Fred Hersch: No Limits
“ It wasn't until I really discovered jazz that I realized that there was this great language for improvising with other people. ”
From the start of his career as a sideman in the 1970s for such jazz luminaries as Joe Henderson, Art Farmer and Stan Getz to his own ensembles and solo projects, there has always been a great diversity and intensity to Fred Hersch's art. Having won a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for composition (2003) and having been the first pianist in The Village Vanguard's 70 year history to do a week's solo residency, Hersch has managed to be both a musician's musician and resonate in the jazz public's consciousness without ever compromising his own artistic vision.
- The Start
- New York and Jazz in the '70s
- Journeyman Education
- Bradley's and the State of Jazz Clubs Today
- Concepts, Projects and Ensembles
- Making History At The Village Vanguard
- Leaves of Grass
- Outside Genres and The Self
- Jobim and Dream Projects
All About Jazz: Were you writing fully-realized compositions from an early age? What was the impetus behind that?
Fred Hersch: I composed music from a very young age, from about third grade to seventh grade. I had private music theory lessons, musicianship, notation; the basic toolkit which I use today. I got a good foundation in musical principles.
I wrote pieces in different styles, but I did not write an actual symphony. I did improvise a great deal, and that was usually more fun than practicing Chopin or something. I seemed to enjoy the improvising more.
It wasn't until I really discovered jazz that I realized that there was this great language for improvising with other people. That is what sold me on the whole thing: that it was music that was played with, and in front of, peoplenot some kind of solitary pursuit.
I liked the idea of the nightlife and in Cincinnati, where I first learned how to play, there were a lot of colorful characters around. It was kind of exotic and interestingthe kind of thing my parents wouldn't approve of too much. I took to it pretty quickly.
Throughout high school I played all kinds of music. I played violin in the orchestra, accompanied the choirall sorts of musical dutiesbut I was not focused. I was not playing classical music to the level of being able to get admission to a conservatory. I wasn't good enough yet.
AAJ: Were you at least enjoying the classical stuff while you were doing it?
FH: I would listen to a record of Glenn Gould or Horowitz and basically say, "Why bother?" these people do this much better than me. It was a long time before I found a form of expression that suited me, where I could be myself. Jazz was that for me.
AAJ: Before attending The New England Conservatory (Boston, MA), you went to Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa). What were your initial studies?
FH: Just briefly for about a semester. It was just the beginning of liberal arts: art history and some political science. Basically, I chickened out of my auditions for some of the bigger music schools and my best friend was going to Grinnell. It seemed like a neat place to go. I figured that in the middle of Iowa, in the middle of winter, I would have plenty of time to figure out what I wanted to do, and that is kind of what happened.
I listened to some jazz out there which got me on the path. I dropped out after a semester, moved back to Cincinnati and pretty much immediately started playing professionally. There were not that many young musicians wanting to play jazz at that point. I didn't have my jazz chops totally together in terms of my rhythm, but the older musicians could see that I was clearly motivated, and they were very helpful in a sort of tough love kind of way. It was a great way to learn, and I kind of hate that this way of learning doesn't take place anymorethings being passed down more in the oral tradition.
AAJ: Did you find a big difference between the two environments, and how did that affect your art?
FH: Oh yeah! Between Grinnell and New England I lived in Cincinnati and played professionally for about a year and a half. At the time that I went to New England there were only a handful of schools in the country that had any kind of acknowledgment of jazz as an art form. Jaki Byard was teaching at New England, and I love his playing from his work with Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, and his own records. I basically went up there, played for him and got in.
When I went to New England, I felt like I was pretty well on my way as a jazz player. I just wanted to broaden my musical horizons. That's exactly what happened. I had great interactions with my fellow students and some incredibly inspiring teachers. It was a great creative atmosphere. It was the last two years that Gunther Schuller was president of the school, and there was a certain energy there that was kind of special, I think.
This year coming up is the 40th anniversary of the establishing of the jazz department at New England, which was the first in a major conservatory. Starting next month, I will be teaching there again; this is my third go around. I teach seven days each semester. I have very strong feelings about the school. I think it is a fantastic place, arguably the best conservatory in the countrysuperior creative music.