Since he’s been 10 years old, Fred Hersch has been winning musical composition and performance contests. As a youth in the 70’s and realizing he was gay, he leaned on his love for music to carry him through the tough times of childhood. “I grew up gay in the 70’s with no role models,” says Hersch, “ I didn’t even know what the word ‘gay’ was and felt very alone. Music was an important escape. A lot of young people in general that are a little different look for forms of expression that allows them to be themselves. Mine was music.”
When he became a working artist there really weren’t any “out” jazz artists at the time. “I became the person that broke that mold,” says Hersch, “it all came out kind of organically. This became an opportunity [for me] to help someone that may be searching for that role model. The difference now is that there are many gay role models; actors, activists, musicians- and kids have access to the internet and virtual community without leaving their bedrooms. It’s a very different world that I grew up in. With more availability with healthy role model it’s a little easier now than it was. There’s still terrible stuff that goes on with bullying, but now younger people can look to people like them and realize they’re not alone.”
Hersch found himself working relentlessly in New York as he wrote compositions and taught the art of jazz. In the 1980’s he found that he had contracted HIV and his whole life’s purpose changed. “When I first got involved I didn’t know how long I had to live,” says Hersch, “there was little information that was positive and nothing you could take to get rid of it. I lost a lot of friends. This was in the 80’s and living in NYC with HIV was really hard.” He struggled with continuing his musical carreer but it began to suffer when he thought he was losing his self in the struggle. One day he decided to change his point of view and become a teacher of life, as well as the art of jazz. “I need to be comfortable with who I am,” tells Hersch, “and the first motivation was by being ‘out’ and normal, and not afraid about it. Doing this would eventually help de-stigmatize HIV victims.” Hersch conmtinues strongly today to help educate people on the realities of HIV and living a healthy life. He has come a long way in his philanthropy work but still realizes that the jouney to educate people may be a long one. “I recently did a show in Idaho where there are still heavy stigmatizing penalties with HIV victims,” says Hersch, “It reminded me that there is still a lot of work to do.”
As he powered through life strong in his music and his philanthropy, he regained his stride in the jazz genre and began composing more award winning pieces. Hersch’s career as a performer has been enhanced by his composing activities, which are an important part of nearly all of his concerts and recordings. He has received commissions from the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, the Doris Duke Foundation, the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, the Gramercy Trio and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Hersch was awarded a 2003 Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition. In the same year, he created Leaves of Grass (Palmetto Records), a large-scale setting of Walt Whitman‘s poetry for two voices (Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry) and an instrumental octet; the work was presented in March 2005 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall as part of a six-city U.S. tour.
Fred will be at the 2018 Spoleto Festival with his longstanding trio entertaining from standard improvisation to American popular songbook. “We never plan,” says Hersch, “it depends on the nature of the program. It’s weirdly organized but there is a method to it.” Get tickets and more information at https://spoletousa.org/current-season/shows
Interview by Maria Rivers
Photo’s courtesy of Fred Hersch, Fredhersch.com
Special thanks to Fred Hersch
Career references from Wikipedia/ Fred Hersch