in 2008 when, in the hope of keeping him alive, doctors put him in a medically induced coma for seven weeks. When he emerged, he couldn't walk, talk, eat or lift an arm. He made a slow but remarkable comeback and was able to return to composing and performing.

Hersch has twice been voted Jazz Pianist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. He teaches at Rutgers University and formerly taught at the New England Conservatory. In addition to his new memoir, he has a new album called "Open Book." It includes him playing Monk's composition "Eronel."


GROSS: Fred Hersch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the way your memoir starts because it's such a great example of the unusual position you were in early in your career as a closeted jazz musician. You were playing in the pit band of a theater and in what sounds like a theme park - a park with a fake Eiffel Tower and lots of rides. And so the show that you were playing piano in was called "Hit-Land USA!" and it was covers of mainstream pop hits. And you write about the difference between the singers in the show and the members of the band. Describe the difference for us.

FRED HERSCH: Well, most of the singers were students or graduates of the local Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which has a very fine music theater program. So they were basically working, honing their chops. You did seven shows a day, six days a week. So that's 42 shows a day for a 15-week season, so you can imagine how many times we had to play this same show.

The musicians in the pit were mostly local jazz musicians or high school music teachers. You know, they were talking about Cincinnati Reds and cars. And then the gay guys in the show were lip-synching to Judy Garland and Bette Midler, and being very catty with each other. It was really quite a conundrum. Like, I know that I'm not this, but I know that I'm not that either. And I think that was something that played out in my life for many years afterwards.

GROSS: Right, so you weren't lip-synching to Judy Garland records. At the same time, you weren't obsessed with cars and girls like (laughter) the members of the band

HERSCH: Yeah, I'm probably the only gay guy who's never owned a Barbra Streisand record.

GROSS: (Laughter) So did you feel like you should try to fit in one side or the other?

HERSCH: I'd say that I was more interested in fitting in with the jazz guys because that was my passion. Given the way that I developed as a young musician, as an improviser and a composer at a very young age, jazz was pretty much an ideal use of the skillsets that I felt I had. And the jazz culture was really a subculture. It was, you know, little clubs, and no money and kind of kooky jazz fans and, you know, interesting variety of musicians, ages, races, levels of ability. But I felt like it was this really cool club that I wanted to belong to.

GROSS: So what did you do to try to fit in with the jazz musicians without revealing that you were gay? Because you were afraid to reveal that.

HERSCH: Well, I was only 18 or 19 years old so, I mean, it was not unusual to - you know, not be having a girlfriend or being involved in a relationship at that age. I just - in Cincinnati, I was under the drinking age, so I couldn't go to gay bars. And, frankly, then, the idea of going to a bar and picking up a stranger was something that I really couldn't wrap my head around. But hanging out on the jazz scene six nights a week, and playing the piano all day and learning from the older musicians was something that I took to like a duck to water.

GROSS: How did you first discover you had an ear for music?

HERSCH: Well, the legend goes - and I'm not so sure how this - true this is, but that when I was about 3 or 4, I got up on the piano and picked out the theme from "The Huckleberry Hound Show."

GROSS: (Laughter) That's a cartoon show.

HERSCH: Yeah, a Hanna-Barbera show - and got class piano lessons at age 4, but it was pretty clear that I was, you know - needed a private teacher. And so I studied with one of the local classical piano heavyweights. But the best thing that my parents did for me was, from third grade through the seventh grade, I had private theory and composition lessons. So I had score analysis, composing in different styles, counterpoint, four-voice writing, penmanship.

So by the time I was out of elementary school, I had a toolkit that probably a college freshman or sophomore at a conservatory would have. And I always liked making up my own music. It just sounded like classical music because that's really what I was listening to.

GROSS: So how did you discover jazz? You'd been playing in pit bands, in, you know, choruses, stuff like that - pop tunes.

