Fred Hersch: Just Hear What Happens Next
In conversation with Molly Sheridan
Hersch’s home studio, New York, NY
June 8, 2011—11:00 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Photos by David Bartolomi (homepage) and Steve J Sherman (video poster)
Pianist and composer Fred Hersch has a gift for storytelling. In life, as in his music, he is at ease sharing his thoughts and experiences, forthcoming and at times even bracingly honest. After an intensive review of Hersch’s recorded catalog, I had begun to think of his music as “beauty with a backbone,” and after an hour in his company, I came to view the man on much the same terms: Embracing, but certainly no pushover.
Though his formal education includes study at the New England Conservatory, he readily points out how the on-the-bandstand schooling he received in jazz clubs like Bradley’s in New York prepared him to be the musician is today. In the course of our conversation, we spoke about this journey and all that has come in its wake, but returned again and again to the idea of taking chances, trying things out, seeing what happens if—Hersch seemingly unbowed by the anxieties such open-ended performance situations bring into play. Later, he came at it head-on. “I think there has to be a certain element of danger in jazz, or it isn’t really jazz,” he explained. Later, he illustrated the idea further: “There’s nothing better than feeling like you played a great set or a great concert, knowing that the next night or the next time you play the chalkboard gets erased, and you start again.”
As one of the first notable jazz musicians in New York to be open about his HIV-positive status (he was diagnosed in 1986) and his homosexuality, a great deal of media attention has focused on his health and advocacy work. Though it’s a pleasure to be able to report that after facing a number of health challenges in 2008 Hersch is once again on steady ground, in the time we spent together we focused mainly on his music, particularly his approach to composition. Still, the threads of life tend to twist together, and Hersch revealed himself to be still searching, still learning, still playing—frank and direct about his music and his mortality.
“I enjoy playing simple material, really playing spontaneously and with as much heart as I can muster. I think that’s served me in a lot of ways,” he says, obviously fulfilled by the musical path he has taken. “I’m very, very lucky to be in this place, and physically even more so. So I’m a pretty happy camper.”
Molly Sheridan: When you think back to the very beginnings of your career—the early years in Cincinnati, then at the New England Conservatory, and then those first months in New York, getting established and meeting people—what sort of career were you envisioning for yourself back then as compared to what ultimately has ended up happening?
Fred Hersch: I started at Grinnell College in Iowa, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’d been a pianist since the age of four or five. I was not a practicer: I knew that learning all the Chopin Etudes was not in my future; I just didn’t want it badly enough. I wrote music, and I improvised music, but nobody ever suggested, “Hey, you know, there are careers as a composer.” I thought you either had to be a concert pianist or a conductor. So I didn’t really put that together. Then I went to Grinnell and, actually, one of the things that got me into jazz was playing chamber music there. I played with a piano-violin-cello trio, and I found that rehearsing with people was really fun. It wasn’t sitting in your practice room and working on some difficult passage all the time. Of course, you do that, but then you get together and you kind of hash out how you want to interpret a piece. That was 1973, the year of the so-called energy crisis where gas prices went through the roof during the Carter years. They declared a six-week winter recess because they couldn’t afford to heat the school, basically. I came back [home to Cincinnati], and I met some of the older musicians. Sat in and got my butt kicked, and started to listen and learn tunes, but this was all by ear. There was no formal training going on. I went briefly to conservatory to keep my parents happy that I was still in school, but you know, I was staying out till all hours, playing in jazz clubs. After about a year and a half of that, I realized, if I don’t leave here, I’m never going to leave here. So I went to the New England Conservatory, and that was at the time that Gunther Schuller was in his last two years of running the place. So it was a very special time. They were one of only five or six schools in the country that had even really acknowledged jazz at that time. Of course, now every community college has a jazz studies program. There was a great jazz pianist there, Jaki Byard, and basically I got in a car and I went up there, and I tracked him down and played a few tunes for him. He said, “You’re in.” So there I was.
