Multiple Grammy-nominated jazz pianist and HIV longtime survivor Fred Hersch—whom you may know through the documentary The Ballad of Fred Hersch, which you can watch free here—is doing something really special as we all muddle through the self-quarantine of this COVID-19 moment. He’s giving a free short piano concert every day at 1 p.m. ET on his Facebook livestream right here, straight from the grand piano in his home in Milford, Pennsylvania, where he is holed up with his husband, Scott Morgan, who heads the Haitian Global Health Alliance.
On Sunday, March 22, Hersch started the concert series with his own piece, “Valentine,” as a tribute to a friend who had just died who’d loved the piece. He also played Billy Strayhorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” and the chestnut “It Might as Well Be Spring.” In trying to do some fancy tech, he had some glitches.
The following day, he simply had Morgan livestream it from his phone, which gave great sound as well as a view of Hersch’s fingers on the piano keys. Hersch started by reading the lovely Walt Whitman poem, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” which is about Whitman waiting for his (male) lover to come to him.
“The poem is about love,” said Hersch simply, before playing his own piece, “At the Close of the Day,” inspired by the poem.
A few minutes after Hersch finished the concert, TheBody got on the phone with him to discuss what inspired this charming idea and what we can expect him to coax from his fingers in the coming days as we all struggle to stay connected, sane, and safe in these extremely difficult times.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Fred! What a lovely piece you just played. Thank you! How did you get the idea to do this daily livestream concert?
Fred Hersch: I have a great guy who helps maintain my Facebook fan page, with whom I’ve done some Facebook Lives before. So I thought, “What can I do?” to help people get through this time. You don’t even have to be a Facebook member to watch it there, just go to the link. So I’m trying to get the word out. It gives me a reason to practice—and to take a shower! I’ll just do about five or six minutes a day.
TM: The first day’s concert elicited 400 rapturous comments from listeners!
FH: Yes, and lots of requests for tunes to play, which I’m going to try to honor. I’ll do this every day for the duration of this crisis. It could be six months. I don’t know when I’ll start playing live again.
TM: What would you be doing right now if the corona crisis weren’t happening?
FH: I’d be on the road playing—Idaho, Texas, California, then a couple weeks in Europe—then I’d be recording albums in May. A lot of my gigs are being rebooked for November and beyond. My husband and I are luckier than most, in that we can ride this out for a while. But many of my musician friends are screwed. I don’t know how many months they can go without gigs. Then of course there’s the club owners, servers, bartenders. MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Grammys, has a fund for musicians who need assistance.
TM: So you are apparently the first jazz musician to come out as gay—as well as living with HIV—in the early ’90s. And you got very sick from pneumonia yourself more than a decade ago. On a gut level, what parallels with HIV does this moment bring up for you?
FH: It calls up a lot of memories of the totally inadequate federal government response to the AIDS epidemic, because that is what we’re seeing now with COVID-19. This isn’t some kind of reality show. This is real people, and this is a time for heroism, not politics. There’s no empathy or clear guidelines coming from the federal government. The other parallel is that in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, people were reluctant to have their sexual freedoms taken away—just like now, they’re reluctant to have their social privileges taken away.
TM: So give us a sense of what you’ll be playing in the days and weeks ahead?
FH: I don’t plan sets when I play gigs, so I’ll play whatever I feel, whether my emotional state is more active and energetic or a little slower and more ruminative. My three food groups of performance are my own tunes; the Great American Songbook, which I’ve expanded to include not just standards but Joni Mitchell and the Beatles; and great pieces by jazz composers like Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and Billy Strayhorn.
TM: Love Strayhorn! What is your own comfort music right now?
FH: I’m listening to a lot of classical music, such as the Bach partitas, which I am trying to learn on the piano—they’re tricky, beautiful, and full of life. Also Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, and maybe some Stravinsky. My good friend, pianist Igor Levit, just recorded all 32 Bach sonatas, which are astounding. I’m also listening to some shameless pop, like the new Taylor Swift album, Lizzo, and Charlie Puth.
TM: So everyone is talking about their daily routine during corona self-quarantine. What’s yours like?
FH: We’ve only been going out for groceries and to the pharmacy. I’m almost 65, and I have both HIV and diabetes, even though both are well-managed. I also had terrible pneumonia in 2008 that put me in a medically induced coma. So I’m in a few risk categories.
I haven’t really gotten into a daily structure yet. Scott has been busy trying to raise money for his organization, which funds a very important hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where COVID-19 has just arrived. They’re trying to convert part of it to a COVID-19 response center. It doesn’t have enough ventilators, ambulances, or protective gear for the health workers. For me, I’ve been playing Bach every day and reaching out to friends by phone or Zoom. I’m still doing my morning espresso, then meditation for 30 to 35 minutes.
And when we go out, we wear our N95 masks and goggles. And we’re trying to ration our Clorox wipes!