By Thomas Matich
For a city that’s in need of some sort of hospice, Detroit could learn an inspirational lesson or two from Fred Hersch – a jazz pianist and composer who was given a death sentence over 20 years ago. Diagnosed with HIV in 1986, in an era when everyone from Rock Hudson to mustached gay porn stars were dropping like flies from the “gay cancer,” Hersch has persevered. He’s gone on to have a remarkably prolific career with dozens of albums under his belt along with Grammy nominations and prestigious musical fellowships. But it hasn’t been easy.
In a scene from the documentary “Let Yourself Go – The Lives of Fred Hersch,” Hersch is taking his medication, discussing his daily doses of 30 pills that amount to $45,000 a year. The pills he swallows to keep fighting along, and the pills he takes to counteract the side effects of other pills. Hersch appears frail, with the gaunt appearance of lipodystrophy painted on his face and his voice slightly more weathered and elderly than his 53 years of age.
Yet his music, be it his dazzling cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” to one of his own vibrant and ornate compositions, is marvelously energetic, punchy, beautiful and youthfully animated. One can close their eyes and picture Hersch’s fingers gliding and dancing away on the piano. His musical genius, which can be heard on his upcoming album “Whirl” due June 22, is simply amazing considering that Hersch was learning to walk again after his health tailspinned in late 2007 with the onslaught of AIDS dementia attacking his brain and a bout of pneumonia landing him in a coma.
“I couldn’t do anything,” says Hersch, the first prominent jazz musician to come out publicly as gay and HIV-positive. ”
I couldn’t swallow, couldn’t eat, couldn’t talk. I was totally helpless after the coma. It kicked my ass basically, and I was very lucky.”
Despite Hersch’s battles with mortality, he doesn’t consider himself to be religious. Maybe Buddhist, if anything. Hersch guesses he hasn’t played Detroit proper in nearly 30 years, even though he’s a visiting professor at Western Michigan University and is well versed in Motown and its rich jazz history. More school of Stan Getz than Sade, Hersch isn’t Kenny G; he’s a minority inside a minority – a gay HIV-positive man playing the niche genre of pure instrumental jazz. And Hersch’s return to Detroit will be at the Central Methodist Church. How’s that for inspiration from someone who was never supposed to make it this far?
“Everything you deal with is more or less day by day,” Hersch says. “Of course there was a time when it was a lot more of a death sentence than it is now, but that does not mean that it’s an easy thing to manage. I lost a lot of friends and it was a very tough time, and with every record that I made I felt like this (it was) going to be my last record. I just wanted to leave some kind of legacy so maybe I’d be remembered – and here it is 25 years later.”
Hersch is currently working on “The Coma Project,” which will document his descent into darkness with visualizations, lyrics and music. It won’t be the first time Hersch made innovative strides in jazz. His 2005 project “Leaves of Grass” married the poetry of Walt Whitman to Hersch’s wondrous notes and breathed new life into the works of a once controversial early “gay American icon.”
“I didn’t do Whitman because he was gay,” Hersch says. “I did him because I thought that the words were important and beautiful and should be heard. But it was not like gay jazz icon takes on poetry gay icon. I don’t consider myself a gay jazz artist – I consider myself a jazz pianist and composer who happens to be gay and that’s the end of it. I don’t play ‘gay’ music; I don’t write ‘gay’ music – I write my music and I play my music.”
8 p.m. May 6
Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor
7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. May 7
Gilmore Keyboard Festival, Kalamazoo (with F.H. Pocket Orchestra)
8 p.m. May 8
Central Methodist Church, Detroit
For more information, visit http://www.fredhersch.com.