At NEC, I really broadened my horizons. I learned a lot about 20th-century music, about older jazz styles, about even Renaissance music, Indian music. The great thing about a school like New England Conservatory—and that’s where I teach now—is the belief in artist-faculty. That if you take a theory class, you’re taking a theory class with a composer. You’re not taking a theory class with somebody who got a doctorate in theory and is teaching theory. So you know, words tend to carry more weight if you’re dealing with a teacher in a classroom situation who’s actually using this stuff in a creative way. I was there for two years, I graduated, and a week later I was living on East 11th Street. That was 1977, and the scene was very, very different. I mean, this was pre-institutionalization of jazz, pre-jazz education boom, pre-Wynton Marsalis, Lincoln Center, that whole ideology. Everybody was just of kind of hanging out, you know.
Bradley’s was the club that everybody hung out in. I started playing there often and met all kinds of amazing people from Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Rowles, to Joni Mitchell to Charlie Haden. You name it. Everybody came through there. It was like everybody’s living room. And it was fun. We misbehaved and frequently didn’t get out of there ’til dawn.
I played after-hours jobs. I played all kinds of stupid gigs. The Catskills, weddings and parties, restaurants—I paid dues, basically. But I started to get notoriety and started working with name bands, notably Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Stan Getz, the great bass player Sam Jones who taught me a lot. So my dream of coming to New York and playing with the greatest jazz players in the world, I kind of did that. And I began to write tunes, just tunes. Art Farmer said, “You know, I think you should write.” So I started writing tunes, and he recorded a couple, and then I started writing more tunes, and so on and so forth. But I didn’t really think of myself yet as a composer-y composer. The only compositional training I’ve had was from third grade through seventh grade. I went to private theory and composition lessons: counterpoint, penmanship and notation, score analysis, writing in different styles, ear training. So I basically went through what a college freshman at a conservatory would go through while I was in elementary school. That’s the toolkit that I’ve used pretty much for everything I do.
The idea of doing larger pieces and of writing through-composed, what I call concert music, music for non-improvising musicians, that didn’t really come until the 2000s. So I’ve written a body of works that are playable by non-jazz pianists, and I created a large-scale setting of Leaves of Grass for two voices and eight instruments. That was big. And I continued to write tunes and lead bands. Then this latest project, My Coma Dreams is basically a Leaves of Grass on steroids. It’s 11 musicians, an actor who also sings, theatrical lighting, a huge 24′ by 48′ video screen, a projection of animation and computer-generated imagery. It tells the story of eight dreams that I recall from coming out of a two-month coma in the summer of 2008. The librettist, Herschel Garfein, who’s also a very wonderful composer, was also the director of the piece. He came up with an ingenious narrative where basically from the time that I entered the hospital in June to the time that I come out in August, the actor is portraying me, my partner Scott, other people, and telling the timeline of what I went through medically. Then the music is basically reflecting the dreams.
So it’s really been quite a gradual evolution. Then, of course, there’s my tune writing. I have quite a body of tunes, probably pushing a hundred. I’ve written tunes in all kinds of genres, some that are specifically solo pieces, others that I can play with a trio, quintet, duo. That’s great release for me, from these larger, through-composed projects. But I’m not the kind of composer who can just crank it out. I use a pencil; I’m just now thinking of learning Sibelius. I have to have a copyist, basically, and I would say that my writing is not slick. I’m not a slick orchestrator. I didn’t really study it. I just go for honesty and things that I think sound well. I tend not to write what I call “science project” kind of pieces, you know.
The first time I went to the MacDowell Colony in 2000, I was around some composers from Brandeis and we were sort of comparing notes after dinner one night, looking at their scores—all this incredible detail and crazy rhythmic groupings and lots of foreign words. Since I started out composing for jazz musicians, I generally trust that whomever I give music to is going to do the right thing. They’re going to think about it. I give a vague metronome marking, a feeling, a few indications here or there, and let them play it for themselves. I don’t micro-manage my notation. I think it’s important that music be able to be, I guess the word would be “hearable.” There’s a lot of contemporary composition that seems to be written by composers to have other composers analyze them in theory departments in other music schools. I’m definitely not that. I mean, I could show you the logic of how I put something together, but to me, the most important thing is that you hear it. And I’m not afraid of melody at all. I’m pretty relentlessly tonal. It’s just kind of evolved in a natural way.
MS: You mentioned writing for jazz musicians and how that leads you to trust and leave some room for them when it comes to interpretation. I am always curious when people who are active jazz performers talk about their compositional process, how improvisation and their experience with that kind of playing then impacts their written-out work.
