Interview with Fred Hersch
Beginning in 1993, I studied consistently with Fred Hersch for several years. I still occasionally consult with him about piano problems. Logically he should have been one of the first DTM interviews; I'm surprised it's taken this long to sit down together. Before turning on the tape, I said to Fred, "Let's go from the beginning," and he dove right in.
Thanks to Martin Porter for transcribing the interview.
Fred Hersch: I was an atypical piano prodigy. I started writing music very young. By third grade, I was kind of into it. Perhaps the best thing that my parents ever did for me was getting my private music theory/composition/analysis from 3rd to 7th grade. So, by the time I was in 7th or 8th grade, I had been through what every freshman goes through in a conservatory. I had done four-part writing, I had done counterpoint, writing in various styles, figured bass, checking out scores.
I would constantly be noodling or improvising, but it would sound like Mozart or something, because that was mostly what I was listening to. And I would hear my mom yell from the kitchen, “You’re not practicing!” She wasn’t a musically illiterate person, and she knew when I was faking things... but faking it was much more fun.
I grew up with a Lester baby grand that I just sort of went to as a four year old, and picked out cartoon show themes, and my parents said I was talented. My maternal grandfather, for whom I’m named, played violin semi-professionally, and my paternal grandmother was a pianist. I still have her 1921 Steinway O. So they spotted that I had the talent; it was something that was in the family.
My teacher was a woman named Jeanne Kirstein. She was the wife of Jack Kirstein, who was the cellist in the LaSalle Quartet that did those great early recordings of the Second Viennese School.
Jeanne Kirstein had won the Naumburg competition and was the local piano God. She was a Baldwin artist, and she and my mom picked this Baldwin baby grand and brought it home when we moved to a bigger house when I was ten. But my grandmother had a Steinway, and Mark Hornstein down the street had a Steinway, and even at ten I knew money wasn’t that much of an issue, and I never liked that Baldwin piano, and it was made more confusing by my mom saying, “Well your teacher picked it out, and it’s a really good piano!”
So it was like, “Who’s right?” So I can actually track my lessening of interest in practicing seriously from the day that my piano arrived.
I could never get that sound that I heard on the Glenn Gould records, that I heard on a Rubenstein record. I couldn’t get it, you know; it just was not there in that Baldwin.
Throughout high school, I did a lot of improvising. I would pick up pop tunes and play them my own way, or look at books of the great tunes of the 60s, you know, and I would just kind of monkey around with them. And then, senior year in high school, we got a new director of our Jazz band (which previously had only played rudimentary high school things), and the first thing he brought in was an arrangement of “Old Folks.” It was like, “Oh, standards!” It had really lush harmonies, and I was like, “H’mm!"
I started playing little cocktail gigs to make some money. I had a fast ear for tunes. And then I went away to Grinell College, having chickened out of all my auditions for all the big music schools. I had played Beethoven sonatas, but I never got the guts to memorize a big Chopin Ballade or Scherzo. I don’t know, I just knew somehow that it was not my path, and it was kind of depressing to listen to a Horowitz record.
I got the Horowitz return to Carnegie Hall, and that was kind of… I mean, I heard that, and I was like, “Well fuck…” - I mean, really, why bother? That whole record is great, but especially the way he plays the F major Chopin etude.
It wasn’t just Horowitz; my parents and I went to symphony concerts weekly – the Cincinnati Symphony, Byron Janis, Oistrach, Gina Bachauer. I heard all the heavies of the early '60s in their prime.
At Grinell College in Iowa (where Herbie Hancock went briefly, as an engineering student), I made friends with this guy named Eric Lewis. He had some Jazz records, everything from the original [Return to Forever's] Light as a Feather and the Chick Corea/Gary Burton Crystal Silence to some Coltrane and some Miles.
[T]here was an interesting piano teacher there named Cecil Lytle, a black guy who was sort of a self-styled Jazz pianist, but was also a Liszt freak, played all of the great Liszt pieces. I got to know him, and he laid Leroi Jones’ Black Music book on me.
I began haunting the college record store, and so I bought all of those great early Nonesuch LPs, you know, 3 for $10, and I would also buy the Jazz stuff; it was all so cheap back then.
But perversely, what got me into jazz was chamber music. I only spent a semester at Grinell, but I played in a piano-violin-cello trio, and I realized that that was what was missing: making music with people. Piano playing can be a very solitary thing, lots of hours beating your head against the wall, and the chamber trio was so light, and it was so much fun, and we could debate about how we were going to do something, and I really loved it. That winter, ‘73-’74, was the winter of the so-called energy crisis, so the school kicked us out for 6 weeks in the winter and extended the year into the summer, because they didn’t want to spend the money on us for the heat. I went back to Cincinnati, where I stumbled into a jazz club, and that’s where it all began.
Ethan Iverson: It was a local saxophonist, right?
FH: Yeah, Jimmy McGary. When I had a studio here in the ‘80s, we flew him up here and made his only record with Michael Moore and Joey Baron. Great player – a world-class player. Swung his ass off, had a really great lift to his time. The night I first sat in with him in December of ‘73, he was playing a little upstairs club near the college. I was just 18, but I probably looked 12, and I sat there in the front row and I listened intently to the whole set. And then I screwed up the nerve on the break to ask him to sit in. And he looked me over and asked if I knew any tunes, and I said, “Autumn Leaves.” So he had me up the first tune of the set.
I’d never played with a professional rhythm section. The drummer was Grover Mooney, who was like an Elvin-esque kind of player with a very wide down beat. I mean, this was not “straight-ahead” straight-ahead.
Everybody was high on weed. There was this pretty killer weed that was grown in Evansville, Indiana, and you could only buy if you were able to play. I remember the first time I bought my first bag of Evansville, I knew I was cool. And it actually made you want to play. It’s the only weed I’ve ever smoked that didn’t make you want to lay back and listen to sides – though it was good for that, too!
Anyway, so I got up and I played, and I was overplaying. I probably blew the form; you know, things that happen when you’ve never played with a real rhythm section outside of a high school jazz band. So I listened to the rest of the set, and Jimmy said, basically, “Hey, come here kid,” and there was another room, a back room that had one of those phonographs where it’s in a suitcase, if you can remember them. And he put on Duke Ellington at Newport, with Paul Gonsalves’ insane 26-chorus solo. And he gave me a little bit of reefer, and he put that on, and he said, “Don’t say a word, just listen.” I listened to the whole concert. It was like a rock concert. People were screaming, and he was going chorus after chorus. And afterwards, he just picked up the needle, and - swear to god - looked at me, he said, “That’s time. You have to have time, you have to have your time together. And, you have to know some tunes. So as soon as you’ve done some listening and you’ve worked on your time, and you know some tunes, you’re always welcome to come back and play.”
That week I went to Mole’s Record Exchange, LPs for a buck or two. I went A-Z and bought 13 albums, all of which had “Autumn Leaves” on it. Chet Baker, a couple Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball... I took them home and listened to “Autumn Leaves” on each one. I realized that they were all great, and that they were all different, and that there was no point in playing things the way somebody else played them. It was an epiphany.
Around Cincinnati, there were two camps of musicians: one was led by a pianist named Frank Vincent, to whom Oscar Peterson was God. I’ve never been a big Oscar Peterson fan, with all due respect. If you buy one Oscar Peterson record, you’ve kind of got it... and he made like 150 or something, you know; just not that interesting of an artist.
So I knew that I didn’t want to play like that, and I dunno, I was stubborn, and even back then I was using my left hand kind of actively, and people were coming, saying “What is that shit?” Anyway, I started to learn tunes, and I didn’t really know what a Downbeat magazine was, I didn’t have any access. I had one of those "1000 songs" fake books with the terrible changes they use for Wedding bands.
FH: But it was a start, and I’d write in substitute changes from listening to recordings, and figured out a better way to play them.
And I got to know some of the other musicians, and they started showing me things. But Jimmy was the best teacher by being almost a non-teacher, because he’d start to play some standard that I’d never heard, get through the head, and walk off the stage and look at me, saying, “Ok, figure it out! You’re a jazz musician – figure it out; use your ears.” It was really tough love.
There was a great guitarist named Cal Collins who really taught me the beginnings of the art of accompaniment. He was fantastic. His technique was all backwards; his thumb was all around the neck, but he could really get around. He was a lovely, kind of hillbilly guy. And there was another guitarist named Kenny Poole who was a Joao Gilberto freak, and he could sit and play bossa novas like that, got me interested in that kind of music. There was a young bassist named Steve Neal, who went on to play with Pharaoh Sanders. We used to play stuff together that was a little more oriented to the music we were listening to – Pharaoh Sanders, McCoy, that kind of stuff that had more of an edge.
There were a couple of Jazz clubs, one in Cincinnati – kind of a ghetto joint called the Viking Lounge. That’s the first place I heard Billy Hart, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Fortune; I heard Yusef Lateef there; I heard all of the organists – Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff; I heard Groove Holmes, who I really liked.
Then there was a club in Dayton called Gilly’s, and there I heard Teddy Wilson, I heard Mingus, I heard Sun Ra, I heard Bill Evans, you know. Sun Ra, when I was really high: That was really kind of a revelation, and he had these two dancers, and a bunch of people sitting around banging on stuff, and John Gilmore, and he had his whole space regalia, and a sparkly green combo organ, and they were chanting “Space is the place,” and at one point he got up and started walking around —we were at the front table— and he said, “Saturn is the planet of discipline!” You know, like right in our face. [laughs] That was kind of out… A lot of people came through there. I remember one night staying up until four in the morning, hanging with Teddy Wilson, talking about the Tobias Matthay school of piano technique.
EI: What was it like hearing Teddy at that time?
FH: Well, I mean, he was old, and I preferred to hear him without a rhythm section, but I was struck by his sound. I heard Ahmad Jamal - that was a revelation… I think that the genesis of my particular piano sound comes from, a lot of it, especially the upper two octaves, the early Ahmad Jamal trio records. It just has that incredibly beautiful, clear, pearly sound that he gets in those top two octaves.
It was also around that time that I made an important discovery. It started with Duke, when I started collecting Ellington records. And whether it was recorded in the 30s, or 50s or 60s, Duke always had the same sound. And I thought, god, one’s mono and one’s stereo, I mean what is this? There must be something to this, that somebody can have a sound that is not dependent on the instrument or the style of your chording. So that got me thinking about sound in a deeper way. And I mean, Monk’s sound, and Ahmad’s sound, and Herbie’s sound, and early Bill Evans’ sound.