HERSCH: Well, we had a high school jazz ensemble, which I played with. And I went away to liberal arts school at Grinnell College in Iowa. And I had a piano teacher and a couple of friends who were into jazz. I started listening to records, buying books, going to the college record store, learning about the music. And I was back in Cincinnati, and I stumbled into this little jazz club called the Family Owl. And I heard this wonderful tenor saxophone player playing with a quartet. And I, for some reason, thought that I would be able to sit in with them. So I said, can I play a tune? And he said, what do you know? I said, I think I can play "Autumn Leaves." So I played "Autumn Leaves" and didn't play it very well. I don't think I had a great mastery of rhythm at that point in my life.

And after that performance, the tenor saxophonist, a little guy named Jimmy McGary, took me to the back room and he played me a Duke Ellington record, "Live At Newport," (ph) that has a track "Diminuendo" and "Crescendo In Blue" on which the great tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves plays 26 choruses of blues. And people are going crazy. It's hysteria. And the excitement is building with every chorus. And he took the needle off at the end of the track and said, that's time. And once you get your time together and learn some tunes, you can come back.

So with nobody to guide me, as I had no gay role models - I had no role models in the jazz world either - I went to the local used record shop, and I bought 12 or 13 albums that had "Autumn Leaves" on them, and listened to them all and realized that they were all great. None of them was the best. They were all personal - different interpretations. And I realized that, you know, maybe this is a music where I can really be an individual.

GROSS: So you go to New York. You start playing in clubs, including Bradley's, which was famous for having pianists perform there, and you start playing in clubs including Bradley's, which was famous for having pianists perform there, and you were reviewed by Whitney Balliett there, who described you as a slender, bearded, light-fingered poet of a pianist. Beautiful. Like, so quotable. (Laughter) Perfect blurb.

Except you were worried about the light-fingered part because light is also used in the expression light in the loafers, which is a kind of derisive word. It was a derisive phrase for describing somebody who is gay. So you didn't know how to take it. You weren't sure if he was kind of subtly implying in a derogatory way that you were gay. Go ahead.

HERSCH: This is something that, you know, has been a thing in my whole career that's taken me many years to resolve. People will come up to me after concerts and say, wow, you sounded beautiful. And for so many years, I wanted to hear something else. I wanted to hear, you know, that I was swinging or I was doing this, that and the other, but beauty in music and lyricism may be things that I had internalized as coded for gay, like when I get a review that says elegant or lyrical.

I mean, I have to agree that that is sort of how I play. And I do have a particular touch whether you call it light or whatever, but it is my sound for sure. It took me many years to get over trying to prove myself that I could do these other hard-swinging kinds of rhythmically challenging things too, and for people to give me the props for being able to do that as well as play lyrically and beautifully.

GROSS: You write that your life, once you really got into jazz, that your life revolved around the music and around getting high, which at the time seemed all of apiece to you. What were the ways in which they seemed connected? And we're talking about the early 1970s here?

HERSCH: Yeah, we're talking about '73, '74-ish, early '75. Well, I was, you know, born in '55 and - and discovered pot and all of that when I was about a ninth or tenth-grader and '71 or '72. And I found that weed was really an ideal drug for listening. It helped focus my hearing. It's a terrible performance drug, but it was really good for listening. So there were a couple of older jazz musicians, maybe four or five years older than I, who had amazing vinyls. They had just all these great jazz records and great weed.

So I would spend, you know, most evenings or after the gig that I might be doing with these guys just sitting around till all hours just getting high and playing sides. And then the next day I would sit at my piano and just try to, you know, channel some of the pianists that I loved, you know, kind of inexactly imitating them.

GROSS: There's - there's a scene in your book where you describe getting high with the great trumpeter and singer Chet Baker. And this is about heroin. Like, he's shooting up. You're snorting it. And I'm thinking as I'm reading this, did Chet Baker, who had been addicted for a fair amount of his adult life, did he have any idea that you, this young musician, had never done heroin before and that you risked becoming an addict at that moment? I mean, what was the sense, if any, that the older jazz musicians had about protecting younger people from becoming addicted?