FH: My philosophy is that a good jazz tune is not overwritten. It leaves room for the player, whether it’s to interpret the melody or do something interesting with the chord changes or the harmony. A lot of young jazz musicians are writing very, very complex music, and some of it is just complex. I think it’s born of the fact that they have Sibelius and therefore sequencers and can do all this stuff on the computer. I’m more or less limited by what I can do with my two hands. So in a way, that kind of keeps me in a certain realm. Jazz musicians, you hand them a melody and a direction, say OK, this is really a very linear piece, or this piece is sparse, or wistful. And generally they’ll interpret it their own way. The musicians that I play with are at such a high level that very rarely do I have to do much. If I’m writing for a trumpet and tenor sax, which is the standard jazz quintet, I’ll just write B-flat 1 part, B-flat 2 part and I’ll see who sounds best at what octave, you know. Somebody take it up an octave, down an octave, or switch at a certain place. I kind of wait and let the musicians help me put it together. That’s really what rehearsal’s about.
MS: What’s the composing process on the front end, before you get to rehearsal? Does it stay the same? If you look at Leaves of Grass, which involved a lot of people, versus a solo piano work that you wrote for yourself to perform, do you still have a process that you tend to follow each time?
FH: During one of my residencies, I think it was in 2003, I went up to MacDowell and the project that I thought I was going to be working on didn’t pan out. I was left with five or six weeks in the middle of the winter with nothing particular to do, and I was just really kind of down on myself and taking lots of naps and reading lots of novels. What snapped me out of it was that I devised a system where I take an index card, and I cut it into 12 pieces—for the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Then, I put them in a hat and I shake it out and I pull out, say, an A. Then I set a kitchen timer for 45 minutes. So A could be a-minor or a-major, the note A, just the feeling of A-ness, whatever you want to call that. And a lot of my more successful tunes in the last number of years have been written in that way. With less than 45 minutes, you basically have to grab something and go with it. You’re not just sitting around waiting for a great idea, and you write two bars and throw it in the trash. This forces you to actually finish something. I mean, you can always tweak it later, but the idea is to get it done. That’s the rule of the game.
Also at that residency, by the end of it, I was so annoyed that I hadn’t done anything significant that I ended up writing a huge set of variations on the famous chorale by Bach from Wachet Auf—24 variations and I did it in like a week, just in a kind of heat. For a jazz musician, variation sets are among the easiest forms because that’s what we’re doing anyway. I mean, pretty much every chorus is a variation, different harmony, different texture. One of my wiser writer friends who’s been [to MacDowell] many times said, “See, that first five weeks wasn’t wasted.” You know, sometimes you have to just not do anything until you get kind of disgusted with yourself, and then you just do something.
So I don’t really have any particular process, but when I write tunes, I try to make them about something. It could be a word. It could be a key-related thing. It could be a rhythm, a melodic fragment. But I think the best jazz tunes don’t have too much stuff in them. You know, if you look at Monk or Wayne Shorter, or any of the great tune writers, they’re tightly structured, but you have all these wonderful little bits and motifs to play off of, so you can really be yourself within their music. That’s what’s important and I think a lot of players that I’ve played with have been fooled. I send them the music ahead of time, and it doesn’t look like much on the page, but you really kind of have to live with it for a while. It’s simple, but not easy.
That’s something I’ll always continue to do is to write tunes in between these kind of larger projects. I don’t know what the next large project will be. I never thought I would write a piano-violin-cello trio or some of the other things I’ve written. The opportunity came, and I said, “OK, I’ve never done this. Let’s try it.” Maybe I’ll do it again, maybe I won’t. I do like to try things and just see what happens.
MS: Is it difficult for you, since you’re a performer of your own work, to let another pianist take over and for you to just sit back in the audience?
FH: I’ve had other people record my stuff. I’ve heard them play it live. In one case, I heard one young pianist play a tune of mine that’s very dear to me, and he did a completely different spin on it. It was absolutely not the way I played it, or would play it, but he made a case for it. And I said, “You know, good for you.” He was very thoughtful. Then I had another pianist who recorded the same thing and messed up the melody on the bridge—and this is somebody I know, I could have sent him a lead sheet—but he did it as this kind of up-tempo, happy samba, when it’s this beautiful, lyrical ballad called Valentine. It’s like my version of Schumann’s Traumerei, a very simple expression of love, and it turned into this jaunty, jolly samba with the melody played wrong. Of course, the young pianist immediately sent me a copy and wanted my reaction or wanted to know if I could say something nice for his press kit. I kind of didn’t return his email. What am I going to say? He’s already done it. There’s no point in saying, “You screwed it up.” That is a hazard sometimes.