I hung out in Cincinnati about a year, a year and a half, and there was a local rhythm section - Barry Ries, who was known as a trumpet player, but who was playing drums at the time, and a bass player named Bob Bodley, who has since died. So I got to play with them a lot, and they were about four or five years older than I was, so I was like the little kid brother, and they had all the great sides. We’d just go to their place after the gig, get high, and listen to sides. I remember concretely the night I truly committed to being a jazz musician, there were two albums I heard that night. One night, it was the second side of Miles' Friday Night at the Blackhawk with Wynton Kelly, and the other one was Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. I said, I want to swing like Wynton, and I want to write like Mingus. That was clear. Whether or not these things have actually happened is up for debate, but I just said, this shit is too cool, I like this too much. So after a year or two playing around town—and this means playing King’s Amusement Park for the summers—I had my little band of contemporaries called “Ethos,” which evolved into egos and disbanded.
But there was a little core of us that were into Jazz, and I was kind of the alpha dog, except with Bob and Barry, and I just knew that I had to get out of there, because I just saw myself ending up in some Local TV show band, or doing studio work, but I was listening to Mingus and Dolphy, and I kept seeing Jaki Byard’s name, you know. In 1975, there were only a handful of schools that even recognized Jazz – Berklee, North Texas State, Miami, Indiana, Eastman as a grad school; but that was kind of it. Now every community college has Jazz something or other… but I heard that Jaki taught at New England, and I got a brochure, and like a dumbass with Grover and his girlfriend, we drove to Boston. And we went to New England, and I hunted Jaki down in the hallway, third floor, and I said (timidly) “Well, Mr. Byard, I drove here all the way from Cincinnati, and I really want to come to school here, and…” And he said, “Ok, I have ten minutes!” And I went into a room with him, and played two tunes, and he said, “Ok, you’re in!” And that was it, you know; it was so loose back then.
So in 1975, I moved to Boston. Jaki was the first guy who I really hung out with who was there for some of the big moments in the music. He was also an encyclopedia of Jazz piano, and funny as shit, and in a way organized, and in a way totally disorganized, very irresponsible. He had a Big Band called the Apollo Stompers. We had a weeknight gig down a block from the school, and he’d play the sax and lead the band, and I played piano. In fact, last week we just did a tribute of him at NEC. I played some of those charts for first time in 30 years…
EI: They were his own charts?
FH: Yeah, he wrote a lot. He wrote for Herb Pomeroy, and for Maynard Ferguson; he played in those bands.
EI: Do you remember specifically anything Jaki Byard told you about playing jazz or the piano?
FH: I still have these worksheets where you take different chords through the circle of fifths, so that you always have them under your fingers. He really got me into the stride piano players. I started really freaking out on Earl Hines and Fats, and it just happened that at that time there wasn’t a great rhythm section at the school, and I had already played with pretty good rhythm sections, so I focused on playing solo and in duos. That’s actually the first time I started playing with clarinetist/saxophonist Michael Moore, so we go back almost 40 years, since 1975. I would just grab guys in the hallway, another pianist, “Hey, come play some duets.” I learned a lot from just watching Jaki, and also just kind of being around his spirit. I mean, he was fearless, basically. He had a very unmanicured view of the whole thing, which was really refreshing. For all the knowledge that he had, he was not in any way pretentious; he was very accessible. After a year there, I did start to study with a classical teacher, because Jaki’s attendance was becoming pretty erratic. I thought, ok, I’m spending money, I should have a teacher that’s going to show up. So I studied with Irma Wolpe, the late wife of composer Stefan Wolpe, and she was in this Russian school of “scraping” the piano business, which I knew wasn’t right, but once again it got me thinking of the mechanism of sound, and it was a start.
EI: Did Jaki talk a lot about Mingus or Dolphy or any of those guys?
FH: He didn’t like to talk about Mingus.
EI: Ah ha.
FH: I don’t know what went on, but you know probably something went on…
FH: And about Dolphy, I remember him saying that he shouldn’t have died, that what happened to him was really wrong, because he died of diabetes, and because he was black and a jazz musician, they just assumed that he was a junkie and that he’d wake up, but he was in a glucose coma.
EI: Was Alan Dawson around there at that time?
FH: Alan was at Berklee.
EI: Do you remember Jaki and Alan seeing each other much? Because they were one of the great rhythm sections of the 60s.
FH: Oh, I know! Yeah, I only met Alan once. Berklee and New England might as well have been New York and Chicago.
EI: It’s funny to think of them both being there for years and not playing any gigs! Do any one else’s live gigs there stick out in your mind?
FH: Well, there was the Jazz Workshop, and Paul’s Mall, same building on Boylston Street. I saw Sonny Rollins and Betty Carter, and others who passed through there. Bill Evans...
EI: What was seeing Bill Evans like?
FH: Well, he played a concert in Cincinnati when I was still living there, I don’t remember where, and I remember it being very formal. And then I heard later in some interview with him, and I’m not sure if this is true or not, but he said that night to night, about 85% of what I do is the same, and there is the 15% wiggle room. In theory, that may have been what killed him, you know. How many times can you play “Waltz for Debby” or “My Romance,” I mean… and get off on it? That’s probably where the drugs came in…
EI: Even his "Autumn Leaves" has that little set arrangement, where things stay the same.
FH: Yeah, if you listen especially to his first album, New Jazz Conceptions, it’s very tight and kind of worked out. If you listen to the first Danny Zeitlin trio, it’s kind of like that, but Danny takes it much further out. That was from the days of Jazz on major labels and all that stuff. But I remember it being very formal, not the amazing Village Vanguard sessions, which is what I was hoping for.
Some of the other gigs were weird. I was at Gilly’s in Dayton on a Tuesday night when Art Pepper was playing there, and he and this local piano player, Ed Moss, got into literally a fist fight on stage. Ed Moss had a tuning hammer and was smashing it into the piano, yelling “YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” and Art Pepper was yelling “GET THIS ASSHOLE OFF THE STAGE,” and it was this complete scene. So the bartender,who was this big guy, AJ, who looked like a refrigerator, you know, ordered Moss and his girlfriend out of the club. The rhythm section was Bob Bodley and Adam Nussbaum, who had come from New York to make the gig, so they knew I was there. So it was like, “Is there a piano player in the house?” So I waded into that for 5 or 6 nights. And it was, I have to say, rather unpleasant. He wrote a lot of unmemorable 32-bar bop tunes, and he was on methadone, and you know, he was kind of making a comeback, but he would play these melodies and he’d fuck them up, and then yell at me, or forget what tune he was playing, and yell at me.
And I was like, God, if this is what it’s going to be like, I’m not so sure if I want to be a jazz musician. Ironically, the next week Art Pepper was going to record with Jaki Byard at the Vanguard, and he fired him and got George Cables, because Jaki was too eccentric for him, you know. So yeah, there were a lot of memorable ones.
I remember seeing Betty Carter. That made a real impression. She was completely in command and totally mesmerizing. I saw Carmen McRae, you know. Seeing Sonny in a club... Cannonball... Just the sheer sound of those guys in a club was just ridiculous.
And so I moved to New York in ’77. My childhood friend and bassist from Cincinnati, Eddie Felson, had been here about six months earlier, and he said, "Oh, there’s this loft between University and Broadway on 11th, and if we put $3000 key money, we can have it for 350 a month." So I said, “Ok.” So I put down the money, and started paying rent there, and then I got a call from Woody Herman, of all people. So I actually went out on the road with Woody Herman that summer.
EI: A lot of cats have over the years.
FH: That’s where I met Joe Lovano; he was in the band. And it was a horrible experience - I lasted about a month. We had to wear these blue double-knit polyester leisure suits, with the yellow shirts with the big pointy collars, this kind of stuff. If you smoked a cigarette and you dropped an ash on it, it would melt a hole in it. There were three different rhythm sections in a month, guys coming and going. Of course you never get to practice or play your instrument until you were on the stage, and it was the days of Fender Rhodes, and I had to play “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and “La Fiesta,” really fast, that was my feature. Just horrible.
Also, being a gay guy on a band bus is like torture; you couldn’t really be out to those guys. They would have killed me. And everybody is talking about women, or sports, and into heavy boozing. I was a pothead, not into alcohol, and I was not into women, and I was not particularly into sports, so it was kind of a non-starter.
And then Herman fired me, and that was fine, and I came back to New York, and during my first year I did a lot of really undignified work. I played in a regular band at one of the resorts in the Catskills most weekends. Restaurants, private parties. I played after-hours gigs with Junior Cook, which is really wacky, at a place called Joyce’s House of Unity, at 86th and Columbus. That gig started at 4 and went till 8, so I’d play a normal gig in the village like the Surf Maid at Bleecker and Thompson where I’d sub for Joanne Brackeen when she went out with Joe Henderson or Stan Getz, 9 to 2, and then you’d go to Chinatown and have dinner, and at 4 o’clock you’d go to play at Joyce’s House.
EI: So 4 AM is when the gig starts.
FH: Yeah, you’d play 4 till 8.
EI: Was there anyone there in the club?
FH: Well, they frisked you when you came in. It was a lot of hookers and pimps, and I don’t know who the hell… And of course at that hour, it paid 50 dollars, but I always remember spending 50 bucks on coke, just to get through the gig.
EI: Right, but you played with Junior Cook; I mean, that’s pretty cool.
FH: Yeah, he was a good player. But he was high all the time.
Then I got into the house band at a club called Jazz Mania, which we ended up calling Jazz Phobia, run by this guy named Mike Morgenstern, kind of a jerk, and he owned this club on 23rd near Madison, in a loft. He advertised it kind of like a cool loft jazz place for singles to meet. I was in the house band, and every weekend we’d have a guest, and you couldn’t believe the range of the guests. One weekend it would be Jimmy Knepper, the next week it would be Arthur Blythe, and the next week it would be Pepper Adams, and the next week it would be David Murray, then Charlie Rouse. Ray Drummond and I were in that band together, Ratzo Harris and I were in that band together. We all arrived in ’77.
EI: I always liked hearing Jimmy Knepper.
FH: Yeah, and Charlie Rouse too. He was the sweetest guy. I didn’t know as many Monk tunes as I know now, and I fucked some of them up, but Rouse was really sweet about it.
EI: Of course by that time, there was no way to learn the Monk tunes so easily.
FH: No, you’d have to transcribe them, more or less.
