When Fred Hersch was learning to be a jazz pianist in New York City in the 1970s, the requirements were simple: Be able to play the tunes and don’t be a jerk.
“Today every young jazz pianist is expected to compose, to use computer notation, to have their own band, to produce their own albums, to have their own social media setup, to book their own gig,” Hersch said. “It’s a whole different model.”
So when Hersch, 62, gives lessons to particularly talented young pianists, he ignores the pressures of the modern music industry and focuses on what really matters: The connection between the player and the instrument.
As a result, Hersch is a solo and group pianist and composer, a nominee for numerous Grammy Awards, a leader or co-leader on close to 50 jazz albums, an internationally touring performer, the author of a new autobiography and a teacher at the New England Conservatory and Rutgers University.
His personal life became very public when, in 1993, he announced that he was gay and being treated for HIV. In 2008, he fell into a coma from which he awoke having lost all muscular function. Hersch made a full recovery by 2010, got back to teaching lessons, and put together a new trio, with John Hebert, 46, on bass, and Eric McPherson, 47, on drums.
When the Fred Hersch Trio plays their set on May 27 in the College of Charleston Cistern Yard, festival-goers will have a chance to see one of this generation’s most influential jazz musicians.
“He just blew the whole thing open,” said Jeremy Siskind, 30, a pianist, composer and one of Hersch’s former students. “What I get from Fred’s music is warmth and intimacy.”
Hersch’s sensitivity and intelligence are the defining elements of his personality and musical style. He has a light touch and loves a good ballad, and his compositions expand the range of sound that can be coaxed from the piano.
“He uses all of these orchestral techniques to make something exponentially richer,” Siskind said.
Finding an emotional connection between the musician and the music lies at the heart of Hersch’s teaching and playing philosophies.
“When I teach, it’s much like a psychotherapy session,” said Hersch, who emphasizes a pianist’s capacity to dig deep and take chances while playing. “If you want to be loose and open to what comes up, which is what jazz is — good or bad, be open to it — you can’t be in your brain all the time.”
Siskind says that his first lesson with Hersch in 2007 was a life-changing experience.
“He told me that I had a ton of skills, I was very talented, I had obviously done a lot of work, but that it was meaningless, that I wasn’t saying anything personal,” recalls Siskind.
Hersch demanded that Siskind find that emotional core to his playing, completely upending the young pianist’s conception of himself as a musician. For his part, Hersch wishes that his teachers had been tougher on him.
“Jaki Byard was far too easy with me,” says Hersch of the multitalented jazz musician, composer and educator, whose 1999 death left a hole in the jazz community. “Now I have a million questions I wish I could ask him.”
By pushing himself and his students to challenge themselves, Hersch now can hear his influence in the current generation of jazz pianists.
“It’s kind of freaky, hearing yourself come back but with more energy, and much younger,” he said.
But if the journey from the Greenwich Village jazz clubs of his youth to the Spoleto Festival has taught Hersch one lesson, it’s that you have to be present while playing jazz.
“Not every tune you play is going to be history, and if you try to make history, it’s just going to get stupid,” he said. “It’s better to just play what’s in front of you.”
Isaac Napell is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.