I’ve had people who played my through-composed music who really didn’t pay much attention to what I wrote on the page, but you talk to any composer and they’re going to tell you that. Metronome markings are a very fluid thing. One person’s forte is another person’s fortissimo. I’ve been lucky that most of the people that play my concert music, either they’re nice and they say, “I’d love to play it for you. Maybe you can coach me, or tell me if I’m heading in the right direction,” or they just have good taste and they basically get it. Edition Peters publishes my stuff, and once it’s out there, people are going to play it the way they play it. Hopefully they’ll listen to a recording, but maybe they won’t.
MS: Do you think people take more liberties with your work because they think, “Oh, Fred is a jazz musician—he won’t mind,” whereas when they approach a work on the more strictly contemporary classical side, they go back to the “what the composer wants, the composer gets” attitude?
FH: I think everyone is that way. I’ve certainly seen so many scores that are micro-managed within an inch of their lives. When I was at New England in the mid-’70s, I discovered a lot of that academic, post-serial kind of music, and I just decided it really wasn’t for me. I’m not talking about Schoenberg, who I adore, or Webern. I’m talking about some of the people who are doing that, or have been doing that, for the last 30 or 40 years. At a certain level, I’d almost rather hear really great, open improvisers just make something up, because then at least I know they’re hearing it. It’s not music that exists on the page.
I always value melody. Most everything I write comes from four voices. I grew up with the LaSalle Quartet next door, so I listened to lots of string quartets. That’s how my mind works. And the piano, of course, is the one instrument that can do that. Lots of moving voices and moving parts, and it’s almost like a drum set with pitches. It can be an orchestra, a big band, a singer, a horn player—a piano can do so much. So I try to exploit the resources of the piano as best I can. Fifty years into playing the piano, I still enjoy it, and I still think there are things I can still get better at.
MS: It strikes me that for any pianist, but maybe especially for a performer like you, that the feel and the reaction that you get from the instrument itself on a physical level is very important to this process. But you’re not taking your own instrument with you from place to place, right? So what do you like in a piano, what do you listen for when you get into a new venue?
FH: Well, once again, this is just good dumb luck, but when I started to really get into jazz and delve into the history, the first person I really noticed was Duke Ellington as a pianist. I listened to Ellington albums from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s—some were mono and some were done live, and some were studio recordings and stereo—and he always had the same sound. Ahmad Jamal was another one—just a fantastically beautiful sound. I realized that, within limits—assuming you’re playing a well-regulated, decent piano—the sound is in my body and in my ear. So, my mechanism just automatically adjusts to get that sound. I think, without being immodest, one of the things I’m known for is my sound, and it’s very specific the way I achieve it. I mean, I teach it to people—it’s not brain surgery—but it’s something that I value. It’s the actor’s voice; it’s the singer’s voice. I want people to say, “Oh, I flipped on the radio it was the middle of a piano solo, and it was you.” And not just because of the content, but because of the actual sound.
So that’s an important resource. Not just speed and dexterity and all that other stuff, which is important too, but can you really sing a melody on the piano, can you really play something that’s involving your whole body. So sound is really, really important.
MS: Related to that, we keep touching on recordings, and you’re prolific as a recording artist. What is your relationship to that version of a piece versus the live performance? Particularly in jazz, where a great deal of aesthetic weight is given to the energy created in the room, how do the recording and live performance relate to one another?
FH: Well, I’m a big fan of live recording. Some of the recordings were not even intended, and then at the end of the gig, somebody handed me a pair of CDs and said, “Here you go.”
There’s a zone you get in when you play live that’s hard to achieve in the studio, chiefly because you can start over. I’m very well read and influenced by Glenn Gould, who made the opposite decision. He said that he kind of felt like a trained monkey up there, and that if you made a mistake, it was somehow uncomfortable or he was betraying the composer. I think the energy of the live audience is part of jazz. I like doing studio albums, too, and I’ve done a number of them, but if I had a choice, I’d rather do live albums. It’s risky either way. I mean, you can’t will yourself into being great on a particular day at a particular time. You just have to use your experience and be open to what might happen. Surround yourself with the best sound people you can get, and the best musicians and the best piano and try to let it go and don’t think, “Oh, I’m trying to make history here,” because as soon as you do that, you’re sunk. Just a step at a time: “I played this phrase, it leads to that phrase, and pretty soon I’ve got a chorus,” instead of thinking, “I want to be at this place in 64 bars.” I can’t think of that. It’s got to unfold for me in an organic way. If it doesn’t, then I’m not usually very happy.