EI: That’s one thing I’d be interested in hearing from you: in the pre-education Jazz era, how did you even learn the language?
FH: Well, I found my graduate school at Bradley’s, which was 100 yards from where I was living from ’77-‘79. I started hanging out there a lot with the intention of getting a gig there. People were very nice about letting me sit in, and Jimmy Rowles let me sit in, and Kenny Barron finally let me sit in. And finally somebody said, I think Red Mitchell, “Give the kid a gig.” And luck of the draw, I hired Sam Jones, and from there, I was in. If Sam said you could play, you could play. There was nobody more respectable in the Jazzy-Jazz tradition.
EI: Well, he was also so great.
FH: Killer time player, always played the right note. He was a really a great, great teacher without teaching. But anyway, late night at the piano we would all sit around and show each other tunes. Me, Tommy Flanagan, Joanne, Kirk Lightsey, Roland Hanna, all showing tunes. I got friendly with George Shearing; we’d go up to his place, he’d show me tunes. My partner at the time worked at a restaurant that had a piano bar, and he gave me some old sheet music; he knew a million tunes. I started playing for singers, doing little head charts for them, so I learned a lot of tunes that way. And I knew a lot of tunes from Cincinnati. I was a little more of a novelty then, a young guy who could swing, knew a lot of tunes, who could accompany, was versatile. I was hungry if not a bit pushy, and I put myself out there. I came to New York to play with the people I ended up playing with, and I had it in my mind that I was going to do that. I just imagined it and it happened. I would freak out occasionally. The first time I played with Joe Henderson, it was Ron Carter, Al Foster, me and Joe, and I thought, what am I doing up here, a gay Jewish kid from Cincinnati, how the hell, how did this happen? But then I said, "Well, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t supposed to be here," so, I just kind of went with it.
I just went out every night and I heard people, and I listened to records, and I played jam sessions. So I paid a lot of dues, worked a lot of 25-dollar jobs, and you know, those were pre-Wynton Marsalis days. Verve was a dead label, Blue Note was a dead label, and Bradley’s was the great equalizer. Art Blakey would be hitting on some young chick, and people would be coming in and out of the bathroom doing blow, and Joni Mitchell would stop by now and then, and Mingus would come in, and you know, Phil Woods and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and all of the piano players and bass players, and during my tenure at Bradley’s—somebody asked me about this the other day—I played with so many great bassists - Sam Jones, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Buster Williams, George Mraz, Cecil McBee, Major Holley, Bob Cranshaw...
EI: I didn’t know you played with Buster Williams.
FH: Yeah, I played a lot with Buster. After Sam died, I thought Buster was the next best thing. We had a really deep connection, a rhythmic connection. And he knew all the notes, too; he really did know all the notes. A beautiful beat, he had. When I first started getting trio gigs, if the gig paid 200 dollars, I would hire Buster Williams and Billy Hart, and give them each 100 dollars.
FH: Because A) it was like taking a lesson, B) it meant that people would show up, and C) it would mean that people saw me as deserving to be in that company. Even from the beginning, I tried to look at my career as a long business proposition, and to invest in it. When I first started touring with a trio, I lost money. Then, eventually, I slowly started to break even, and then I started to make the same I paid the guys, and now I make a bit more.
I didn’t make Horizons, my first leader LP, until I was about 30. That was also the time that I found out that I had HIV, which at that time was kind of like a death sentence. So the whole of my career, these last 26 years or 27 years, have been under that cloud, you know, “Is this the last record I’m going to make?” And in the early 90s, I was really thinking that way, because there were no drugs coming along.
EI: Right. I’m sure you lost a lot of friends at that time.
FH: Oh, dozens of friends, acquaintances. Albert Dailey is the first Jazz guy I knew who died of AIDS.
EI: Was he gay, or…
FH: I don’t know. I think Don Pullen could have been gay, but I’m not sure what killed Don Pullen, to tell you the truth. Yeah, it was a very dark time. And also, then I was fully forming as a gay person, and also as a jazz musician, and it was very hard to reconcile those two worlds for a long time.
But those early years were really fun. I started playing with Art Farmer, that was a great gig for me. Art had a very interesting book, everything from Carla Bley tunes to Strayhorn. He recorded the first tunes that I wrote; he encouraged me to write. And in those days, having a gig like that was 20 weeks of work a year.
EI: Art Farmer was just such a beautiful player, you know.
FH: Beautiful player, and we just got along great. And I’ll tell you how it all happened, because it’s kind of a funny story. The first gig he hired me for was a two week gig in Detroit in August, at this club, on 8 Mile Road, like, no-mans land. Art lived in Vienna, so he didn’t really know who was who on the scene, and he hired a bass player and drummer that were just horrendous. And there I was, stuck out there, where I had to walk a mile to a convenience store, where not just the cashier, but the merchandise was all behind bullet-proof glass. I was certainly the only white person in this club, which was called Dummy George. At the end of the two weeks, I said to Art, “I really love your playing, but if this is the rhythm section you’re going to go with, I’m afraid I’m just going to step out.” And he thought about it, and he said, “Well, who would you choose?” And I said “Let me think about it.” And so eventually we kind of put together a band. I think we started with Mike Richmond, who was then playing with Stan Getz, and Akira Tana, whom I knew from NEC. And then it evolved. Ray Drummond stepped in for a while, different people stepped in for a while.
EI: The video has Dennis Irwin and Billy Hart.
FH: Yeah, that’s the only time that we played together, just that one shot. The infamous video. I became kind of like the contractor, so he’d say, “I’m coming over,”—we only had answering machines—“And I have these gigs, can you get the guys?” We used to play at Sweet Basil, I think it was either three or four times a year for two weeks at a stretch.
EI: Eight weeks at Basil a year?
FH: Yeah. And it was full! People would come, and they’d have dinner, and it would be full, and the bar would be full. When I played with Joe at the Vanguard, it was 10:00, 11:30, and 1:00, six nights for the week, and it was full. Some of the sets were short, you know, but people hung out, and people did drugs, and people drank, and, you know, that was what it was. But in between those things I would play Bradley’s, which I did at least four weeks a year, The Knickerbocker, which I’d do two or three weeks a year. So anyway, I’d be working 35, 40 weeks a year, on top of doing odd jobs.
EI: Do you remember anything musical you talked about with Art Farmer? Did he give you any advice?
FH: I think I learned a lot about comping behind horn players, because Art didn’t make conventional note choices often. You had to be prepared for anything, and you had to be able to voice chords and be quick, in case they play one of those notes, because you don’t want to confine them, and you don’t want to look like an idiot. Rhythmically, he was not the strongest player; he tended to rush. And it was a problem for the rhythm section. It was like, “Do we go with it, or do we slow him down?” Maybe it’s the nature of the flugelhorn with the notes closer together than on the trumpet, I’m not sure. But it was interesting, the repertoire we’d play.
The one notable thing said to me by Joe Henderson I repeat to students. I had played with him on and off for four years, something like that, whenever he’d come to New York. From the very first set I played with them, on the first night, he played one of his epic solos, and at a certain point, I would just get this feeling to stop playing. He didn’t look at me, he didn’t say stroll, there was no overt vibe, I just thought, ok, I just need to let this guy go for a while. And then at a certain point, I would just feel like, ok, I’m invited back in. And I did this, you know, when it felt right, and I did this for years, and I finally asked him about it. We never talked about music, we talked about politics or whatever. He played the same ten or twelve tunes for ten years, you know. He’d often show up late, or come in two minutes before the gig, old-fashioned style. And one night, we did get talking, and because I brought it up, and I said, “Joe, when I'm strolling behind you and then coming back in, I assume that’s cool, I mean you’ve never said anything.” And he kind of looked at me, with his big thick glasses, and he said, “If you feel it, it’s right. If you think it, it’s probably not right.” And I took that to mean that if it becomes a shtick, a thing that you do as a routine, then it’s not right. If you feel like you should play, fine. And really, that’s almost all you need to know about comping, if you have the skill. Play what you feel.
So that was a great lesson.
Stan Getz gave me one of those one night as well. We were playing Fat Tuesdays with George Mraz and Al Foster. And I was having a night were I wasn’t feeling so great about my playing. I was subbing for Jim McNeely, I never really had the gig, I was filling in for him, and I was in the dressing room there, and I was kind of down on my self, and Stan, in a rare moment of sensitivity, said, “Hey Fred, man, what’s the problem?”
And I said, “I don’t know, I’m playing the same shit. I feel like I’m doing nothing new.”
And he said, “Did you play one progression different tonight than you did last night?” And I said, “I’m sure I did.”
He said, “Well, if you paid attention to that, and you did that once a night, that’s 365 new things a year. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, sometimes just a little 'A ha!' moment — you can do that, cool!”
If you just hold on to that, just that one thing in a whole evening of music, and then the next night that happens again, then in a year, you’re going to be a lot further along. I encounter a lot of students who get really down on themselves, they get overwhelmed with what they can’t do, and what there is to do, and where they’re at, and I say “Look! Just some little insight you have, build on that. It’s a much better way to live, and even if it’s a small thing, like, oh, I can use this substitution here, or gee, I didn’t know I could get to here this way, or learning that I’m rushing my triplets.” You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you play!
I went through periods of obsessively taping myself. In those days, that meant hauling around a cassette recorder the size of a Manhattan phonebook. I have cassette tapes from Bradley's, tapes of me with Sam Jones and Al Harewood, of me with Buster, and Joe Henderson, mouldering in my closet.
In ‘82 or ‘83, I was playing with Joe at the Vanguard. In those days, everybody did blow, I mean, it was just a thing. And I never did a lot of it, but as the junior member of the band, knowing Joe liked it, or Sam Jones liked it a bit, I would always be sure to have some, to offer it to the boss. So, it was a Friday night, and we played the first set, and my connection hadn’t shown up, so I played the set sober and recorded it. And then my man came, and I gave Joe some, and we played the next set, and I thought, “Man, that was fucking killing.” And then some time later, the next week or something, for some reason I just put the tape on, and it was exactly the opposite. What I felt was killing was just rushing and cold, and pushing, and the phrases went on too long, it was just all of this wasted energy, and the set where I was “sober” was much more real, and relaxed, and interesting. So I’ve never taken drugs on the bandstand since then, ever. And I never drink when I play, not even a glass, you know? Just save it for afterwards.
