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Fred Hirsch's Life In & Out of Jazz 

Fred Hirsch's Life In & Out of Jazz

Playing for Time
A young Fred Hersch and his brother Hank playing at home

In his new memoir, a celebrated jazz musician describes being gay & HIV-positive in a genre rife with straight machismo.

It is a truism of homosexual history in America that the gay male subculture was forced to grow up when the AIDS crisis developed. I saw this all around me and felt it myself. Suddenly, being gay was not only about having sex or enjoying the company of other men like you; it was about sickness and taking care of friends and lovers who were dying. When I was officially diagnosed as HIV-positive, drugs to treat it were still years down the road. To be HIV-positive was to be terminally ill.

Always career-oriented and serious about my work, I now made music with a fierce urgency. I finished one album and started the next one, with another project or two brewing on the side. In 1989, I released three albums, each exploring its own musical territory. The clock was ticking, and I wanted to express myself in as many musical ways as possible, wanting to be remembered. I was beginning to hit my stride as a writer of jazz tunes, and my range of compositional expression was widening. I was taking more and more chances on every level. And with the first selection on Heartsongs, George and Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love," I winked in the direction of my gay identity. Other than loving playing the song, I selected it--and its title--to make a statement, even though I didn't have a partner at that time and longed for one. After that, I decided, I would give up the winking. There would be no more innuendo.

In 1991 I began work on an album of original material for the Chesky record label, which I titled Forward Motion and saw very much as a statement of renewed purpose and new candor. Not knowing how much longer I would be around, I saw no reason to be in any kind of closet. Indeed, I would begin to reconcile my musical and personal selves in a public way. I was moving forward.


4-year-old Fred and his brother Mark

Musically, I was making a proclamation of my identification with AIDS. After the release of Forward Motion, I began the process of coming out more personally. I knew that it was just a matter of time before I spoke publicly about my sexual identity and HIV status. I was ready but nervous, fearful of coming off as publicity-hungry or self-pitying. But when I finally went ahead and revealed everything to the world, I was genuinely motivated by a desire to help others who were closeted about AIDS and being gay. I was also tired of the effort required to keep secrets. I was much less concerned about being ostracized by homophobes and those scared of AIDS, despite the warnings from gay friends. People were saying, "You really shouldn't do this. You're going to kill your career. Jazz is a club for macho guys. Nobody's going to book you for next season, because they think you're going to be dead by then." And I easily might have been.

I was out about everything to my family and close friends but not to the world. I had given it a lot of thought, that's for sure, but had always been afraid that straight musicians might not understand and that the music--and my reputation--would suffer as a result. I don't know how much sense this makes, but that is what I thought: When people are playing jazz music, creating something new and unique together spontaneously, it's extraordinarily intimate. If you're a pianist, you may have found the perfect bass player, finally, or the drummer of your dreams. Musicians get musical crushes on one another. Then you get to know that player personally and musically, and you realize, well, maybe you're not so compatible after all; or one of you changes over time. What happens is a lot like what goes on in any personal relationship.

At various times, certain straight jazz musicians who knew I was gay would say things like, "It's OK that you're gay--just don't hit on me," and I would think (or sometimes say to them), I don't need your permission. You think you're being open-minded and magnanimous here, but in fact you're not--and don't flatter yourself!


Fred, Hank, and their dad, July 1976

As I came out about being gay, I found myself speaking to others about the price of keeping that personal closet locked. Gary Burton, the innovative vibraphonist, heard about what I was doing. Divorced and living in Boston, he was playing with Marc Johnson,
the bassist who had recorded with me, and he told Marc, somewhat cryptically, that he was very interested in my situation. Marc gave him my phone number, and Gary called me out of the blue. He started the conversation in his characteristically direct manner: "Fred, this is Gary Burton, and I think I'm gay."

I said, "How does it feel for you to be talking about it?"

"It feels pretty great," he said. It wasn't long after that that Gary decided for sure that he was gay and came out in an interview in The Advocate.

Gary was a household name in jazz, and he could come out without sacrificing his reputation or his concert calendar. But there were others for whom this decision was much more fraught. There was a younger gay jazz musician in Texas named Dave Catney. He had come up slowly in and around Houston, playing lounge piano and small jazz venues, taking requests, and singing a tune sometimes. Dave played beautifully and began developing a personal style in the '90s, around the time he turned 30. He recorded two subtle, lyrical trio albums, and later a first-class solo record. On his debut, First Flight, he did a slow, somber version of "Put On a Happy Face" that teased out all the poignancy in the act of putting on a good front in the face of adversity. It could have been his leitmotif.

Dave had AIDS but had never really come out to his parents. In the early '90s I got to know him through his booking me at a small club in Houston where he was the artistic director, and we eventually became good friends. Despite being very thin, he was warm and boyish, good-looking, smart, and seriously talented--a total package with all the potential for success were it not for his health.


Fred today

Playing small clubs and the occasional jazz festival and recording for a minor local label, Dave never made a lot of money and was struggling mightily to pay for his medical treatment. He had no health insurance and couldn't actually afford to go to the hospital. But he was so beloved by the doctors and the hospital staff that they treated him anyway and just buried the cost of his numerous stays and medications in their accounting. As he got sicker and sicker, he and I grew closer. By late 1993 and into early '94, we were talking on the phone weekly. Over about six months, I talked him through what turned out to be the end of his life.

Dave had always assumed that if he fell on hard times, his parents would help him. But he was afraid to tell them what was really going on. They were obstinately intolerant--both homophobic and AIDS-phobic.

I told him, "Look, in your own self-interest, you need to come out, because you never know if your family will be there when the chips are down. You'll be surprised that certain friends will really stand up, and some people in your family may be there for you. But some people won't, for whatever reasons. So, you have to learn who's on your side, because if you really get sick, you have to know who you can count on."

Just a few days before he died, in August 1994, from his hospital bed, Dave mustered the strength to call his father, and he told me about the conversation when it was over. Dave said, "Dad, there's something I've got to talk to you about."

His father said, "Dave, I told you, we're not going to discuss your lifestyle choice."

And Dave simply said, "Bye, Dad. I love you."


His 1991 album Forward Motion

Dave died at 33, owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses, with no life insurance to cover any of it or pay for his funeral. His parents never laid out a cent--but they did spend a couple of thousand dollars to embalm him for a rosary service, despite his written wish to be cremated. His memorial celebration took place in the grand ballroom of the Wyndham Warwick Hotel in Houston. The room was packed; there was a gospel choir singing and every musician in town was there. But his father didn't show up, and his mother came in disguise, sitting in the back wearing oversize sunglasses and a wig.

Adapted from Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch and David Hajdu, available now through Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) 201

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