MS: I was really struck when I read the liner notes for your latest solo album, and you noted that the recording was simply the last set of a week’s worth of performances at the Vanguard, that you didn’t want the record to be a “best of” cut-up reel but a document of this singular “in the zone” performance. Can you talk about that a little bit more, what that experience is like when you’re alone at the piano in a club?
FH: I close my eyes virtually all the time when I play. If I’m with a trio or a band, and I have to give a cue, then I look up, or sometimes when I get a little too self-conscious, I’ll look at the drummer for a minute or two or make a little eye contact. But generally when I’m at the piano, my eyes are closed. It helps me hear the space around the music, like you do when you listen to a recording. When I’m in the zone, I feel like everything is working and my hands are almost playing themselves. I’m not trying to do anything; it’s just happening. My piano teacher of some 30 years, Sophia Rosoff, talks about emotional rhythm. I know I’m really in the zone when I can play, say a ballad or something out of tempo, and it’s just laying in there just right.
We recorded 12 sets [at the Vanguard], that’s the twelfth set straight down. I’m sure in a year or two I’ll do a Volume Two and pick through the other 11, but I wanted to make that statement. There are a few flubs: my finger didn’t go to the right place, or I missed a bit of the melody somewhere. I really don’t sweat that. After all I’ve been through with my health, the fact that I can play at this level is miraculous. So I tend to be a little easy on myself. I’m not a heavy perfectionist. To me, I’d always rather pick a take that has the real emotional juice or really says something or is more memorable, even if it has a flaw. It’s great when it doesn’t, but it doesn’t define what I do. And if I am worried about making mistakes, then I’m not doing my job, which is creating the music.
MS: Can you speak a little bit more about Sophia Rosoff and the impact that her teaching has had on you?
FH: Well, she got me acquainted with the idea of physicality at the piano in a different way. A lot of piano pedagogy is sort of taught from the fingers, and then you go back. Her whole thing is that you lean forward and your elbows and arms move, and the fingers are the last things you worry about. If your hand is in the right position, then you can just use flexion/extension and you get all the notes. She’s also an incredible diagnostician, and that’s something that I think I’ve become very good at. I hear a pianist for the first time in a lesson situation, and I immediately go for the physical. They might not be aware that they’re tapping their foot, or that they’re off balance, or that they’re leaning back, or that they’re pushing so hard that they’re slamming down on the bottom of the key bed and making a crappy sound. So what I try to do is create for them a piano embouchure, if you will, that allows the pianist and the piano to be friendly with each other and connected.
Sophia’s also taught me a lot about creative practicing. For me, it’s not the amount of hours I do or don’t spend at the piano, it’s how I spend them and the attitude that I bring when I sit down. Those are the things that are the most important to me.
MS: My suspicion is that when you’re teaching in a jazz context, your strategy and approach is quite different from teaching someone Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, just to pull an example. True, not true?
FH: I think it’s a question of breaking things down. Difficulty on any instrument can be broken down, but particularly for a jazz musician. Is the problem that they’re not hearing things, or they’re not hearing what they’re playing? Is it a matter of rhythm—not just jazz rhythm, but rhythm in general? I try to isolate things. It’s like taking somebody and unscrewing them, dumping out the parts, and then screwing them back together. It’s not something that can be done in a lesson. I get a lot of requests, but I generally don’t do that anymore. But I can usually tell in about 15 minutes, once I start showing them things, whether or not they have the gift or not.
I do believe that good piano playing is good piano playing. I know that there are some prominent classical piano players who scoff at jazz, but I would say, “Come to one of my solo concerts. See what you think.” I mean, it’s not that far off what they’re doing, except I’m doing it in the moment. Certainly the influence of European classical music is there, as is Brazilian music, American popular song, jazz composers, and my personal background, what I listened to in my formative years.