Way back in Cincinnati, Jimmy McGary took me aside one night, and said, “Kid, you’ve got a lot of talent, and you’re going to go somewhere. Whatever you do, after the gig — get high, drink wine, drink beer, get fucked up — I don’t care. But don’t bring it on to the bandstand, or you’ll end up like me. I could have gone to New York, I could have probably been somebody, but I drink too much. And I’m stuck here. Whatever you do, just don’t bring it onto the bandstand.” I’ve always honored that rule, except during that coke period.
EI: That’s a lot of pressure: if Joe Henderson is doing some blow, it must be hard not to do some yourself. That’s some of the most fierce peer pressure I can imagine!
FH: Yeah, and Sam was really cool about it, he’d show me his thumbnail, and say “Just a little bit, just a little sniff.” And then after the gig or before the last set at Bradley’s, he’d have a sherry. But I never saw him do anything. He died at 52, he died really way too young.
EI: What did he die of?
FH: Cancer, I think. I don’t know if something caught up with him or what, but he was an incredible mentor. I’ll never forget the first set I played with him, where we really rhythmically hooked up, and I looked at him and he looked at me, it was just this big smile. And from that day forth, we really were a team. His quintet I played in was with Keith Copeland, Tom Harrell, and Bob Berg. But the only record of me with Sam is this 12-piece big band. And Keith couldn’t make it for some reason, so Mickey Roker stepped in, and he wasn’t a very good choice, because his reading wasn’t so good.
I never recorded with Sam in a small group, or with Joe, even though I played with those groups for several years.
EI: Are there any records that you are on with Art Farmer or some older musicians you like?
FH: I made a few records with Art, but there really isn’t one that I think really quite fits that description. I’d have to go through my discography. I recorded with a lot of those guys, Lee Konitz, and all of those people, but… no, not really. Mighty Lights with Jane Ira Bloom, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, that’s a pretty deep album.
EI: How did that come about?
FH: Well, I had hired Charlie to play with me at Bradley’s, and subsequently, to do my second album, Sarabande, with Joey Baron, which you heard.
EI: I sure did…
FH: And Matthias Winckelmann was recording Jane for Enja, and he said he’d heard that Charlie was tough on piano players, and he wanted to get a piano player that Charlie liked playing with. So Jane came down to Bradley’s and heard us, and then asked me to do the recording. So I’ve played with Jane 30 years, probably.
EI: Didn’t you play with the Liberation Music Orchestra?
FH: I played a week with the Liberation Music Orchestra at Sweet Basil’s with Paul, and Lovano, and Frisell, and the circus that it was...
And I played a week with Blackwell, Haden, and Jane at the Vanguard, and we did some of Jane’s music, but we did mostly Ornette’s music. That was, of course for a pianist, a great challenge. I’ve recorded a fair number of Ornette tunes. Next to Monk and Wayne and Strayhorn, he’s the guy that I’ve recorded the most from the canonical jazz composers.
EI: Do you have any recollections of Ed Blackwell?
FH: Oh I do, he was the most lovely guy, and he was always kind of working on something. Eric McPherson reminds me of him. I come in the dressing room at the Vanguard, and with his hands or something, Blackwell’s working on some rhythm that he’d show me. And the guy was on dialysis for years, but he was really positive. He had such an incredible cymbal sound, and everything about his playing just danced, it was so beautiful.
Sam Jones played for many years with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins in a trio called the Magic Triangle, and sometimes they’d include Cliff Jordan, who also had played with me with Art Farmer. And Sam and Billy and I were to have played together at least twice, but for one reason or another it never happened, which is my great regret.
At the end of Billy Higgins’ life, I went down to see him at the Vanguard. He was playing with Bobby Hutcherson. You know, and here’s this guy—“Smiling Billy,” there was a tune we used to play with Art called “Smiling Billy”— and he’s playing his heart out. And I went into the kitchen to pay my respects, and he’s sitting in Lorraine’s desk chair, and this guy was just whipped. It was as if he had just run a marathon; he was spent.
Billy was aware of my health situation, and with some effort, he got out of his chair and came and gave me this big hug. Then he put me at shoulder width and said, “It’s GREAT to be alive.” He knew that I knew exactly what he meant. And I’ll never forget that. That he would take that effort and really let me know that “Yeah, we’re both paying a lot of dues but we’re still fucking here, isn’t that great?”
At 56, I’m part of the last batch that learned in the old way, figuring it out by fucking up, getting back up on your feet, fucking up again, getting back up on your feet, hanging out, learning from people around you, listening to tons of records, learning the history of your instrument, learning the repertoire, the standard repertoire, the jazz repertoire, composing your own music, starting all that, as one of the last of that batch. That’s why I have this affinity with Billy Hart, who’s 14 years older than me. I probably have more in common with him than someone 14 years younger, who may be playing everything in 7/4, or writing science project pieces, or tunes with too many chords in them.
I consider myself a very rhythmic player; certainly I’ve earned my stripes in terms of playing rhythm and doing interesting things with time, but I’m also a melodist. Even in my post-bop (or whatever you want to call them) lines, they’re kind of my lines, they’re sort of my shapes, and they’re melodically driven. And hopefully, they follow consecutively from what happened the phrase before. It’s not like I ever practice patterns or altered scales, or any of that other Jazz information stuff. I might be better if I had done that or practiced more, but I’m not sure! I think after my illness, I have fully owned that. I think this latest Vanguard recording may be the best trio CD I’ve ever made; it’s going to be two discs. After my illness, everything just loosened up, and I don't think I have anything to prove to anyone anymore. It’s just like I do what I do, and I can admire people who do something different, but I don’t feel like I have to go home and learn how to do that. I feel like my core is really solid, and within that, it’s really loosened up. So it’s a shame that it took a near-death experience to get that, but I feel like I really did get that.
There were periods, early times as a leader where it was tough, but I always really maintained ongoing duo collaborations with people. I’ve had four or five different editions of the trio. I think the fifth is the real one, and that keeps evolving, you know. The solo thing just became sort of a thing, and now I’m kind of known for it, for whatever reason. Composing, likewise, writing big pieces, or classical pieces, that’s come in the last ten years, twelve years, so I feel kind of free to kind of express myself. “My Coma Dreams” is kind of a Jazz piece, but it’s a theatre piece, you know; “Leaves of Grass,” there are Jazz elements, but it’s mostly about the words. I’m relentlessly tonal and pretty much everything I do is based on four voices. I don’t hear wild upper-structure harmony – for some reason my ears don’t really hear that. Sometimes I think, “Oh Fred, you should have done more ear training and transcribing, and you’d be able to hear that shit,” but then I think, “Does it really matter?”
EI: [laughs] I don’t think that you need to hear any more harmony, Fred. I think you’re fine on that one.
FH: Well, you know, it’s funny. Jimmy Rowles was very funny, you know. When I came in to Bradley's he’d say, “Uh oh. Here comes the kid with the chords…”
EI: [laughs] Exactly! You intimidated Jimmy Rowles!
FH: In that day, Richie Beirach was like, the go-to piano teacher, Joanne was studying with him, Andy Laverne, Phil Markowitz, Armen Donelian - all of those guys were Richie Beirach disciples.
EI: What would Richie be telling them?
FH: A lot of very upper-structure harmony, and that sort of stuff. A lot of what he did was based on the teachings of a theory teacher named Ludmil Ulehla.
EI: It’s also a certain type of finger-strength he teaches, I believe.
FH: Yeah, I never thought it swung, and I thought it was boxy, and I said, “Play like Richie Beirach, or play with Sam Jones? I think I’ll play with Sam Jones, thank you very much.”
EI: Richie Beirach—who I really do admire, he’s quite hip...
FH: ...Well, he is a badass in a lot of ways...
EI: ...sometimes I feel that there’s this Chick Corea tradition of wanting to assert some type of pointed rhythm on top of a band.
FH: Well, it doesn’t swing. It “burns,” that’s what we used to say. There’s a little too much “one” in it, for me.
EI: It’s funny how McCoy invented the style, but has this other thing about what he’s doing that may be more swinging, you know?
FH: Yeah, it is more swinging. Especially in his early albums as a leader. And I think that you can notice that a lot of McCoy’s phrases start on upbeats. A lot of Chick and Richie’s phrases start on strong beats, so it makes it boxier. And Richie tends to play two bars, and then two bars. Antecedent/consequent, you can hear it and say, “Oh, he’s going to play this,” and that’s what he plays.
Early McCoy, those early Impulse trio albums, he had a really nice touch.
FH: Beautiful lines. I mean, you hear that in Kenny Barron. Kenny Barron is like a combination of Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner. Tommy, I mean, I can’t get out of here without mentioning Tommy, who is a huge influence. I heard Tommy dozens of times, and he was very friendly to me, and he was the first guy to show me Strayhorn tunes, him and Jimmy Rowles. If you’re going to do a comparison, Hank Jones was more polished and elegant and impeccable, but Tommy, to me, even though his technique was more limited, he hung out on the edge a lot more. He wasn’t afraid to fumble a little bit, in favor of making something.
EI: Yeah, Flanagan’s lines can resolve or start in really non-static places.
FH: Right. He’s a real improviser. I watched him I can’t tell you how many times: you could see him thinking, you know, and he had this kind of beautiful quizzical expression on his face: and I think I learned from him, and from Joe too, hearing them on not so great nights, where I’d hear Tommy start, and he just couldn’t get anything going, and work his way into getting some kind of a flow.
Joe Henderson did that a lot. He’d start the gig, and it was like, “Ok, Joe, we know you know how to play that,” but then ten choruses in, it would be like “Whoa!” - you know, fifth gear, where the fuck did that come from?
I think from those two players, more than everybody else, I learned patience. Sometimes you need to get through some messy shit to get something good. Sometimes the good shit is there and you just say thank you, but some nights you have to wallow through a little bit, or be willing to be a little less than pleased with the way things are going in order for them to get better.
A lot of the young musicians I hear are really “presenting” what they do. And a lot of it is really impressive, and some I like and some I really don’t care for, but it’s very musicianly. A lot of piano players now with a lot of chops. But since I feel like it’s being presented to me, I don’t feel that it’s being invented for me. And if there’s not enough of danger in the music, then I’m not that interested in it. I’d rather them go for it and fuck it up rather than play safe or just regurgitate something.
EI: It’s incredible when you go back and listen to the Miles records how many mistakes are on them.
FH: Oh, incredible. My students will bring in a tune, you know if there’s a sharp five, or if there’s a chord alteration, they're always faithfully trying to observe that in their alteration, and all the chord scales in the improvising go with the chords in the chart.