HERSCH: Honestly, I don't think they had any sense about it. When I started playing in bands, particularly with Joe Henderson, I felt like as the, you know, junior cat in the band, I should always bring a little bit of coke for Joe to have just as a, you know, kind of as a nice gesture as the new guy on the team. But I don't think Chet Baker really thought too much about his behavior and how it affected anyone.

The only person who ever said anything to me, oddly enough, was Jimmy McGary back in Cincinnati. And he took me aside one night and he said, look, whatever you want to do after the gig - get high, get drunk (inaudible) want - but don't bring it on the bandstand because you're going to end up like me. He said, I could have gone to New York. I might have made something of myself but I've got a drinking problem. And I think you should really separate your drug use from what you do on the bandstand.

GROSS: And that was helpful to hear that from him.

HERSCH: Yeah. I've never, ever had a drink and gotten on stage.

GROSS: Did you ever use heroin again?

HERSCH: No. That was one and only.

GROSS: How did you stay away from it when so many people, once they start, can't stop?

HERSCH: I knew that I had an addictive personality. My father's had problems with alcohol. He doesn't drink. Certainly I've been compulsive with sex, with food all my life, and I just thought if I go down this rabbit hole, I don't know if I'll ever find my way out because it was so great. I just thought this is almost too great.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is pianist and composer Fred Hersch. He has a new memoir called "Good Things Happen Slowly." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is pianist and composer Fred Hersch. His new memoir is called "Good Things Happen Slowly." It's about his life as a jazz musician and it's about his life as a gay man making his way through the jazz world. Early on in his career, that was a time when people weren't out in the jazz world. I mean, let alone in the larger world but certainly not in the jazz world. And also in the 1980s, he had HIV. So he's been living with HIV for more than 30 years. And back in - what year was it, Fred, that you were in a coma for a couple of months?

HERSCH: 2008.

GROSS: Yeah. So we'll talk about that a little bit later. Well, I want to get back to your trying to figure out where you fit in in the world. You went to summer camp, a camp for boys in Maine. And this was also the period when you were sexually coming of age. And so here you were thinking, you know, knowing that you were gay, not wanting to tell anybody, not ready to act on it yet. And you're surrounded by boys, often naked boys because it's summer camp. Were you worried that you would give yourself away, that you would do something, that somebody would notice something about you and they'd know that you were gay and that would be - I'm sure you were worried at that time that that would be a bad thing if they found out.

HERSCH: For sure. I - there were really no role models back then. There were no out gay people that I knew of. Either publicly or in the entertainment or in my life, there were no gay men that I knew. I think I got a certain amount of cred from the campers because I was clearly a piano whiz and played for the show, and I excelled at swimming and a couple of other sports I was decent at. So I think I got more or less left alone. I didn't feel picked on too much. But, you know, everything - I felt very secretive, and my attraction to men was a very kind of furtive thing.

GROSS: Your first long-term boyfriend - you were still, like, trying to establish yourself as a jazz musician at that time and you were still in the closet and you felt like you had to hide the relationship. How do you do that? How do you hide a relationship? Like, you tell a great story. You told this on our show years ago. But I'm going to ask you to tell it again about - you were playing with Stan Getz at the time. He came over to your apartment to rehearse, and you realized - what did you realize?

HERSCH: I realized that there were two toothbrushes in the bathroom, one for me and one for Eric. And as Stan was walking down the hall into my loft, I went and I hid Eric's toothbrush because I thought, oh, if he notices two toothbrushes, he'll think, oh, maybe there's somebody else here. I mean, it was just completely insane.

And when he left, I kind of went back in and sort of looked at the bathroom and I said, you know, that was my first inkling that, you know, this has got to stop. Like, he is the great Stan Getz, and I admire him for his amazing musicianship. But, you know, if he has a problem with me being gay, well, then it's his problem and it's not my problem. So that was just the beginning of thinking, you know, maybe there's a way to integrate all of this and not be so secretive.

