Good Things Happen Slowly:
A Life In and Out of Jazz
by Fred Hersch
Crown Publishing Group
Most readers of this column would have, at least, heard of pianist/ group-leader/ composer Fred Hersch. He is now a 61 year old artist who tours and performs world-wide, usually as trio but sometimes solo. He credits his longtime friend Columbia University journalism professor David Hajdu for assistance and encouragement in writing this book. And, Hersch mentions that he also collaborated with Hajdu when the professor was writing his excellent biography of Billy Strayhorn.
Hersch tells about growing up in a Cincinnati family where he was the younger of two sons. He showed an affinity for piano at an early age and was encouraged by his grandmother. His parents were not especially compatible and father was somewhat aloof.
There are essentially three interwoven themes in this well-written book: Hersch’s musical education and career, his homosexuality with complicated issues with HIV/AIDS, and his experimentation with various recreational drugs. These are presented in a straight-forward, non-glamorizing way and I would not hesitate to recommend this book, for example, to an inquisitive high school student.
Permit me a personal reference here. In the early ’90s, I attended a meeting of the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators). As most readers know, it declared bankruptcy in 2008 and has fortunately been supplanted by Jazz Educators Network. At the IAJE convention, there were many activities throughout the complex from early to late. Fred Hersch was scheduled for a solo piano concert at 10 a.m., not necessarily a favorable hour for most musicians. However, when I looked around the room, I recognized many famous performers who had come to hear him play, reinforcing my own opinion of Hersch’s excellence as both pianist and composer.
As stated, Hersch details the important portions of his jazz education and performance, his personal life and his struggles with HIV/AIDS in a straight-forward way. His life-threatening infection secondary to reduced immunity because of AIDS required a two-week medically induced coma. During which time, of course, he was essentially unresponsive. However, he had vivid dreams. He fortunately survived and was able to recall and set these to music and collaborated with dramatic and graphic artists to produce a DVD called, of course, My Coma Dreams. Shortly after being released from the hospital and not being completely recovered, (he still had a stomach feeding tube inserted through the abdominal wall) he was able to give a concert in NYC. This was attended by his many musical friends who were not professionally engaged that evening. This performance, of course, was heart-warming for both the performer and the audience.
Hersch also discusses his own experimentation with recreational drugs. He likewise discusses the drug culture and the habits of his colleagues. I never thought of this until I read it, but if one is a drug user and his leader is also, it’s impolite not to offer the leader some. Hersch reports that he had a tape-recorder on the piano and would tape some of the sessions. One evening, when he was “using” he recorded the session. Then later when clear-headed, he listened and realized that he had not performed as well as he had imagined during the evening. Subsequently, he reported that he always performed “clear-headed” thereafter.
To understand fully the significance of the book title, one needs to read the book. I shall not reveal it here.