I look at the chart as they play it, and then I put the chart down and say “Look. Nobody has a score, nobody knows but you. All I want to know is, does it work? Is it taking me somewhere? Is it connected?”
I don't care if you blow a chord change, I mean who cares about that?
EI: Yeah, it’s a great point about no one knows you wrote on the chart. All of that music by Duke and Mingus, and the Miles stuff, even Coltrane, there’s mystery on the record because whatever they’re playing can’t be represented on a chart.
EI: And that shows when you listen to the Wayne Shorter records on Blue Note. They are of course immortal, but there’s a little bit of “trying to play the chart correctly,” at least compared to the Miles stuff with some shared Shorter repertoire from the same era. No one has ever been able to know what those tunes were.
FH: Yeah, they’re enigmas.
EI: And I suspect that it’s because Miles, like Duke and Mingus, kind of came up in this world where mystery was encouraged. Thelonious Monk’s bass players, they never play the tune. You try to learn a tune from the part of any bass player who ever recorded with Monk...
FH: ...Larry Gales, or whoever...
EI: Well, they’re great bass players, great time, great sound, but they certainly don’t outline the changes, even on the head, you know?
EI: It’s intentionally ignorant, and therefore funkier.
I’d sort of like to play a word association game with you, Fred, where I talk mention some of the pianists in Jazz and you offer up your thoughts on them. Let’s go back to the beginning: Earl Hines.
FH: In a way, piano playing never got more “out” than Earl Hines, even the late ones like Live at the New School. He just takes these amazing flights of seemingly crazy random stuff, and always comes back in perfectly, rhythmically. I have total admiration for Fats and Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum, of course, but to me, in terms of being a fearless improviser, Earl Hines is definitely the original cat, especially his solo playing. His group playing is fine, but his solo playing is really magnificent. Earl Hines Plays Ellington, or Earl Hines Plays Gershwin, those are just magnificent, and really inspiring. There’s a great Jaki Byard and Earl Hines record. They were, in a weird way, birds of a feather.
EI: Erroll Garner.
FH: Well, when I first heard Concert by the Sea, that very first introduction to “I Remember April,” I went “what the fuck is that?” He was such a singular stylist. Whenever you do that pulsing quarter note under the octave with the chord thing, it’s Garner. It’s like George Shearing with that locked hands thing. They own it.
I hear young pianists do that little “dwee,” that little Chick Corea appoggiatura that he does. I tell them, “Don’t do that.”
FH: “Chick owns that.” You can’t do that. Or the Herbie shake, where they go [sings phrase] at the top of the piano, that tremolando, I’m like, “Don’t do that!”
EI: I agree, of course…
FH: Maybe I would do that once a year, you know, but I’d beat myself up for doing it.
But Erroll Garner, also a totally complete piano player. His thing was piano solo with rhythm accompaniment. It was not a converational trio in that way. But I have quite a substantial collection of his records, and he’s another one who really played the whole piano. I mean, apparently he had hands like baseball mitts, gigantic hands. Many of those guys did — Eubie Blake. I met Eubie Blake; he gave me his business card, I’ll show it to you.
EI: You mentioned George Shearing: you knew him, and he wrote a piece dedicated to you.
FH: I knew him a bit. I used to go up to his house, and we would play the Bach D minor concerto together on his two pianos. And his wife sang lieder, so I would hack through some Brahms, or some Schumann, back in the days when I could read, which I don’t really do anymore.
He was one of the guys who heard me at Bradleys, you know, “Come down and hear the kid!” I was twenty-one or two, and he was very, very nice. He said, “Well, you should come up for tea.” So of course I did, and I met his wife, Elly. He was the first person to give me business advice, and he kind of hooked me up with a little booking agent guy who got me like one gig, but he tried…
EI: Did you hear any of his records growing up, or have any awareness of him as a player?
FH: No, I didn’t. I was only aware of his sort of later stuff, and I like the ones that are just the weirdest. Like there’s a George Shearing and Carmen McRae record, which is kind of great, and really weird, because apparently she was a bitch at the sessions. She was really unpleasant. She was in one of her really nasty phases, but I think it’s an interesting record, you know.
EI: Certainly had a marvelous touch, I would say.
FH: He did; very light. And then once again, the time was not very well rooted; his time was a little skittish.
EI: Probably hearing him play a solo ballad or something was the best thing.
FH: And in fact he played a couple songs on this benefit album for Classical Action, the Richard Rogers Centennial Jazz Piano Album, and his ballad playing is just perfect. He came in, one take, just pearly, beautiful sound, rich chords, that was the take.
EI: I think that the bebop cats respected his harmonic knowledge. Cats like Cedar Walton, guys like that, I think all checked out some Shearing in the 50s, when he had some of those hit records.
FH: Yeah, he was a really first-rate musician, and he was always very kind to me. I visited him a couple times towards the end.
EI: Someone else we just lost was Clare Fischer.
FH: Yeah, I have some Clare Fischer albums. Back in the early 70s in Cincinnati, I was playing a lot of Rhodes, and he had this group called Salsa Picante. Fischer really knew his Latin rhythms, and surrounded himself with the top LA Latin cats. I really got excited about Latin music by listening to those records. And he got the best Fender Rhodes sound — I don't know how the hell he did it. And I definitely copped the idea of doing these ten-note chords and burying a dissonance in there somewhere, which is kind of the principle cool thing he did.
EI: I just thought of something I haven’t in years: In high school, I heard an interview with him with Ben Sidran. Fischer was talking about some pop arrangement he did, probably for Prince or somebody, and he was saying that he had two flutes, but he made sure that one was a little flatter than the other.
FH: You can hear that on the Salsa Picante records, everything’s just a little sideways, you know Paul Bley was the other guy of that generation, I mean on the other side of the spectrum, who had a huge influence on me.
EI: So how did you hear Bley?
FH: Well, as I said, I used to go to Mole’s record exchange, and half of my LPs, I have a couple thousand of them here, half of them say two dollars, or one dollar. And so, I would see a piano player on the cover, and I would just buy it, you know? I mean, I knew some cats, but a lot of things would come through, and I wouldn’t know who was who, and I’d just buy them, you know. And the deal was, if you bought it for two bucks and you took it back, you’d get a dollar back, so it wasn’t a huge investment. And so I bought Footloose, which totally knocked me out. So I started collecting all the early records. I have them all on vinyl: Some of them are on labels that don’t exist anymore, and some of them are on hideously out of tune pianos, and poorly recorded, but it’s great music. Also, there’s Live at the Hillcrest. That just knocked me out. Hearing Paul with Ornette, it’s like, “Oh, of course this makes sense.”
Also, I played a lot of Carla’s compositions with Art Farmer. He had two or three of those in his book. There’s a certain compactness that’s compelling.
Of course, Keith swiped oodles from Paul. Paul kind of cuts the space in a really beautiful way. It’s a little bit gooey, but also not, you know? And I feel like Bley, among the significant piano players, is one of the least neurotic piano players. It just sort of flows out, he doesn’t fuss with it, and it’s very alive.
EI: It’s vocal.
FH: That’s exactly right, and I think he’s done himself a great disservice by doing some of those Steeplechase records, you know, which are mostly just not good or up to the level of his early stuff.
EI: Well, some of them are good, I have to say… [laughs]
FH: Well, there’s so many of them, it’s hard to tell what the good ones are…
EI: He hasn’t curated his career.
FH: No. And he does only one take of everything, and no rehearsals, and that’s all well and good, but when you compare them with his really great stuff, it’s like “meh?” And I know he’s not getting rich off of them. Even the Paul Bley plays Carla Bley one on Steeplechase, I expected like, “Oh man, this is going to be great!” and it was only OK.
EI: I agree, that one was disappointing. Of the ones that I know, there’s BeBopBeBopBeBopBeBop, with Bob Cranshaw and Keith Copeland. If you can appreciate the meta qualities of it, it’s definitely incredible. And I grew up with one with Billy Hart and Ron McClure, The Nearness of You.
On the other hand, Footloose wasn’t available when I was collecting records in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But all of the cats of your generation had a profound experience with Footloose; it sort of opened up something.
FH: Footloose knocked me out; but also Open to Love. And then Facing You.
EI: OK, so say something about Keith.
FH: My introduction to him was Bremen and Lausanne. That was back when each ECM release was an event. You’d hear, “Oh, Dave Holland’s got Conference of the Birds coming out,” and you’d lay for it until you could go buy it.
I would get high and listen to Bremen and Lausanne. I’d come from playing James Taylor and Joni Mitchell tunes, and from the American folk song tradition. It seemed to bring all of this stuff together, with that famous ECM sound and that beautiful box with the green lettering and everything. And then I heard Facing You, which was a serious, like, “Wow!”
And it’s funny, when I listen to Facing You now, actually the sound is not that amazing. It’s a very close mic piano sound, not the deluxe ECM sound we’ve come to expect. But what energy!
And I certainly have all of the Atlantic American Quartet records, and I listened to them. I have the thing they did with orchestra, Expectations. Another one of Keith’s records that I adore is Belonging, with the Swedish cats; I adore that record. His playing on Kenny Wheeler’s Gnu High is brilliant.
When the standards trio first started, I bought those, but quite frankly, I got a bit tired of it. Once in a while I’ll buy one, like every five years I’ll buy one, you know. But you know, hearing him playing “Whisper Not” or some bebop tune, it’s just not right. Like the rhythm section and the way he was playing is not right somehow.
The only time to me he got that right was At the Deerhead Inn, with Paul Motian and Gary. That’s actually really swinging, even though his playing is a bit self-indulgent! Now, my feeling about that Standards Trio is that it’s tired. It’s time to do something else, like write some music, or do… something. It’s a cash cow, it is what it is, but I mean, they’ve been playing for 25 years, they don’t even have an ending for anything yet!
FH: How many times can you do a vamp, 3-6-2-5, 3-6-2-5? Live at the Blackhawk is one thing, but come on, it’s 2012, you’ve been doing this a long time. How about an arrangement maybe, or something?
EI: [breaks down in laughter] Oh, wow… The truth hurts!
Did you ever hear Keith with Charles Lloyd? Those records?
FH: Well, yeah. Forest Flower is another one, where right out of the gate ,it’s like, “Who is this?” Keith’s solo on “Forest Flower” is like, “Wow!” I had never heard chops like that before. He was SO virtuosic in that band.