GROSS: That does not mean that you came out to Stan Getz, right (laughter)?

HERSCH: No, I did not come out to Stan Getz, no.

GROSS: My guest is jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. His new memoir is called "Good Things Happen Slowly." His new album is called "Open Book." After we take a short break, we'll talk more about coming out as gay and as having HIV, and we'll talk about his biggest health crisis - when he was put in a medically induced coma. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with jazz composer and pianist Fred Hersch. He has a new memoir about what it was like to start his career in the closet and then be one of the first jazz musicians to come out. He also came out as having HIV. He was diagnosed around 30 years ago. Hersch also has a new album called "Open Book."

When did you start coming out?

HERSCH: Well, I think, it's, you know, most people will tell you it's a process. I think there's sort of three stages of coming out. The one stage is when you tell your first person. And that's - you know, you're waiting for the perfect time and just the right person and just the right words to say, you know, to say that you're gay. And you don't know how it's going to go, and you're nervous.

And the second stage is when you assume that everybody knows and nobody cares. And then the third stage is that, you know, when somebody talks about their wife or girlfriend or children, you talk about your partner and it's just a total non-issue.

And I did tell my parents very early on after I'd moved to Boston. I was 19. I told them. And friends of mine, of course, knew. But I didn't really come out in the huge way that I did in the public until 1993, in association with a benefit project I did for an AIDS services organization. And that became quite a large story. I think we may have even talked at that time.

GROSS: We did. We did.

HERSCH: And, you know, it was all over, you know, CNN and Newsweek. And I was talking not only about being a gay jazz musician but being a artist or a musician with HIV, which at that point was a death sentence, really.

GROSS: Yeah. And to my knowledge, you were the first jazz musician to come out and take an activist position about it and to take an activist position about HIV.

HERSCH: I'd say that that's probably true because I felt like, OK, how many more years do I have left? You know, maybe by being out and continuing to just do what I do kind of with a vengeance, as if my life depended on it - which it sort of did - maybe I can help somebody else who's struggling with whether or not to come out.

And I was - there were some horror stories, friends of mine who had HIV that said, oh, when I get sick, my family will take care of me. And then, in fact, their families disowned them. And I really felt that you need to be out about who you are as a person and what you're dealing with so that you know when the chips are down, who's going to be there for you. And don't assume that it's going to be your biological family.

GROSS: Some musicians said to you basically, it's cool that you're gay. That's fine. Just don't hit on me. So what was your reaction when they did that to you?

HERSCH: You know, I'd say, don't flatter yourself, I mean, in my mind. Occasionally I would say it out loud, but, you know, that's just - that's such - so ridiculous. It's like all this nonsense with transgendered bathrooms, you know, it just doesn't make any sense.

GROSS: You know, you write that when you were diagnosed with HIV and you knew you had HIV because of your T-cell count. And this was before there was actually a test for HIV, so you didn't have the empirical truth but, you know, the empirical evidence. But still, you knew it. Your doctor knew it. And you write that at that time, you had conflicting impulses of resignation and recklessness. Can you describe those conflicting impulses and how they affected your behavior and your moods?

HERSCH: Well, I mean, it wasn't a surprise when I found out because I had been active sexually and before we knew about safer sex practices. I was not really doing them. So it wasn't too much of a shock, but it also meant that, you know, I was on this kind of treadmill heading towards death. And so I kind of spent a lot of time having as much sex as possible.

GROSS: I just want to interject here that in the book, you say that you would inform your partner and it was safe sex.

HERSCH: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

HERSCH: As soon as I knew what safe sex practices were, I practiced them. I never knowingly infected anybody. And fortunately, I mean, I know some people who had one sexual encounter and that caused them to be infected, and I didn't have that issue. It could have been any one of a number of situations where I'd become infected. So I just didn't have to dwell on where or when, it was just - that was the fact. That's what it was. There was no treatment.

