Name: Fred Hersh
Occupation: Composer, improviser, pianist
Current release: Fred Hersh's new album Songs from Home will be published March 26th on Palmetto Records.
Recommendations: Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”; Sonny Rollins Trio “A Night At The Village Vanguard”
If you enjoyed this interview with Fred Hersh, head over to his homepage for more information. He also wrote an essay for 15 Questions about his work as a spokesperson for artists with HIV/AIDS.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Music has been a part of my life since I was four years old. I was immediately drawn to the piano that was in our living room. Early influences were classical music, then in high school the great pop music of the 60s, then jazz and improvised music starting at age 18.
My lifetime musical influences are numerous - ranging from Bach to the music of Brazil, to all the great jazz pianists in history, and non-pianists such as Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. I began writing music at age 8 and began writing jazz tunes at age 23. I made my first album as a leader when I was 30 in 1985, and have composed and recorded more than 100 original compositions since then on more than 50 albums.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I was particularly fortunate to move to Greenwich Village in 1977. This was at the time in history when the only technology was an answering machine. Hard to imagine this now. I had the great fortune to apprentice with many of the acknowledged jazz masters including Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden, and Art Farmer among many others. I was able to befriend many of the great elder pianists on the club scene in New York and learn directly from them, sometimes sitting around a piano together.
I was one of the last generations of jazz musicians who learned in the oral tradition, although I am an educated musician as well.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t play “gay jazz”, I don’t believe there is such a thing.
Instrumental music is made up of sound and rhythm. To that you would add emotion. For some years, I struggled because the lyricism and the beauty in my playing might be perceived as “gay”. There are many macho jazz musicians who can play and break your heart. So I got over it.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
To be a jazz musician in the late 1970s, you really only had to do four things: know a lot of tunes, be able to swing, be able to accompany a horn player or bassist, and be professional. Now, the pressure is on young musicians to play only original music with their own bands. I feel that I can be just as creative with something that I didn’t compose as long as I emotionally connect to it.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Though I dabbled with keyboards in the 1980s, for most of the entirety of my career I have simply been a pianist. The challenges and joys of playing a great acoustic piano still fill me with wonder.
Though I recorded my recent solo album, “Songs From Home”, on my laptop in the woods of Pennsylvania, I composed entirely with a pencil and paper, and used no software. I do know quite a bit about sounds, however, and have almost exclusively produced my own albums.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I became a jazz musician because I wanted to play music with people and in front of people. The idea of grinding away at shows penning tunes by myself became less appealing as I discovered the joy of group improvisation. But, I have learned so much from talking and hanging out with my peers, my colleges, and even my students. The free flow of information, and occasionally creative theft, is a huge part of my process.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Prior to COVID, I was on the road quite a bit of the year. That has obviously changed.
Now, though I don’t have a fixed schedule, I have five activities that I try to do from 35-45 minutes everyday. Be at the piano - this could be working on improvisation or something technical; doing formal meditation; some form of exercise; composing; and lately, studying Italian. It doesn’t matter when I get to these activities during the day, but I try at some point to do each of them for at least some time or more if I am inspired.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
One of many breakthrough projects for me was my 2003 jazz oratorio “Leaves of Grass” setting the poetry of Walt Whitman for two voices and an instrumental octet. It was my first full evening large scale work, and Whiteman’s words are some of the most inspiring ever written by an American. The piece is still being performed as recently as two years ago, and it continues to resonate with us performers as well as audiences. It gave me validation as a composer, and gave me the confidence to attempt other long works.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Playing music, especially spontaneous composition, is what is termed a “flow state”. One cannot will oneself into this state of being.
Just as when I formally meditate, my breath is my anchor, when I play music, my sound and my touch is an anchor - so playing the piano becomes like an act of meditation.
An ideal flow state could be juggling - if you think too hard about where the balls are you drop them, and if you just try to feel the balls you drop them. It is thinking plus feeling - and a whole lot of practice. At this point, I have 45 years of experience doing this that I can draw on, but I never know when this magic flow state will arrive.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
(see above - talked about it before) I would like the audience to walk away from a performance haven taken a journey with me. A range of emotions that could be healing/cathartic and also a great deal of joy. In this age of distraction, during a live performance is sometimes the only time of the day when people are not on their devices. That is why live music has such power.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
By some political standards, I should not play the music of Thelonious Monk. He was a black man, and I am white. The contributions of black people to the history and development of jazz is so large, but I do believe now that it belongs to the entire world. If we had a recording of Beethoven playing his own sonatas, we could say that is definitive, so why bother to play them. We have recordings of Monk, and though they are definitive by their nature, I still think it is possible to play his music in your own way as long as you come from a place of knowledge and respect for his compositions. His music has fascinated me throughout my entire career and I have immense appreciation for it. My goal is to play music by Monk, or any other composer, through my own filter, and make it my own.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
In Buddhism, there are six senses, the sixth one being thought. Any one of our senses can be a focus or an anchor. In these times of distraction, I feel that close listening needs to be perhaps more valued. Not just to music, but when listening to others with understanding and compassion.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
The only thing I can say about creativity and art is that you simply make it up. Though it is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Most artists in the back of their minds create so that they can live on in some way after they transition. I have no idea whether my music will resonate 50 years from now, but that would be nice.