The Maiden Voyage of Fred Hersch

In his new autobiography, the acclaimed pianist recounts a life of musical, emotional and sexual discovery

Photo of Fred Hersch

If you have a passing knowledge of how the publishing industry works, you are likely to cock a cynical eyebrow when pondering if a memoir such as Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz, by the notable pianist-composer Fred Hersch, would have ever gained release with a major if it didn’t heavily involve splashy subjects like AIDS and sex addiction. Which is a shame and an aspersion on an industry that could do well with more books of this one’s insight and candor.

Essentially, this life-as-gay-man-in-jazz document is reducible to two major strands: what it was like to grapple with sexuality and illness for large chunks of that life, and how Hersch came to master a post-Bill Evans form of pianism that channeled aspects of personal hardship into a clear, forceful musical voice.

If you have any doubts about said voice, check out Hersch’s new solo piano set, Open Book. The album makes for a fine tandem release with this coming-of-age account that never loses its coming-of-age feel as it wends its way to the here and now. It’s a largely humorless book, which is disappointing, with something of a textbook feel. That is, Hersch evokes a friend who talks one way when you’re with him yet writes a slightly different way—more mannered, with less personality—as you learn when you read an essay of his. But still, there is much here to ponder.

Hersch describes the piano lessons of his early childhood, when his arms were summarily dismissed as being too short. He was plucky, though, and spent hours listening to records like Ellington at Newport and Miles Smiles. Regarding the latter: “I found it totally enigmatic. The players were communicating with one another in what seemed to me like a musical code. Herbie Hancock hardly uses his left hand and doesn’t exactly accompany the soloists.”

He nails it, of course, and cracking that musical code was a strategy that doubled for Hersch as a primer on how to crack various social codes. Admittedly homophobic while being a gay man, wanting to be part of an in-crowd but deriding himself for such shallowness, and unsure of how to express his sexuality yet still feel respected, Hersch listens and learns with impressive acumen. As a reader, you love when he talks about music. In one instance the young Hersch gathers up 13 recordings of “Autumn Leaves” by the assorted big boys of jazz—Miles, Getz, Cannonball—and comes to this simple but sage conclusion: “They all had a mastery of time.”

Hersch has his own mastery of time, both as a player and in detailing his life. We see his college days at the New England Conservatory in Boston, which doubled as his sexual-awakening days. Too scared to participate, he nonetheless stands by the banks of the Muddy River in the Fenway, watching men copulate in twos or in groups, thrilled and frightened at once. In New York he becomes promiscuous—with addictions to sex and pornography—at a time when that behavior put the gay community’s health at risk like never before.

There are various infidelities, relationships peter out and in the mid-1980s Hersch learns he’s HIV-positive. “This came as no surprise to me,” he writes. “I had felt in my bones for a couple of years that I probably had AIDS.” He watches as an ex-lover, also diagnosed, commits to going out in a blaze of one party after another. Hersch takes a different approach, scheduling as many gigs as possible and often far in advance so that he’ll be inspired to make them. There are moments in his writing where the curtain between confessor and hearer—or writer and reader—is pulled aside entirely, and those make for some of the more valuable passages in the book, quite beyond HIV itself, and in terms of a life lived with self-awareness. The sex sprees are rampant, with Hersch writing, “but I couldn’t stop. I was using the only coping mechanism I knew to act out my justified anxiety about getting sick.”

A chance for a richer life comes with the partner who proved to be the love of his life and a crucial pillar of support when Hersch entered a coma in 2007. Thinking he was at the end of his life, Hersch had been reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—sans irony—in his hospital bed. If you’ve heard any of his music since then—and you’re going to want to check out that new album of solo recordings—you know, of course, that the would-be demise triggered a musical revitalization that is likely to be Hersch’s true legacy. But this book makes for a nice little spotlight that cuts through fields of darkness.

Buy a copy of Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch from Amazon.

Read Matt R. Lohr’s review of Sunday Night at the Vanguard by the Fred Hersch Trio.