Teaching is very rewarding, and because I learned in the aural tradition from older musicians, I think it’s particularly important that I try to maybe save somebody a few steps, give something back. But teaching is hard; not everybody who plays well is a good teacher. In the 30 years that I’ve studied with Sophia Rosoff, I’ve never seen her sit down on a bench with two hands and play anything. Now she sits across the room; she doesn’t even go near the piano. It’s not necessary to sit down and demonstrate. Better to have the student try to figure it out for themselves. That’s what I did. I just completely figured it out for myself and, as I said, dumb luck or circumstance. Maybe that’s the reason that I sound like me—because nobody interfered. I didn’t take jazz piano lessons, and so what I play is mine.
MS: I want to talk a bit about 2008 and the coma that lead to the creation of your piece My Coma Dreams. Since you’ve spoken very frequently about your health and the many challenges that year in particular threw at you, however, I wanted to focus on the aftermath. You tell a great story about coming home from the hospital and getting on the phone to arrange to play a gig at Smalls, and that has really stuck with me. We hear about people having brushes with death who then revamp their entire lives once they’re back on their feet—they take it as a wake-up call to quit their jobs, go to Europe. Did you have any moment where you thought about not returning to playing jazz?
FH: Well, 2008, to be brief, was basically three illnesses. The first part of 2008 was AIDS-related dementia, and I really was a nut case. Psychotic, paranoid, delusional, you name it. Then around March or April, I kind of recovered. Then in June, I got this wicked pneumonia. It went undiagnosed for too long, and by the time I got into the hospital, I was in septic shock. My organs were failing, and I was basically almost not breathing. So it was touch and go for 72 hours, then a two-month coma, one month in rehab. I came home in early September, and then around the second week of October I started vomiting blood and I was not able to eat or drink. My partner Scott dragged me to the hospital and unlike the time in June, my primary doctor was there. He saved me from being intubated again and put me on a mask. They diagnosed another pneumonia and, fortunately, I came out in a week. It set me back with my physical therapy because whenever you’re in the hospital, you lose weight and motor function goes.
So I got out of the hospital from this “little pneumonia,” we’ll call it, on a Saturday. It was one of those beautiful October Saturdays, and I had all this energy because I had been lying in bed for a week. So I dragged Scott all around the Village. We walked around window-shopping, and we came back here and he decided to take a nap. He was completely wiped. I went on the computer and was nosing around and seeing who was playing in town, and I came upon the Smalls website and it said Monday, 7:30 TBD. They do a one-set gig at 7:30. So I call up the owner, and I said, how would you feel if I brought a trio and played a set? It’s probably not going to be my best playing, but I really want to do this. So within an hour, I had a trio, and I had a gig. Scott woke up from his nap and thought I was absolutely crazy. I played the gig, and it was certainly the most emotional gig of my life. Not only was there a line down the block, but it was just like a love fest in there. It was really amazing.
I’m a tennis nut, and the thing that I thought of was Monica Seles, who was stabbed on the court by a German Steffi Graf fanatic. It took Seles two-and-a-half-years to come back, and in the meantime she became a food addict. I think she won some tournaments, but she never really got her mojo back. I thought, you know, I’m not going to wait. I’m just going. I remember doing a couple of road gigs in November and December and traveling with 24 cans of liquid food and a pump. I was just not going to wait, even though the fine motor coordination really didn’t come back until the spring. Even now, there are a couple of little things that I can’t do technically that I could do before. But not that anybody would notice.
MS: Did you need to have special physical therapy as a pianist to deal with that side of it?
FH: Not specific on my hands, no, but I had an awesome physical therapist. At first, I would try to raise my arm and I would try to do it with my neck. These muscles weren’t telling this muscle to do that. It was a lot of retraining. I also had an amazing swallow therapist. Not everybody comes back from a paralyzed vocal chord and is able to swallow. Swallow therapy is one of the weirdest things in the world because who thinks about swallowing? Now, every time I swallow something, I think about it. I’m completely aware of the mechanics, and I’m incredibly grateful. So I had to have a surgery that moved my paralyzed vocal chord next to the working one so that they kind of vibrate together and make a seal so that the liquid or the food can go down your esophagus. Otherwise, it would go into your lungs, and then you’d get pneumonia again. So I didn’t eat or drink for eight months, and that was really the hardest part of it. Food is such a social thing—Let’s have coffee! What do you want to do for dinner?—besides the fact that it’s fun and pleasurable and delicious. So I’m really grateful.
