Alive and playing

Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz

By Fred Hersch

Crown Archetype, 2017

Jazz composer and pianist Fred Hersch is the epitome of a “both/and” rather than “either/or artist”. He is renowned for his lyricism at the keyboard, but also his rhythmic prowess. He can write and play ethereal harmonies but he can also get down when playing Monk. He is very vulnerable and self-deprecating about his personality but cocksure about his pianistic talent. He beats himself up for not practicing as much as he should but is a very informed student of his art in both the classical and jazz traditions. He documents his complexities very convincingly his autobiography Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz. The title comes from a doctor remarking on Hersch’s status after slipping into a coma that could have been fatal. The subtitle stems from Hersch’s status as one of the few openly gay identified musicians in jazz, which caused him considerable angst before his HIV positive designation in 1986 pushed him to tear down walls and use his status to advocate.

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Hersch, with editorial assistance from writer David Hajdu, tells his story chronologically detailing his economically privileged childhood in Cleveland Ohio (he was born in 1955), his affection for music, his discovery that he was gay, and his assertion into Cleveland’s jazz scene. His professional dyes paying in Cleveland provided a launching pad to enter into move to New York’s jazz community in the late 1970s. Hersch paints a compelling portrait of a promising young talent balancing something easy to discern, his talent for playing with something profoundly personal, meaning his sexual desire in an often macho and homophobic artistic milieu. Despite the tensions between these positions, he persists with developing his reputation as a player, and manages to develop important professional relationships that increase his visibility. By the late 1980s, he becomes a leader and secures the first of multiple Grammy nominations in the early 1990s.

Though Hersch comes out to family, friends and colleagues gradually in the 1980s he finds the love of his life at Birdland in 2002 when his future husband Scott Morgan shares how much he enjoys Hersch’s playing. In addition to building a life together Morgan plays a pivotal role as a caretaker when Hersch’s health declines in an episode in 2007, where the virus leads to significant weight loss and diminished cognitive functioning. Though he recovers gradually, in the summer of 2008 he experiences a wave of fatigue and stasis before devolving into a comatose state that lasts for six weeks. Hersch recovers gradually over the following year, and returns to playing. Though he was nervous about losing his skills post-coma, his playing changes, “I feel like I have been playing more deeply at this point in my life, whatever the reasons—age, experience, maturity, not caring as much what people think, and/or the wisdom and enhanced clarity of purpose that often comes to people forced to face death at close range” (288). Ever the artist, he also translates some of his experiences into “a hybrid performance/multimedia work” My Coma Dreams with librettist Herschel Garfein. My Coma Dreams is performed and staged at multiple live venues and is eventually filmed and released on DVD.

Hersch remains a highly respected pianist and composer of considerable ambition, and one senses that he is still in bloom. He is the only musician the Village Vanguard has presented regularly as a solo pianist.  Though he focuses on his instrumental work, he is a highly distinguished accompanist having performed on Grammy nominated albums by Nancy King and Janis Siegel, and albums by respected vocalists Leny Andrade, Jay Clayton, Renee Fleming, Johnny Mathis, Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Norma Winstone, among others. Hersch is also a mentor as a bandleader and as a teacher at Rutgers University. Whatever challenges he has faced in terms of navigating his identity, his health, and the relative cult status of piano jazz, Hersch is an exemplar of determination and persistence. In an autobiography filled with engaging and deeply personal stories, one that stands out for simplicity and poignancy is Hersch’s encounter with the late drummer Billy Higgins who struggled with kidney and liver problems.  After playing a set in weakened condition, embraced Hersch and exclaimed “It’s good to be alive” (286). Hersch has taken this ethos to heart and exceeded his desire to “try to write a book” by writing a remarkably engrossing book.