Acclaimed pianist, HIV survivor still going strong

Jewish jazz pianist Fred Hersch says surviving an HIV-related coma has given him a new strength to perform.

Fred Hersch 370 (photo credit: Michael Jackson)
Fred Hersch 370
(photo credit: Michael Jackson)
The world of jazz is a broad and often complicated one that is difficult to define. From be-bop to free jazz to west coast, it has permutations and variations that can boggle even the most astute music lover. To truly last in jazz and leave a legacy, an artist must be focused, but also free to explore.
Jewish musician Fred Hersch has been playing jazz for more than 25 years. In that time, he has recorded over three-dozen albums as a solo artist, and with his own trio and other groups. He has also crafted a legacy offstage by overcoming HIV, an illness that for Hersch resulted in a coma from which many thought he would never fully recover, but which now gives him a new strength and vigor he brings to each note.
In addition to being a world-famous musician, Hersch is also a leading activist for many causes, including supporting others with HIV.
“The word ‘jazz’ now conjures so many different kinds of music,” Hersch tells “There are a lot of young musicians who only want to play their own music and there are still a lot of straight-ahead musicians who are more interested in re-creating than actually creating. I see myself as sort of in the middle… I like to do a lot of different things and am fortunate that I can pull it off.”
After many years of training in the classical realm, the Cincinnati-born Hersch moved into musical theater in high school and even stretched out into the wild world of pop before deciding on jazz.
“I grew up with mostly classical music and listening to many string quartets,” Hersch recalls. “I played violin for a while and sang in choral groups.”

His early fascination with multiple-part composition and the use of independent voices and musical counterpoint led him to a deeper study of the theory behind the music he loved. To this day, he sees this early education as a privilege—one he realizes many do not have these days.
“I was lucky,” he says. “I got good theory and composition training as an elementary schooler. I had really good building blocks and I apply them to everything I do.”
Hersch, however, does not see himself as a product of what he calls “the jazz education model.”
“I still have connections to the jazz piano,” he explains, citing such influences as Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Billy Strayhorn, as well as the many masters whose music comprises the Great American Songbook. “Typically when I am playing trio or solo, I include a healthy dose of my own music and sprinkled in there are songs from other Jazz composers and American popular song composers that I care about-So there is that link to that tradition, [but] I also do [other] projects.”
As he grew up during what he terms the “golden age” of popular music, Hersch also involves such contemporary influences as the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and the many stars of Motown he first explored by performing in high school bands. “I would play that by ear,” he recalls, “and in my own way.”
Given his many influences, there is no such thing as a “typical” Fred Hersch show.
“I usually decide 5-10 minutes before I go up,” he says of his set lists, “and I change it as I go often… It depends on where I am playing.”
Hersch uses a wide array of his own songs and those of his favorite fellow composers in an ever-evolving effort to bring new sounds—and new takes on old sounds—to his listeners. Despite the variety of material from which he has to choose, Hersch feels confident that his most recent playing is among his best.
“I really like the new CD,” he says of Alive at The Vanguard. “I think it is some of my best trio playing on record.”
The CD takes material from all six of Hersch’s nights in concert at the famed New York club, offering those who were not present for the actual sets a sense of being there. “We recorded all six and I picked the best stuff,” Hersch says. “We tried to keep the sound as faithful as we could so they could feel the acoustics of the Vanguard, which are very particular.”
Outside of the studio and the performance hall, Hersch says he is a “very committed educator and committed to passing on things that were passed on to me.”
“I have done a lot of work for AIDS-related charities—producing albums and running concerts,” he says. “And that is something I care deeply about as well.”
Still, music is Hersch’s first love.
“I am very passionate about the piano,” he says. “And I always like to try new things.”
Inspired by the success of his musical setting of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and a very personal performance piece that Hersch composed based on dreams he had while in his coma, Hersch is currently embarking on writing a musical.
“That is something I have never done,” he says. In fact, Hersch says that since his coma and his own fight with HIV, he feels better than ever. “I am physically and energetically and clinically better than I have been in the more than 25 years since I had HIV,” he says. “I am in the best shape yet.”

With this sense of vigor, Hersch is also looking at the new generation of jazz artists for ideas and inspiration.
“I am also opening myself to interesting collaborative projects,” he says, mentioning forthcoming sessions with Berklee College of Music-trained guitarist Julian Lage and a project with French pianist Benoit Delbecq that will involve two pianos, two rhythm sections, and electronic music.
Some of the new projects “take me out of my comfort zone and let me continue to grow as a musician,” Hersch says. So while his solo and trio work may constitute the “hub” of Hersch’s “wheel,” he is always ready to take a new idea for a spin.
“I am always looking for new stuff,” he says. “I got into jazz because it’s not predictable. I wouldn’t describe myself as wanting to settle—I am just not that way.”