EI: Ok, let’s go back. There was somebody older I wanted to talk about. Oh, Brubeck. What do we feel about Brubeck, really?
FH: We don’t feel about Brubeck, sad to say. I mean, for a guy who arguably has sold more records than any other Jazz pianist in Jazz history, I don’t think he’s influenced much of anybody. It’s a void.
EI: It doesn’t exist for us, it’s a strange thing where of course we all probably checked him out at a certain point, but then...
FH: Yeah, I remember the one album I had, which was, I think, Time Further Out, and I thought it was cool, but you know, it never… I always found it very stiff, and if it wasn’t for Paul Desmond, it wouldn’t be that interesting to me.
EI: Yeah, I think that’s what we always say — we love Paul Desmond, but we don’t need the all of the piano solos.
FH: And on all of the odd-metered tunes, he soloed in four.
EI: For all the rep of inventing odd meters, he is uncomfortable in mixed meter.
FH: Yeah, and he’s been making records for 60 years, and has sold however many bazillion records, and I don’t know anybody he’s influenced. He never comes up in interviews (except for you).
EI: Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor have both said something about him, but only as an early, gateway influence.
FH: I first heard Cecil on a live album recorded at some university in Ohio — Spring of Two Bluejays. Wow! Still kills me.
EI: I loved Brubeck so much at one point that I’m sure he’s an influence on certain things that I do, much more than Cecil, for example. I also realize that’s sort of something that many people wouldn’t want to admit.
FH: It’s your dirty little secret. Yeah, I just never connected with it, you know? He was just sort of there.
EI: Interesting. Yeah, for me, that trilogy, Time Out, Time Further Out, and Countdown: Time in Outer Space, was just sensational. They were what my Aunt and Uncle had, so they were my first jazz records, and I just drank them in so deeply. And there are times that I wish that they’d had a Bud Powell record instead.
But Time Out will always be a canonical record. You can definitely draw a line from Time Out to The Bad Plus.
FH: If you say so! One of my top five influences is definitely Sonny Rollins. And I tell every student that the Sonny Rollins Trio's A Night at the Village Vanguard: That is the definition of Jazz! Listen to it for two weeks, and don’t listen to anything else.
Sonny is so much my idol. In some ways, he is the ultimate Jazz musician. That ballad that he plays on Alfie - it is just heartbreaking. And on the title track, his solo is simply titanic, awesome. The range and breadth, and the humanity, and intelligence, and technique, and slickness, and unbelievable use of rhythm, and spontaneity, Sonny has everything. And no diss on John Coltrane, or whoever else, but Sonny to me always makes me happy. I always love hearing Sonny, and I’m very passionate about him as an improviser.
And it’s really trippy: on this new trio album, just off the cuff, we played “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise.” And he recorded that on the original Night at the Village Vanguard in 1957, and I know, I’ve listened to that cut I don’t know how many times, and I played just right hand alone, and I was just kind of channeling Sonny, and I just thought, “How weird my life is, that I’m here doing this with my picture over there on the far wall and his picture over here on the wall nearest the piano, and I’m playing this song that he recorded all of these years ago; so trippy.” And it’s going to be on the record. It’s a really nice track, but that’s all I was thinking of, was just to get that kind of feeling he got.
Growing up, I didn’t transcribe, but I would sit and do what I would retroactively call channeling. Say I’d listen to McCoy Tyner for a week on end, or three weeks or something like that, just McCoy McCoy McCoy, and I’d sit at the piano and just try to imitate him, or play some tunes that he might play, but try to play them in his way, but it wasn’t about playing the notes, I didn’t care so much about playing his notes, but I wanted to try to think like him.
I would do that with Ahmad Jamal, or Paul Bley, or Bill Evans, or Herbie Hancock, or Chick, or any of my idols. You know, and I would immerse myself in their work, and they would be on heavy rotation, all their shit, for a couple weeks, and then if I was in Cincinnati, if I had my little trio gig, I might bring a tune in, or call a tune that was associated with them, and see if I could just work that out on my own. So it was kind of imitating, but I’d like to think like it was more kind of putting myself where they were. Just trying to think how they’d thought, and get it out in their style. But I think what saved me was that I never got hooked on one person too long, you know. If I got too into Bill Evans, then I’d go to McCoy or Chick. I never got to clone anybody. I just kept mixing it up, you know, it’s like a big dinner party, and you serve different courses. But I’ve never transcribed. Maybe I should have, but I never did.
EI: Well, let’s go back to some word association: Red Garland.
FH: Laid back. I mean, I always think of him—whether he was or not—I think of him as one of the ultimate junkie pianists. Everything’s so laid back. When I listen back now, the block chords, they don’t really sound very good to me. They did back when I was first learning, and of course, I have I don’t know how many dozens of Miles albums, so Red Garland is on all of those Prestige albums.
EI: Contrast Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.
FH: I always liked Wynton more. I mean, I think Wynton had what I call happy time, you know, just made me feel good. It had a little “pop” to it. Not that Red didn’t really play great. I mean, look at “Billie Boy.” There are a lot of great Red Garland tracks. But Wynton, there was a directness - not easy, but kind of an ease, a simplicity. And I think, you know, certainly Herbie Hancock, as far as his time, owes a lot to Red Garland, as he does to Bill Evans.
EI: Let’s talk about Bill Evans.
FH: The pianist in Cincinnati who let me sit in was a Bill Evans nut, so I heard “Waltz for Debby,” and then I got the Village Vanguard sessions, and I wore those out, you know. That was such magic. And so I got to know Bill’s catalogue, and as I got older, and as he got older, and as I heard him live a few times, I think when he was doing the Village Vanguard sessions, he was strung out on smack, and he had actually, I have to say, a killer sound, beautiful. There is this kind of hesitancy and connection in the music. And as he got older and did more coke, and he went through periods where he sounded kind of bored, and things were rushing a lot, and the recorded sound is kind of in your face and not very nice.
Certainly he was an early big influence, but you know, no more so than Monk. It’s just that the Monk influence maybe took a little longer to come out.
EI: When I’m checking out Bill now, I’m struck by the fact that he really did put something that’s scalar in the music. Even to the extent that the lines themselves have this perspective of scales interacting; not like Charlie Parker, but more like modality inside of conventional tunes.
FH: Yeah, I can see that. Shifting harmonic colors, scale-wise rather than in the more "be-boppy" tradition, where you describe the chords by weaving around them. Bill kind of goes through them with colors.
And of course, if you listen to Bud Powell’s left hand, it’s a lot lower than Bill Evans’ left hand. By raising his left hand up off the keyboard, he freed the bass. And also, the one thing that I absolutely took from Bill, and from Herbie as well, is left hand placement. Somebody said to me, “Bill Evans is a bebop player with voice-leading.” It’s not far from the truth. But it was the way the hands interacted that interested me the most, the way that he would use the left hand to shape the phrase in the right hand, or move just one pitch just so. I really thought that was pretty great.
If you listen to his left hand versus Wynton Kelly’s left hand, it’s different.
Billy Hart once told me, “if you want to know where to put your left hand, and you’re playing straight-ahead Jazz, listen to where Philly Joe Jones thumps the snare drums, or hits the tom fill. Those are really good places to lay a chord down.” And that’s why Wynton was the pianist that Miles loved as a comper. He loved Bill, too. He didn’t love Herbie as much as a comper, although his comping is pretty admirable; but he always thought that Bill and Wynton knew his phrasing better, and could place things just so. And also, Bill had a beautiful sense of how to put out a melody, just like Sonny did, and just in this weird way, that Monk did.
EI: Right, sure.
FH: And Ahmad Jamal, if you want to talk about how to play a melody, I mean, Jesus. It’s unbelievable what he does with a melody. He makes you hear a melody that he’s not even actually playing, he’s so good at it!
EI: [laughs] That’s the truth!
FH: But how to set a tune, and as you know, I mean, I can be old fashioned, if you will, but if you’re going to play a tune, learn the tune. Learn the lyrics. Go to the Jerome Kern Songbook, or whatever composer from American Popular Song; see what’s there. It might give you an insight as to how you want to approach this tune, what key you want to play it in, what tempo you want to play it in. But look at the damn thing. It’s not just notes in a Real Book, it's a song.
EI: Right, exactly.
FH: It has words. And all the guys back then, they knew the songs. Whether or not they played the melody straight, you know they knew how to do it if you asked them.
I happen to be a big Chet Baker fan, because once again, he’s an example of somebody who has a fabulous sound. He doesn’t play a lot of notes, but his phrasing is so intelligent and unexpected. I love the Russ Freeman quartet stuff - that period of Chet.
Those are beautiful examples of “singing” solos. They’re really intelligent, and beautiful, and based on sonority and connection to the melody. I think people really sleep on him, but he was a badass.
EI: At the other end of the spectrum was Lennie Tristano.
FH: I’ve listened to Tristano. I can’t say it’s a particular influence, although I did write a tune or two in the style of those Warne Marsh/Lee Konitz tunes.
I kind of tried to like it, but I never really did. Plus, I kind of knew that he was kind of dogmatic: the bass will do this, and the drums will do this, and you will not do this, and I got kind of turned off by that, tell you the truth. But I have the records, although I can’t say, “Oh, let me go home, and listen to Lennie Tristano now.”
FH: Not really a big thing. But I certainly checked him out. A lot of it is pretty interesting, and maybe there’s some slight influence there, but he wasn’t somebody that I really dug hard, you know.
EI: I’m still getting into him, after many years of back and forth.
What about Herbie?
FH: Oh, Herbie, I mean, I love Herbie!
EI: I feel like for your generation, Herbie is sort of the ultimate cat.
FH: He’s the consummate Jazz guy of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He had the fattest time, he was very pianistic, he had a beautiful imagination, and was a strong composer to boot. With that great rhythm section of Ron and Tony, he would leave space, and then he would just kind of cascade things into it. And beautiful impressionist harmony, but always rhythmically delivered beautifully. A very fine composer. Maybe my favorite record of his is Speak Like a Child; I think that’s just beautiful. I don’t know if Thad Jones had a hand in arranging that, but it’s really great.
Great sense of swing, and as I said, harmonically, he managed to deliver very complex harmony and be very organic about it. Like Tommy Flanagan, he was just playing what occurred to him, that he hadn’t worked out all of those chords. The way he played them made me think that he was just hearing it and playing it, that there was a really direct connection. It was very inspiring.
When I came to New York, there were more McCoy clones than Herbie clones.