I’m in better clinical shape now than I’ve been in 10, 15 years, and I’ve a great appetite. My weight is stable, and all my critical markers are great. For somebody who was diagnosed [as HIV-positive] before I was 30—and I’m now 55—I never thought I’d be 40. No way. Now I’m thinking, OK, 60 is not going to be a problem. Gee, do I have enough money to slow down if I get older? Before it was like, who needs to save? I’m going to be dead.
MS: You didn’t think you were going to need a 401(k), did you?
FH: No. So, these are good problems to have.
MS: Going back to the social aspect of things, that was also a big part of why you got into playing jazz in the first place, right?
FH: Yeah, one of the things that drew me to jazz was that it’s music played with people and in front of people, generally speaking. It demands being in tune with the people you’re playing with, their contributions, their styles, their sense of rhythm. Once again, it’s not like practicing Chopin Etudes. The social milieu around jazz, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, was really, really interesting. It was a lot of fun, and I think now it’s not quite as much fun. There are fewer clubs and they’re less friendly and more expensive. More young musicians are trying to make careers than there are careers.
Another thing that drew me to it was the characters. There were some real characters I’ve been privileged to hang out with—all kinds of people with larger-than-life personalities. Now everything can be a little squeaky clean. On the one hand, it’s nice to be playing in better concert halls instead of smoky clubs. There’s a lot to be said for that. It’s more money, it’s more respectful, but the best jazz I think does happen in the clubs. That’s where you feel like you can stretch out. You can just sort of let it go and try things.
I think there has to be a certain element of danger in jazz, or it isn’t really jazz. When it’s all packaged and put together and presented, then it’s like I could stay home or I could go to a classical piano recital and probably hear something better.
Some of the younger players that I work with, they may write a complex jazz tune, and they will feel like they have to adhere to every little detail—in the improvisation, in the chord changes. And I say, “Look, I’m not sitting here with the score. Nobody knows anything.” They know whether you’re comfortable, whether you can play, whether you’re moving them, or taking them somewhere. It’s not about playing Schubert where everybody knows what’s going to go down. It’s an odd phrase, but you do have to sell it. You have to sell your interpretation of a standard, or you have to sell a tune you wrote, meaning that’s your job. Something’s got to happen. I learned a lot about that working with a huge range of vocalists. How they do that—the good ones. I’ve worked with some terrible ones, too, but we try not to dwell on that.
MS: Considering this piece and also Leaves of Grass, I’m curious about your relationship with words. You touched on working with singers, but as a composer dealing with that kind of literalness and the nature of the English language and melding that with your music, how do those elements work together for you?
FH: Leaves of Grass, to me, was all about the words of Whitman and using the voices and the ensemble to bring them to life in a different way. The improvisation parts were secondary. I distilled this 400-page book down to a very small libretto, parts of poems and titles and just kind of went with my gut. There’s no rhyme scheme in Whitman, but there’s rhythm, there’s internal rhythm for sure.
With My Coma Dreams, I was very adamant at the beginning that I did not want this to be Son of Leaves of Grass. So there’s only one song. It’s kind of a doozy. I wrote it for Michael Winther, the actor who plays all the different parts, and I kind of tailored it to his voice. I do like setting text. I found that I have a knack for it. When I learn standards, I always learn the words. I’m very interested in how words and music come together. So Herschel handed me the words for this song and when I went to MacDowell to work on the piece, I decided that was the first thing that I was going to tackle. Even though it was about a nine-minute song, it came in about two, two-and-a-half days. The material for the whole piece came in three weeks. Then there was orchestration and all that other stuff, but the basic guts of the thing came very quickly. That’s how I tend to work. I tend to get concentrated and then blast. I’m not a “get up and write from 9 to 12, and then read my paper and have my coffee” composer, you know. I’m a spurt writer.
MS: How much volume do you tend to produce, in that case?
