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Fred Hersch: Back On Stage By No Small Miracle

The last year and a half hasn't been easy for Fred Hersch: The award-winning jazz pianist and composer spent months in a coma and almost died. But he has a new album out — Live at the Jazz Standard — and he's performing again at New York's famed Village Vanguard.

Hersch says he's happy to be back at the Vanguard, where his photograph has earned a permanent place on one of the green, felt-covered walls.

"It's above Coltrane and next to Bill Evans and caddy-corner from Mingus," Hersch says. "Not that I, in my wildest dreams, think I'm at that level as an artist."

Some might say he's pretty close.

"He has a loving, beautiful way of creating nuance from the piano," singer Kurt Elling says.

Elling has sung Hersch's setting of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in concert and on record. Hersch was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to create the work in 2003.

"He's as demanding on anybody as he is on himself, and that's pretty demanding," Elling says. "Fred sets a very high standard. And it's a pleasure to have someone respect your intelligence enough to challenge you and give you a big enough bite to chew off."

Demanding And Prolific — For A While

Fred Hersch has appeared on more than 100 albums in addition to the 30 of his own. In 1994, he produced and played on Last Night When We Were Young: The Ballad Album. It was a benefit for Classical Action, a non-profit that raises funds for HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. He followed it with another benefit recording, Fred Hersch & Friends: The Duo Album.

Hersch has AIDS. He was diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. He came out in the '90s to raise awareness about the disease, at a time when few jazz musicians were openly gay.

His busy schedule came to a screeching halt early last year. In January, Hersch suffered AIDS-related dementia, recovering only to contract pneumonia and fall into a coma for three months.

"And, of course, when you're in a coma like that, you can't walk afterwards," Hersch says. "I was on a feeding tube for seven months. I couldn't eat or drink anything. Everything went from a can into my stomach. So that was very demoralizing."

It's something of a miracle that Hersch can even talk. One of his vocal cords was paralyzed. Not only did he have to learn to walk and talk again, but he also had to learn to play the piano again.

"My hands went through various stages. At times they were swollen, at times they were achy, at times they were weak," Hersch says. "When you go through this kind of trauma, typically large muscles come back first and fine motor coordination comes last, so I still think there are some things that are coming back."

Back On Stage

"He looks great," Lorraine Gordon says. "He gained weight. I think it's just amazing when you think of the terrible physical damages he had to endure. By golly, he came through."

Gordon is the Village Vanguard's formidable impresaria, a duty she inherited from her husband Max, the club's founder, when he died in 1989. She says she remembers when Hersch first walked into the Vanguard.

"He came in as a sideman, a little skinny guy," she says. "I didn't know who he was. I knew he played piano, but who doesn't?"

Her admiration for Hersch extends beyond his playing.

"People love him," Gordon says. "Fred is not cold and distant from people. He's got a million friends who come, and they are all embracing and friendly and warm. You don't get that from everyone."

Those friends turned out for Hersch's most recent recording, Live at the Jazz Standard, which he made between illnesses. While they watched his playing recover, they may have noticed that his attitude has changed, too.

"If I play a chord that I wasn't particularly happy with, it's not going to bust my day. It used to," Hersch says. "I might have sweated the small stuff a little more before. I'm much more forgiving and accepting, certainly less controlling about all of it."

Of course, not everything is different for Hersch.

"I can't say I wake up every day and go, 'Praise the Lord, I'm alive.' I want my double espresso like everybody else," Hersch says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.