FH: There were many more of them. And then there were some Chick Corea clones — the big three. But the Herbie clone thing lasted longer. I was listening on the radio on WBGO the other day, and it was some singer, and the piano player sounded so much like Herbie. It was like, he lifted all of Herbie’s greatest licks, and I thought, “Oh, that’s sad, just sad.”
Chick: I happened by Now He Sings Now He Sobs; I had never heard of it, and that was another “Jesus, what was that?” record. Like, “whoa.” I mean, I heard Light as a Feather and I heard that, and that was like, “That was the same guy?” And I got one called Inner Space, a two CD set, which is a really nice set and on there is a piece for flute, bassoon and piano, like a classical piece, which is really kind of nice. And you know, I certainly followed him a lot for a while, but certainly only to the point that he started going into the Elektric band and the Akoustic band, and “Captain Marvel” and “Leprechaun” whatever… and I haven’t bought a Chick record in 30 years.
He’s in there somewhere. But I hear Chick’s influence more in, like you said, Richie Beirach, or Joanne Brackeen, than myself.
EI: It’s funny. Chick’s lines are thornier than McCoy’s, but paradoxically squarer than McCoy’s, do you know what I mean?
FH: Chick is basically early McCoy, a bit of Bud Powell and a lot of Latin music, if you have to reduce it.
EI: He has this truly incredible facility at the instrument.
FH: Oh, he does.
EI: Unbelievable facility. But even when he plays out, I hear the grids going along in a way that I don’t hear when I hear McCoy.
FH: He’s never had a touch or a sound that invited me in. Some people’s sounds I just connect with, and I find him more admirable than enjoyable, whereas Herbie I can really enjoy, and early McCoy I can really enjoy, and a lot of Keith, if I put aside who he is, I can really enjoy it. But other than those first early records that I bought, I don’t find Chick particularly enjoyable.
EI: There’s something off-putting there, I agree. But he’s one of those guys who is the quintessential jam musician, who can show up and play with anybody.
FH: And sound great.
EI: And sound great. Despite the Akoustic band and everything else, he has something where he could show up anywhere in the world at a jam session, and not only would he play incredible, everyone else would play better too.
What about people just before your peer group, someone like Steve Kuhn.
FH: I have some Steve Kuhn albums that I really love. I remember picking one with Steve Swallow up at Mole’s Record Exchange, going home and saying, “Wow, this is really distinctive.” I’ve seen him live a number of times, and we know each other to say hello.
EI: He was almost in there with Keith at one point.
FH: He was, and he was playing with Coltrane, before McCoy.
EI: The other guy I think about is Denny Zeitlin.
FH: Right. Well, Denny Zeitlin I dug a lot heavier. I mean, I have all of Denny’s albums. To me, he had all of the Bill Evans-like intelligence, but he wasn’t afraid to go a little further out there. Even so, you can tell that he’s a doctor. There’s something that can be, you know, a little “at a distance” from it. But he’s still making really good records. I just heard a solo album of his — it’s really very creative, and very commanding. I mean, he’s a seriously great pianist.
EI: Yeah, he’s a virtuoso.
FH: And he’s a very nice guy. Steve, when I hear him now, it just sounds very stubborn — “I can play, but I’m not really going to. I’m going to play, but I’m not going to give it up.” But those early Kuhn records, I’d have to look up which ones they are. There was a really refreshing, like, “it’s not quite anybody else” quality about it. But he is definitely interesting.
EI: Well, the one that I grew up with, you could have been at the gig, was one with Ron and Al at the Vanguard, Life’s Magic. I love that record!
FH: See, I don’t know that one.
EI: I feel like I’m not thinking of somebody in that sixties crew. Stanley Cowell? Did you ever check him out?
FH: Yeah, I have a couple Stanley records, as a sideman on a couple things. I think he’s pretty cool. I think he wrote some nifty tunes.
EI: He does that mirror thing — are you hip to that? He has some of those tunes where he plays the whole solo in this mad, mirrored style.
FH: He was an interesting player. Kenny Barron has remained a little more active. He always had a little bigger name and better business sense, better management. A perfect combination of early McCoy and Tommy Flanagan; really elegant.
EI: One time, you told me about digging John Hicks.
FH: I heard John Hicks I don't know how many times at Bradley’s. He was a huge talent, but just a victim of his addictions - he was always smashed. He was a really great musician, and unfortunately he would always play with Walter Booker, who was his coke dealer, and it was coke and cognac all night, and it’s really hard to play music like that.
EI: [laughs] Yeah…
FH: Kirk Lightsey was another one at Bradley’s. Kirk Lightsey I like a lot. I first heard him when I drove down from Boston with Michael Moore in ‘75, to hear Dexter’s return to New York at the Vanguard with Lightsey, Woody Shaw, Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden. Hearing Dexter, I mean, god, I’ve never heard anything like that.
And Kirk and I got to be friends in the Bradley’s scene, and now he’s lived in Paris for eons. But he was a really nice guy. We’d spend time just sitting at the piano at Bradleys, just showing each other shit. He was very, very nice.
Hicks was nice, too. I mean, all those guys were really nice to me. I don’t know how many of them knew I was gay. I’m sure they probably figured it out, but nobody talked trash or got weird. I remember many nights at Bradley’s with Woody Shaw, we’d be hanging out late, and we’d play duets, and we’d get into talking about this or that or the other. And I think Wynton came onto the scene, and that kind of destroyed Woody, because he was like the Columbia Records number one Jazz trumpet, and then it was like, “Woody who?” But there are so many records, like Larry Young’s Unity, that are so great.
Woody Shaw had a thinner sound than Miles, but he compensated by playing more notes and making different note choices. He never really had that fat Miles or Freddie Hubbard sound. And it’s the same way with Chick and Herbie and Keith. Chick has the thinner sound, so it leads to more notey-ness. Herbie had that fat sound, so he could play, or leave space, or not. And what he played had a certain gravitas; where Chick would play a lot of notes, Herbie could play two phrases, and kill you.
Sound is not about decibel levels. It’s not about pushing to the bottom of the key, or banging, or a lot of weight. It’s a question of clarity, finding the sweet spot, and being able to play horizontally. It’s not about brute force. Sometimes, when you hit a note with brute force, psychologically, it decays faster. And sometimes when you hit the sweet spot, and the attack isn’t so ridiculous, it has the effect of seeming to be longer. So it’s a paradox. I mean, Chick’s playing is very crisp, but McCoy’s playing has more depth. Keith is kind of more gooey, in a way, which is what he got from Bley — the goo. And then McCoy has a more straight-ish eighth note, but maybe with a little more warmth—at least in the beginning—than Chick did.
I wish Jimmy Rowles recorded more. I’d like there to be more of him in the world. Rowles Plays Ellington is a beautiful album. Most of his stuff is unavailable or people don’t know it. HE was a really great piano player. He was very nice to me; he let me sit in at Bradley’s, and even got me nights of full subbing. I knew he played every Sunday night, and he was living with a vocalist, Carol Sloan, in the Village. I was no dummy — I learned to be home late afternoon/early evening every Sunday that I could be, because one out of three times, I’d get a call from Carol: “Jimmy’s not feeling very well. Could you cover him tonight?” So, I’d go to Bradley’s and fill in for Jimmy, because he was hung over, or whatever, and it’d either be Bob Cranshaw or Major Holley. Cranshaw said, “Never tell me what tune you’re playing. I wanna figure it out, that’s the fun for me, so just play.” And he’d always get it by the second chorus. Always.
Jimmy told me about what I call “saloon tempos.” Right in there. Now, young players play slow, medium and fast. That’s it. They don’t get into the “between the cracks” tempos.
One night, I was listening to Jimmy Rowles from a few feet away. He had a beautiful way of playing a melody. I mean, really fabulous. He started with a ballad, and then he modulated and went into another ballad, and then he modulated and played another ballad, and then he went into the fourth one. And he could tell that I was waiting for the “jazz.” And then he leaned over to me, and said, in this gravelly voice I can’t possible imitate, “Sometimes I just like to play melodies.”
Now, at my own performances, I’ll play the melody of “Lotus Blossom” or “Valentine” as an encore. I don’t have to blow on it.
People who improvise on “Lush Life” are nuts. Why? Sing the song and get off the stage! I mean, Coltrane did it, with the wrong note and all…
FH: I wish Art Lande had more available recordings. Art’s one of my very best buddies, and he’s a fantastic pianist. One of the greatest teachers of music I’ve ever encountered. He could teach anybody.
EI: I think that Rowles and Lande have something similar in their mysterious pedaling.
FH: Hmmmmm! Jimmy definitely had a thing, where he would grab a note, like from a distance. Jaki taught me a lot about pedaling, too; Jaki was really good with pedals. I used to hear Ran Blake when I was at New England Conservatory. He’s the master of pedals. That guy can do more with pedals than almost anybody I know. I used to sit in Jordan Hall and go, “How the fuck did he do that?” And he still can do that. I mean, he doesn’t play Jazz in the traditional sense, but just, all sorts of half pedal, quarter pedal, weird sonorities, playing chords and leaving a couple notes behind, you know.
FH: Back to Art Lande: he’s just a real magician. And talk about non-neurotic. Whatever comes into his head: he’ll start reciting poetry, or start making up nonsense words. I’ve heard him play the piano with his left hand and play a ride cymbal with his right hand. He does all kinds of stuff. And he lives in Boulder with all his buddies, and they know what to expect and can get into it with him. It’s not just notes; it’s like theater and events, and words. We’ve played some two piano gigs, and I’ll read a poem, and he’ll do improvisation, and then he’ll read a poem and I’ll improvise. We do what we call “Ballad ping-pong,” where I play a ballad, just the melody, and then he’ll play one, and than I’ll play one and he plays one, and I’ll play one. Because he and I both know a lot of tunes. He knows even more than I do, because he grew up with it, out on Long Island. He grew up with Jazz, and learned all of those tunes really young from his parents, record collections, stuff like that. But I wish there was more of him recorded. Because there isn’t. There’s a wonderful record called The Eccentricities of Earl Dant that’s a tour de force of really amazing hand independence. But it’s totally out of print.
Sir Roland Hanna is someone I’ve listened to a lot. A great solo player; he inspired me to want to play solo concerts. He was very supportive.
EI: I remember a blindfold test where you correctly recognized one of his classical piano pieces.
FH: Right. They’re actually published now. His wife, Rowina, got them together.