FH: Some years more than others. Obviously this year was a big one. I hope to generate enough tunes for a new album of some sort. There’s this thing for this orchestra in Poland, which I’m struggling with for the moment, but I’m sure it will come together. Now I’ve become a sort of commissioned composer, and that’s a very different sort of world. Part of me feels like, “Oh, I didn’t get my master’s a Yale or my doctorate at Columbia in composition, and I don’t know what I’m doing.” But I’ve been twice at MacDowell with Meredith Monk, and she and I have gotten chummy. I was kind of complaining about, “Oh, I’m not being productive, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” She said, “Look, in one day, I’m happy if I get a phrase I really like.” And that’s always stuck with me. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time. You don’t have to think about how many minutes of music you wrote today. So you have a four-week residency and you screw off for two weeks, and then the next two weeks, you really get into something. Those first two weeks aren’t wasted. You need to do that to get to the other thing, whether you just get annoyed with yourself that you’re not doing anything, or you see the finish line.
That’s why I love residencies. I’ve been at MacDowell seven times and I’ve done so much good work there—Leaves of Grass, My Coma Dreams, the Bach variations. A lot of larger things that I’ve done have taken place there. I’m a big fan. It’s very low key. At the dinner table, the guy next to you won the Pulitzer Prize for whatever, and you say pass the potatoes and, by the way, what are you reading? I mean, there’s pompous asses, now and then, which are inevitable—people who are just self-centered, or just alpha dogs—but in general, I’ve learned a lot from various visual artists, photographers, poets, writers. Some of whom I’ve collaborated with and who’ve become lifetime friends. So, it’s a very important part of my life. I’ll probably go back next spring.
MS: I’ve heard you talk about the fact that your picture is on the wall at the Village Vanguard, and there was an obvious, not just pride, but you communicated this deep sense of satisfaction with that mile marker. So to wrap things up here, I was curious if you would talk about your personal definition of success and the moments when you most felt that sense of accomplishment.
FH: There’s nothing better than feeling like you played a great set or a great concert, knowing that the next night or the next time you play the chalkboard gets erased, and you start again. If you get attached to the memory of that great concert you played, you’re not going to be able to play the next one. You have to kind of say, “Oh, that was great. Now I’m going to start fresh.”
Having my picture on the wall of the Vanguard is particularly sweet. I’ve played there many years as a sideman in the ’70s, ’80s, up to mid-’90s, before I was deemed a leader. Instead of hiring big name sidemen, I brought in the people that I was playing with who were not well known at the time. We packed the place, and the owner, Lorraine Gordon, was quite surprised and happy. Now I play there at least twice a year. It’s sort of my home club. The photograph that’s on the wall was taken during the first time I played solo there. I was the first pianist to play solo in the history of the Vanguard for a week. It was taken during a rehearsal, so he got a kind of interesting angle. The photos on the walls are of great musicians, but they’re also really great photographs. Lorraine Gordon’s got a really good eye. So I sort of campaigned behind the scenes. I had the photographer give her a print, and finally she came around to it. I’m thrilled also by where she put it, because it’s on the right wall as you enter. There’s a big tuba, at the end of the tuba, there’s a picture of the back stairway with Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian from the early ’60s. Then there’s me at the piano, then there’s John Coltrane and somebody else. Not that I in any way consider I’m the equal to John Coltrane, but I think the fact that I’m part of the history there now, because of the solo gig and because of the frequency with which I play the club and because we all like each other down there. I think it is sort of like the Carnegie Hall of jazz clubs and I still kind of get a kick out of it. But given a choice, I’d rather play a great set of music. The picture in the long run is just sort of icing on the cake, and a bit of recognition.
It’s nice to be recognized, but I don’t live for awards or critic polls because you can make yourself nuts. The gigs and the music and continuing to challenge myself, that’s really what it’s about. The other goodies, when they come, that’s great but that’s not really why I do it. I have to remind people, sometimes people that I work with, but young people too, that you’re playing music. The word play—it’s playful. You’re not carving music with a chisel; you’re playing. It’s supposed to be interactive and, god forbid, fun. A little humor now and then, playing stuff that just feels good, that’s all part of it.
I enjoy playing simple material, really playing spontaneously and with as much heart as I can muster. I think that’s served me in a lot of ways. As I said, I’m not a trained composer. I just use my instincts. I think, “This sounds good.” or “Gee, I could take this from there and do something with it here.” I’m a very lucky person; I get to do pretty much what I want. I’ve reached the time in my life where I can actually say no, which I think is the biggest gift of all—to just say, you know, that doesn’t really feel right. I’m very, very lucky to be in this place, and physically even more so. So I’m a pretty happy camper.