GROSS: Once you came out, did other jazz musicians start coming out to you but ask you to keep that a secret?

HERSCH: Yes, a number did. And a number went public. The vibraphonist Gary Burton comes to mind. So I kind of jokingly refer to myself as kind of the den mother for gay jazz musicians or musicians with HIV. I'm somebody that, you know, I've received literally emails and cold calls like, this is what I'm dealing with. How did you deal with it? Can you give me any suggestions?

GROSS: And were you able to?

HERSCH: I think so. I mean, I'm not a social worker, but I think I was able to get some people into treatment who were reluctant or kind of had their head in the sand about treatment and about their condition.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is composer and pianist Fred Hersch. He has a new memoir called "Good Things Happen Slowly." And he has a new album called "Open Book." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is composer and pianist Fred Hersch. He has a new memoir called "Good Things Happen Slowly." And it's not only about his life in jazz. It's also about his life in jazz as a gay man and his life with HIV, which he's had for more than 30 years.

So you've had periods, because of HIV, when your health has been very bad. You develop various infections. You develop diabetes. In 2008, your doctor suggested that you take a medical holiday from the drugs that you were on because they have such terrible side effects. And during that period, the virus infected your brain and you fell into a state of psychosis. What were some of the things you remember experiencing in that psychotic state?

HERSCH: Yeah. It's very odd. As crazy as I was, I remember almost all of it. I wandered around the halls of our loft building without clothes on. I deleted all my emails in the middle of the night. I was convinced that someone would sue me and take away my piano. I was convinced that the checkout people at the local supermarket had a conspiracy against me. I was really paranoid, delusional.

Just - I think it was really hard on Scott because he was in graduate school at the time. And he'd come home, and he never knew what he'd come home to. I would be dismissive or sullen or needy or just plain crazy. And I think that was really, really tough on him. And he did what you're supposed to do when you are dealing with somebody whose nuts, you just agree with them.

You know, so he just was very mature about it. And he would just agree with me And be firm when he needed to be because I needed that. But he was very sensitive to how to deal with somebody who's really - has AIDS-related dementia.

GROSS: And then he got you to the hospital where you were treated. And correct me if I'm wrong here, but you were in a coma for a few days during that period. Then you got - went back home and eventually developed a terrible infection, and you became septic. You went back to the hospital. And then you were in a coma for - what? - six weeks.

HERSCH: Well, actually, the way it happened is New Year's Eve Day, 2008, I was admitted to St. Vincent's. And I was in sort of a semi-coma for about 10 days, where they gave me powerful anti-psychotics. They also switched my anti-retroviral drugs and eventually that suppressed my viral load, which is the measure of the activity of the virus in your body. It suppressed it. And it's remained suppressed all these years since that time.

And then I kind of rebounded. And in March - by March, the anti-psychotics were working. I was feeling good. I was writing music. I was touring again. And then in early June, I developed a pneumonia that has nothing to do with the pneumocystis pneumonia that many people with AIDS were getting, which is bacterial. This is a viral pneumonia. And it went untreated.

And by the time I was admitted to St. Vincent's ER and then the ICU, I was in septic shock organ failure. They said I could really live or die at that point. And that's what led to the two-month coma.

GROSS: Were you - did you fall into a coma or was it a medically-induced coma?

HERSCH: It was a medically-induced coma. There was so much infection in my body. They thought if they could shut it down, maybe they could find the source. And then they would bring me back. But it just took much, much longer than they expected.

GROSS: After you recovered, you did a performance that was called "My Coma Dreams." And that's available on DVD. And these are compositions - some with lyrics, some instrumental - inspired by dreams that you had while you were in a coma. I want to play one of them. And this is called "Dream of Monk."

And you write in your book that whenever you do a set in a performance, you usually play something by Thelonious Monk. He's been a very important composer to you. And you can hear a lot of Monk in this composition. But there's a lot of departure in it, too. Would you talk a little bit about the dream that you had that Monk figured into you and how you tried to interpret that into this composition?