You know, he was at his best solo. He was never a great band piano player, although I first heard him with Thad and Mel, and he was good in that situation. But in a small group, he played too much, like Tatum, or Oscar Peterson, for that matter. But he encouraged me to look at classical literature, and learn pieces, and he pushed me to play my very first solo concert I ever played, in 1979 at what was then called The Kool Jazz Festival that succeeded the Newport in New York Festival.
EI: Do you remember anything Roland Hanna said about classical music?
FH: Well, he was very passionate about it, and he could actually play some of it; he could play some big pieces. I remember going to his house, and just talking with him about the piano and what it could do, and you know, bringing that sensibility into your Jazz playing. And I heard him play many times. I have a solo album of his that’s really beautiful, although I can’t remember the name. It was very inspiring at one point of my life, because he was really incorporating classical elements in an interesting way. It could be a little pretentious, but not a whole lot; it felt pretty organic.
EI: In a way, it was more relaxed than John Lewis.
FH: Oh, a whole lot more.
EI: Lewis could be a little Type A about everything.
FH: John Lewis is someone I never really checked out. It’s not that I found it lightweight; I just kind of said, “OK, when’s something going to happen?”
EI: [laughs] I have things I really love of John Lewis’s now, but he’s an acquired taste, to be sure.
FH: But one thing we haven’t talked about is all the work that I’ve done with vocalists, and listening to vocalists. And you know, I consider myself very well versed in Jazz singing, and I’ve listened to a lot of the great sides, and own a lot of them. And I remember a comment you made years ago: you said, “You’re the only cat I know who actually listens to jazz singers for fun!”
EI: Ha! You and now Mike Kanan, too. Honestly, I often prefer cabaret singers to jazz singers.
FH: Well, the great ones are just unbelievably great. Just getting the phrasing alone...
If you know the words to a song, it’s easier to memorize. Although I didn’t study with him formally, Ran Blake had me do an ear training exercise at New England: he gave me three Billie Holiday tunes, saying, “I want you to learn how to sing along with her — exactly, precisely.” And that’s really hard to do! Her sense of time was impeccable, and also really illogical, in a way. So that was a really great exercise.
I also love Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, and Sassy. I heard Sarah and Carmen live; that was so great. I also love some neglected Jazz singers: Anita O’Day, Irene Kral and Blossom Dearie; Andy Bey. I even like some early Rosie Clooney and Mark Murphy.
EI: I’ve always liked Blossom Dearie.
FH: Yeah, she’s hip.
I think it’s affected my piano playing: my love of the voice, and my love of melody, and my love of songs.
I always tell my kids, “Play with singers! You’re going to end up playing in different keys, you’ll play different tunes, and you’ll have to learn to be flexible.” You’ll have to play, say, two A sections rubato before going into tempo on the bridge. You have to know when to wait, when to push. If they move along, you can’t play that hip chord progression you thought you could play there, because they’re ahead of you. Or sometimes, they’ll just leave space, and you’ll have to do something.
I think it has really helped me in my instrumental duos, how to orchestrate behind a singer or a horn player in a way that’s supportive and interesting — but it’s not going to take over.
What else do you want to ask me? Being gay in the Jazz world? I think I’ve talked about that a little bit.
EI: Say some more!
FH: I don’t think anybody’s hesitant to give me a hug in a jazz club because they think I’m going to cop a feel or anything! Scott and I are a couple, and everybody knows him, and it’s not a big deal. But then again, we live in New York, and not in the hinterlands or somewhere, so I’m lucky for that. But you know, I don’t really think you can play who you are if you’re ashamed of part of who you are. But I don’t walk into rooms saying, “Hi, I’m Fred, and I’m gay, and by the way, I play Jazz!”
FH: I’m Fred, I try to be hopefully a decent person who plays piano, and plays Jazz, and writes music, who happens to be gay, and who happens to have HIV/AIDS. That’s the file folder.
Certainly my health has taken center stage in my life at times. It’s been very scary, but these days I’m pretty fine, after my coma and rehab and other scary events.
There was a Jazz piano player who I don’t know if I should name, who passed away a few years ago; it might of been from AIDS. He was closeted, and I think because he was closeted, his music was closeted. His music suffered because he wasn’t open. Everybody knew, but he never really made the leap. In a way, I’m kind of like the gay jazz musicians’ den mother, the first guy to talk about it and come out about it in a big way. I remember a couple years after I came out in a big way in the media – Jazz mags, gay mags, Newsweek, CNN. Gary Burton called me up, and said, “I’ve been working with Marc Johnson, and I think I’m gay, and he told me to talk to you.”
And there are others. I keep getting letters from people, you know, young musicians who are gay, or people who have HIV or AIDS who want to know what impact it’s had on me. When I came out about that in ’93 in a huge way, big mainstream media and all that, people said, “You’re going to kill your career, people aren’t going to book you for next year, because you’re going to be dead.” And I said, “Well, if it is, it is. It’s too important for me not to say this. Maybe if I can give people the courage to be who they are…” Because there was a great young Jazz pianist in Houston called Dave Catney and he died at age 32, and he always thought that if he got sick, his family would help him, and in the end they disowned him, and gave him no money. He died owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. His father didn’t come to his memorial service; his mother came in a wig and sunglasses. It was tragic, and he kept holding on to hope that they would come through with him. And I really talked him through the last six months. I was on the phone with him every other day. And I said, “Dave, you have to face reality here. God forbid you pass away, you have to tell your parents where you’re at, and try to have some closure, one way or the other.” It was a few days before he died that he finally said to his father, “Hey, Dad, I’ve got something I’ve got to talk to you about.”
And the father said, “Dave, I told you, we’re not going to discuss your lifestyle.”
And Dave said, “Bye, Dad, I love you.” And a couple days later, he died.
That’s so profoundly sad. In the early 90s when people were dropping like flies, I said to Dave, “Look, in your own self interest, you need to come out, because you don’t know who’s going to be there when the chips are down! Just save your own ass. And you’ll be surprised that certain friends will really stand up, and family will be there for you, but in other cases they won’t be. But you have to learn early, because if you’re sick, you’ve gotta know who you can count on."
But also as an artist, you have to be who you are. People who are homophobic say, “Fred plays pretty because he’s gay.” Well, they don’t fucking listen to my music! I’ve done a lot of stuff that’s not just pretty ballads.
EI: If you try to take the gay guys out of important American art in the 20th century, you’re really hurting! Of course, there are some awesome straight dudes, and women, too, of course... but if you take away the gay men, you’re in serious trouble if you want to write that history.
FH: I know!
One time the jazz writer Howard Mandel said to me, “You know, the AIDS thing is really good for your career.”
EI: Jesus Christ…
FH: I turned around and said, “Yeah, deadly diseases are great for business. Fuck you.”
UPDATE: Howard Mandel states, "I have no memory of ever having said such a thing, I have had little discussion with Fred over the years with the exception of one panel discussion at the Vanguard in which he was on the panel, I in the audience. In that instance I recall that put my foot in my mouth but not with this particularly odious comment. I do not know of any instances in which AIDS has been good for anything."
It’s fine if Mandel didn’t like some record I made, of course. Everybody’s output is uneven. Bob Hurwitz at Nonesuch told me, “If you have a career and you make five great albums, classic albums, consider yourself one one-hundredth of one percent.” Nobody hits it out of the park every time; it’s just not possible. You can’t do it every set, you can’t do it every gig, you can’t do it every time in the studio, it’s just not possible. You can play what’s there, and if it all lines up, then maybe you have something. Patience is an important factor – and you have to be willing to make a mess in search of something great.
Too many young musicians are in a hurry. They’re not even out of undergraduate school, and they have websites, they have CDs, they have e-commerce, they have t-shirts, and all kinds of shit. Back in my day, you had to be on a label to make records.
EI: Bill Evans wasn’t that young when he made New Jazz Conceptions.
FH: Yeah, he was 28. And I was 29 or 30 when I made Horizons.
EI: We usually celebrate the young athlete, but there is another argument for being a late bloomer.
To bring it back to your peers, Fred, there were some interesting pianists that are pretty much of your generation. What are some records from your immediate peers that made an impact?
FH: Well, Jim McNeely made a quartet record with John Scofield called The Plot Thickens that was an influence. I actually put that record on not too long ago, and it’s a weird record! It’s compositionally very cool, and I actually wrote one tune in imitation of Jim back then. Really well executed, and that was before John Scofield became John Scofield, before he went with Miles. There’s this loop that the soloists play over on one of the tunes, and I said, “Oh, that's cool, you don’t have to play on the whole form, you can have interludes,” or whatever. Techniques I use on many of my tunes now. And I had heard that Jim had studied composition in Illinois, and obviously he’s become a very significant composer for jazz orchestra. That didn’t really surprise me, based on The Plot Thickens. And Mike Nock, too, but he’s much older than me; Mike’s 70 now. Mike was a really good buddy, and always really encouraging to me as a composer. I really liked his writing, and I probably wrote a couple pieces in those days that were heavily influenced by him. I remember a record called Climbing.
EI: I had one on Inner City, with Michael Brecker, George Mraz and Al Foster. In, Out and Around.
FH: That one, too. The tunes are clear, and the forms are nice.
But Mike Nock, Jim McNeely, Armen Donelian, Andy Laverne, Joanne Brackeen, Phil Markowitz, they were established, great musicians in the class ahead of me. I came to New York and started banging on the same doors, I wanted those gigs. I thought that I deserved to play with the greatest cats — I don’t know what this says about me... I may have been a tad arrogant, but I realized no one was going to make this happen if I didn’t, so I just pushed and put myself out there. Also, people were more into having folks sit in. No one was doing the “I am only playing my originals” thing. We were all playing from the same repertoire.
EI: I guess you need a certain amount of confidence. When I interviewed McNeely, he said something a little similar, where he heard the piano player on record with a name band and said, “I can do that.” So Jim had the confidence to move to New York.
FH: A lot of things have changed, but if you know the tunes, you can still move to New York and meet like-minded musicians. You also need to be a nice guy to be around, be professional and prepared, and be versatile.
Yeah, I am a lucky guy. From getting to learn the music in the old-fashioned way, on the bandstand, and also coming to New York when I did. There weren’t young pianists coming out in droves from the jazz programs, and I was a bit more of a novelty. I had a good skill-set for a young cat. For a Midwestern Jewish kid, being gay in the jazz world to boot, I think I have done okay. And I want to just keep getting better.