Cincinnati native Fred Hersch had just begun his acclaimed Jazz career when doctors diagnosed him with HIV in 1986. Hersch used the diagnosis as a platform for discussion and has subsequently raised funds and awareness for a variety of related organizations, all while becoming one of Jazz’s most revered and innovative pianists.
In 2008, Hersch was hospitalized with pneumonia and related infections that nearly silenced his considerable talent forever. With his life hanging in the balance, doctors placed him in a medically-induced coma.
“I had dementia, then I was in the coma for a couple of months,” Hersch says. “It wasn’t that long that I felt sick, but by then I was in septic shock. They had to stick a tube down my throat and hope for the best. It was a life changer.”
Post-coma, Hersch faced extraordinary challenges, including lessons on basic functions and relearning his craft.
“I was in in-patient rehab for a month, then had a lot of hard work to get back from being more or less helpless to being able to do all the things I do,” Hersch says. “Eat, walk and play the piano.”
With that frightening period behind him, Hersch is in good health and maintains a diligent regimen to stay that way.
“Clinically, I’m better than I’ve been in years; I have plenty of energy and a very busy performance schedule,” he says.
“It’s kind of miraculous.”
Currently, Hersch is supporting new projects, including the just-premiered piece inspired by his brush with mortality, a multimedia performance titled My Coma Dreams.
“It’s a full evening piece for an 11-piece ensemble, an actor/singer and a huge video/computer component,” Hersch says. “We have performances slated for San Francisco and possibly Berlin in the fall, but I expect the big performances won’t happen until the 2012-13 season. It’s complex and expensive to mount, and most arts presenters have set their seasons.”
Hersch continues to enjoy accolades for Whirl, which made most Jazz critics’ best-of-2010 lists. He’s also touting Alone at the Vanguard, his recent live CD documenting the last night of his December 2010’s six-night, 12-set solo run at New York’s legendary Jazz club, the Village Vanguard. (In 2006, he became the first pianist to perform solo in the club’s storied history.)
Hersch is clearly anticipating his Cincinnati return; he hasn’t played a concert or club date here in quite a while (he was slated to play the Oscar Treadwell tribute the year of his illness).“People seem to be buzzed about it,” Hersch says of his homecoming shows. “My one request was they had to bring in a piano, so they’re bringing in a Steinway. That’ll add a lot of class to the proceedings. I want it to sound great, because it’s the first time in so many years. My mom still lives there and I’ve maintained a lot of friendships, so it should be a very special week.”
FRED HERSCH plays the Blue Wisp Jazz Club Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11 (two shows each night). Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.