Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fred Hersch's Jazz Epiphany

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Given … [the] dramatic incidents in Mr. Hersch’s life, readers might be tempted to skip over the portions of this book dealing with the craft of music. That would be a mistake. Mr. Hersch belongs to that last generation of jazz performers who came of age learning the old-fashioned way, on the job and in the presence of the living masters instead of from a textbook or classroom assignment.

In these pages, he tells about gigging with Jo Jones Jr. in Greenwich Village, traveling on the bus with big-band star Woody Herman, partying with trumpeter Chet Baker and other rites of passage the likes of which do not exist for twentysomethings nowadays.

He also writes splendid impressionist essays on the essence of Thelonious Monk, the importance of rhythm in jazz, and the difference between an eighth note as played by Chick Corea (thin and bright), Herbie Hancock (fat and solid) and Fred Hersch (discrete, with space on each side, and with a distinctive pianistic color all its own).”
- Ted Gioia, “A Life Played By Ear,” Wall Street Journal, September 9-10, 2017

Although the word “epiphany” has Biblical origins, in the vernacular it generally means a moment of sudden revelation or insight. One slang definition for it is - An Ahah! Moment!!

For most Jazz musicians and Jazz fans, epiphany often means the moment when the music “spoke to them,” for as Louis Armstrong was fond of saying: “The music either speaks to you or it don’t.”

Over the years, I’ve conducted an informal survey of fellow Jazz musicians and fans and the range of starting points for when they first became interested in the music ranges from parents record collection to a random encounter with the music on an FM radio station that turned into a quest to hear more music by a particular artist.

In this excerpt from Fred Hersch's forthcoming memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz (Crown Archetype), the pianist recalls his introduction to jazz.

“I had my jazz epiphany on wintery night near the end of 1973.I had recently returned to my hometown of Cincinnati after one term at Grinnell College. There was a small club in town called the Family Owl, and I went in expecting to catch some bluegrass in the basement. At the entrance I noticed a sign that said "Live Jazz Upstairs." On a whim, I climbed the stairs to the second floor, where a local saxophone quartet was playing.

The leader was a tenor saxophonist named Jimmy McGary, a fiery little man in his forties with a reddish-gray beard. He was a strong player with a full tone and a hard-swinging feel. The bassist was a wiry guy of indeterminate age named Bud Hunt—a solid player not quite on McGary's level. The drummer was a hulking, mad-looking bear of a man named Grover Mooney. He played in the mode I would later associate with Elvin Jones, with a kind of rolling approach to time. The pianist, who didn't make much of an impression on me, was playing a Fender Rhodes.

There was no sheet music on the stage. The musicians seemed to be creating the music out of thin air. I was mesmerized.

On the break at the end of the set, I worked up my courage, went up to McGary, and asked if I could sit in. He said, "Know any tunes?"
I said, "I think I can play 'Autumn Leaves.'" McGary nodded, and when it was time to start the second set, he waved me oh. I took a seat at the Rhodes, trying to look casual about it, and played "Autumn Leaves." Actually, I overplayed it and messed up the form without knowing it. Adrenaline rushing, I went back to the bar.

After the set, McGary came up to me and said, "Come with me, kid." He brought me to a small break room in the back of the club. There was a table in the corner that held a portable record player and a few LPs stacked next to it. Jimmy lit a joint and passed it over to me. While I was taking my hit, he put the record on the turntable. "Now listen to this," he said. "Don't talk — just listen."

The LP was Ellington At Newport, the live recording of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Jimmy picked up the tone arm and dropped the needle on the second track of the second side: "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue," the number that made the performance a sensation, with 26 improvised choruses by the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. The energy was extraordinary, building with every chorus Gonsalves played. People were hooting and hollering like it was a rock concert. It was absolute hysteria. But beneath it all you could hear the fabric holding it all together, the shared sense of swing rhythm that brought the musicians together — the basic rhythm of jazz. At the end, Jimmy picked up the needle and looked me in the eye. "That's time," he said.

"Now, you have to have time. 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 can come back and play."

Later that week, I went to Mole's Record Exchange, a cluttered store in the university area that sold used albums for a buck or two. I rifled through the jazz bins, working my way from A to Z, and bought every album that had a version of "Autumn Leaves" on it: records by Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley — more than a dozen. I brought the pile home and played each version of the tune, skipping all the other tracks. Then I played them all again, one by one. It was a revelation. Some were subtle, some virtuosic, some brisk, some meditative. Each version was unique, and all of them were all great.

It struck me: In jazz it's individuality, not adherence to a standardized conception of excellence, that matters most. Difference matters — in fact, it's an asset, rather than a liability. There is no describing how exhilarating this epiphany was for me, as a person who always felt different from other people.”

[Excerpted from GOOD THINGS HAPPEN SLOWLY. Copyright c 2077 by Fred Hersch and David Hajdu. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.]

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