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Vincent Herring: Not the End of the Line

The saxophonist’s life and livelihood were seriously threatened by the coronavirus, but he’s determined to carry on

Vincent Herring
Vincent Herring (photo: Jimmy Katz)

After months of suffering from the impact of COVID-19 on the jazz economy, things got worse for alto saxophonist Vincent Herring: He contracted the disease itself.

“It felt like the flu,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I was tired all the time, but I wasn’t coughing, and I didn’t have any respiratory problems. After less than a week, I felt totally fine.” But Herring’s health troubles were just beginning. The COVID-19 aftereffects he suffered would last far longer, rendering him barely able to play his horn and almost forcing him to cancel the sessions that produced his latest recording on Smoke Sessions, Preaching to the Choir. The experience has given him a hard-won new perspective on a phenomenally successful career.

Herring’s COVID ordeal began last August. He traveled to Las Vegas to take part in a centennial celebration for Charlie Parker, the subject of his 2019 recording Bird at 100, a collaboration with fellow top-tier altoists Gary Bartz and Bobby Watson. Herring suspects that he contracted the disease on the flight back to New York. Although the symptoms of the potentially lethal virus didn’t fell him, before long he was feeling something else: pain in his joints.

Initially, the 56-year-old saxophonist chalked up this new discomfort to the vagaries of aging. “I remembered some comedian talking about when you get to be over 50 you get aches and pains, and when you tell the doctor they’re just like, ‘Yeah, it happens,’” he said. “So I didn’t think anything of it. But then it got progressively worse. My doctor had me do a blood test and she told me I had rheumatoid arthritis. And it was a gift from COVID.” Worse still, some of the most severe pain was in his fingers.

What followed was a nightmarish succession of doctor recommendations and specialists in joint inflammation. The specialists disagreed on the dosage of a steroid. Herring’s kids got involved researching remedies too. Meanwhile, on a scale of one to 10 “where 10 [means] jumping out of a window because you’re in so much pain,” Herring said he was a nine.

Finally, after weeks of trial and error, Herring’s physicians settled on an approach. He smiled as he described it. “My pain and discomfort level is controlled, through a medication cocktail,” he said, holding up one hand as if in triumph. “That works for me, as long as I take it on time, everything’s good to go,” he added with a sheepish smile. “And of course you learn to take it, because the pain threshold goes up very quick. Right now, I’m feeling okay because I took medication and, just as important, my fingers are working well. But boy, it sure is a thin line between that and catastrophe.”

“MY LIFE AS A JAZZ ARTIST IS OVER”

Adding to the drama of the situation was that Herring was in the middle of recording Preaching to the Choir. Some of the tracks for the album—which features stellar accompaniment by pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Johnathan Blake—were already in the can, but a second session had been planned. Suddenly, Herring was uncertain he could manage it.

In the end, he said, “we made that second date, but I didn’t record as many original compositions as I wanted. Was I in my absolute peak form for playing saxophone? No, because I couldn’t practice but a little bit, but I was overcome with joy that I could play. So that added a sense of purpose to the recording—you know, I’m grateful to be able to do it.”

Before hitting the studio, he got dire news from his physician. “My doctor told me there’s no cure. No cure.” During our interview, he grimly shook his head when repeating those words for the second time. “So I’m sitting there thinking, well, my life as a jazz artist is over.” 

Herring thought of the great pianist Donald Brown, his friend for many years, whose performing career was cut short by rheumatoid arthritis and rotator cuff surgeries. “I never really got it until I was confronted with the same thing. I don’t want to say I was super-depressed; it was just another turn in your life, you know?” But he felt the existential threat, and he began thinking about alternatives: “I felt like, ‘Man, I’m gonna have to do something else in life, what else can I do?’”

Over the last couple of years, Herring had enjoyed some success trading stocks, so he figured he could sustain himself that way. “Nevertheless, it was still really jarring to think that your life’s going to change that much. It was bad enough that I was going through a divorce and just getting over that.” He paused for a second and smiled. “It’s funny—my ex and I, we don’t really speak. But when the kids told her about this, she actually reached out to me!”

He is reflective about the experience. “It centers your purpose on music. I don’t want to say it makes it urgent, but it definitely puts another level on it, you know, both as a player and performer. And then you have the depression, of not being able to play and perform. As many goals as I’ve fulfilled, there’s still things that I want to do. And I still have goals that I can reach. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance.”

I understood the message. Seven years ago, I’d faced down similar fears. Journalism, my bread and butter for three decades, had all but vanished from my personal economy, and the food business, my preferred means of alternative income, had grown dicey; in addition to that, the rigors of being on my feet all the time—a necessity in the food biz—felt far different than it had in my thirties. The gigs that used to help me make ends meet instead seemed to be killing me. By 2014, I was walking with a cane most of the time, wondering how I would work next week, much less next month or year. I made it through in part by recalling the energy from happier days, and Herring’s music recalls those days too. Much of his new album bristles with the same kind of energy that I loved in my early New York City jazz experiences, attending free shows in the late ’70s and early ’80s sponsored by Jazzmobile, where players preached, if not to the choir, then with impassioned aim to convert newcomers.