HERSCH: As I recall this dream, I'm in a room - a kind of large room - and it's semi dark. And I'm in a cage that's 5 feet by 5 feet. So I can't stand up or lie down straight. And I look over in this dim light. And I see another cage to my left eye, which is slightly larger, and in which is Thelonious Monk. And we don't really acknowledge each other, but I know he's there.

And at one point, a man comes into the room, turns on the light so that it's very bright. (Inaudible) each some music manuscript paper and a pencil and says, whoever can write a tune first will be released. So naturally, I want to get out of my cage. I just start writing. And I finish my tune in 10 or 15 minutes.

And then I look over at Monk, and he's still looking at the pencil. But if you've ever seen pictures of Thelonious Monk on record covers or - he has this sort of enigmatic Cheshire Cat kind of smile. And he's just looking like that very, you know, sweet and enigmatic.

And so when I wrote the tune "Dream Of Monk," I used a device that I use that's kind of like speed writing for authors. And I set a kitchen timer to 45 minutes. And then I try to get the tune out as quickly as I can because, to me, that's as - I want to make it as close to the speed of improvisation as I can possibly make it. So this tune came out in about 15, 20 minutes.

GROSS: Well, it's interesting because you had a timer, basically, within the coma dream. You had to write fast in order to get out so that you could beat Monk.

HERSCH: Right. So I wanted to kind of simulate that situation and a little bit of panic and also just wanting to, you know, get it done.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. And this is called "Dream Of Monk" from the larger piece by Fred Hersch called "My Coma Dreams."


GROSS: That's pianist and composer Fred Hersch at the piano. The composition is called "Dream Of Monk," and it's from his extended work "My Coma Dreams." You're in your 60s. You're - what? - 64 now - '3?

HERSCH: Sixty-one.

GROSS: Sixty-one, OK. As you write in your book, turning 60 is a crisis for a lot of people because they fear this means, like, they've gotten old, or they're on their way to becoming old. But it wasn't a crisis for you.

HERSCH: It was a complete celebration. I didn't expect to be 40. I didn't expect to be 50. I didn't expect to be 60. And actually, since I've recovered from the coma, I feel like my playing is, in every possible way, better. I think it's deeper. I don't - I'm not self - so self-critical or judgmental about what I play. I feel like my career has blossomed.

You know, the title of the memoir "Good Things Happen Slowly" has a dual meaning. I think it's - it has - it says something about my career that I've kind of stuck with what I do all these years. And now the critics and the audiences and everybody is sort of coming around to me. But also, when I was admitted to St. Vincent's Hospital, and they kind of carted me away, and Scott was waiting there, wondering if I was going to live or die, at some point, one of the doctors in the ICU said, good things happen slowly in the ICU but bad things happen fast.

So, you know, I don't get up every morning and say, praise the Lord. I want my espresso. You know, I get cranky. I don't like to fly. Life is not perfect, but I am, on balance, extremely grateful. And the glass is more than half-full.

GROSS: Fred, how is your health now?

HERSCH: Thank you for asking. My health now is better than it was 25 years ago. I'm doing absolutely great. I do take more than 30 pills a day. I have to do some insulin every night, but I have plenty of energy. I'm touring a lot. I have a lot of great musical opportunities.

I'm really - it's really kind of surprised me how well I'm doing. And even factoring in the fact that I'm pushing the senior citizen status, I feel much, much younger. I feel like I'm getting better at what I do, in some ways. And I'm just looking forward to the next thing, whatever that is - the next project.

GROSS: I'm really glad to hear that you're doing well, and it's a nice note to end on. Fred Hersch, thank you so much.

HERSCH: Thank you.

GROSS: Fred Hersch is the author of the new memoir "Good Things Happen Slowly" and has a new album called "Open Book." This is FRESH AIR.


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