After Emerging From Coma, Fred Hersch Plays Again In 2008, jazz pianist Fred Hersch slipped into an AIDS-related coma for more than two months. When he came out of the coma, he couldn't walk, eat or play piano. Hersch explains how he rebuilt himself after his illness and composed music for his latest album, Whirl.
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After Emerging From Coma, Fred Hersch Plays Again

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After Emerging From Coma, Fred Hersch Plays Again

After Emerging From Coma, Fred Hersch Plays Again

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(Soundbite of song, "Snow is Falling")


Jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch has been a guest several times on FRESH AIR. I was shocked to learn about the medical crisis that he experienced. He's had AIDS since the late '80s and has managed to keep composing, performing and touring. But in 2008, as a result of complications from AIDS, he suffered temporary psychosis and then fell into a two-month coma. After emerging from the coma, he had to relearn to use his hands. He's just released his first album since recovering. It's called "Whirl." Weve been listening to his composition, "Snow is Falling."

Fred Hersch, welcome back to the show, and more important, welcome back to the living. I'm just amazed that you were able to build yourself back up to the point where you could make this album. It's remarkable.

Mr. FRED HERSCH (Pianist, composer): Yeah. It's been quite a couple of years of what I might call just simply medical hell - a series of illnesses and hospitalizations. The most dramatic of them being actually in a coma for two months. And coming out of the coma for that length of time, you know, you pretty much can't do anything. I couldnt walk. I couldnt eat. I was on a feeding tube for eight months. I couldnt swallow. I had no hand coordination. I couldnt hold a pencil. So I had to completely rebuild myself and, you know, now I'm back and playing and feeling, if anything, better than I did before all this.

MARTIN: Youve had AIDS since the mid-1980s. What set off this latest series of illnesses?

Mr. HERSCH: Well, in the fall of 2007, I was quite busy. I was touring a fair amount. I was losing weight. I wasnt eating well. And in December of 2007, I was pulled off of my anti-retroviral drugs in order to give my system a break. And unfortunately, what happened was the virus then attacked my brain, so I spent the first two and a half months of 2008 basically psychotic.

GROSS: Were you very paranoid during - was it the kind of psychosis?

Mr. HERSCH: Yeah. I was very paranoid. I kind of holed up in my apartment. The only people that I wanted to see was my partner Scott Morgan and my brother Hank. I pretty much cut myself off from the world. I was convinced that people had conspiracies against me and I was convinced that I had magical powers and could stop time at will and it was pretty nutty.

GROSS: So when you were going through this really paranoid period, were you afraid of your own family and of your own friends, and even of your partner?

Mr. HERSCH: No, I wasnt afraid of my partner nor my brother. I thought many of my friends were lying to me. I didnt trust anybody. And it was scary. I mean I began that period in what they call a semi-coma. I was in a hospital. I was kind of in and out of consciousness for 10 days but if you would've asked me afterwards how long Id been in the hospital, I would've said oh, two or three days. So I wasnt aware to the extent and the length that I was hospitalized, while they tried to stabilize me, not only physically but psychologically.

GROSS: When did that stop? When did the craziness stop?

Mr. HERSCH: The crazy stopped early March of 2008 and then I had sort of a honeymoon period. I was eating. I was gaining weight. I wrote a whole bunch of music. Everything looked good. Two brand new anti-retroviral drugs had come on the market just as I was entering this crazy period and they reduced my viral load, which is the measure of the viral activity the AIDS virus in your body -they reduced it from, you know, six or eight million copies to undetectable. So that was a very good sign that I responded so quickly to these drugs, which are new - they are a new classes of drugs, in fact, different ways of attacking the virus.

So I came out and I felt good and strong, and went out around Memorial Day weekend to Northern California. Happened to be the town where my father lives in Healdsburg, which is up in Sonoma County - a wine country. And I played a jazz festival there and felt fine and came back to New York in early June and started to feel kind of off and, you know, running little bits of fever and kind of feeling weird. And there was nothing that alarming. And then on the 9th of June, I spoke with it wasnt actually my doctor, but his associate, since my doctor was on vacation, and he gave me an antibiotic and he said if this doesnt improve I'm going to order a chest x-ray for Tuesday. So on Tuesday I was running fever and I decided it might be nice to just get in a bath and cool out.

So I got in the bathtub and was unable to get out physically. And Scott and I kind of looked at each other and said we're going to the hospital. So we got in a cab, went to the hospital and they checked me for fever. And I wasn't presenting with fever, but then they stuck one of those gizmos on your finger that measures your blood oxygen level and mine was below 70, which is considered like kind of near death. And they immediately put me in triage and discovered that I was in septic shock and my organs were all failing.

GROSS: Fred, you said during the period when you seemed to have recovered from your psychotic period because the AIDS virus had gone to your brain, and there was this like honeymoon period when you seemed to be okay that you started composing again. Is any of the work that you composed then represented on the new album?

Mr. HERSCH: Yes, three pieces, actually. I composed a suite of music for trio -piano, bass, drums trio, and it was a full evening of music, and it was 12 pieces and 12 keys that were dedicated to 12 different people. "Whirl" is dedicated to the ballerina Suzanne Farrell, and the rhythm of it comes from the rhythm of her spinning and pirouetting. "Sad Poet" is a dedication to Antonio Carlos Jobim, who I played his music ever since I started playing jazz. And "Still Here" is dedicated to Wayne Shorter, who is not only one of my big influences, but he's 75 and still making, you know, interesting and creative and vital music. So I wrote that for him. And those compositions do appear on "Whirl."

GROSS: "Whirl," you said is dedicated to the ballerina Suzanne Farrell. Why were you thinking about her?

Mr. HERSCH: Something about the rhythm of the piece. She's from Cincinnati, as I am. I saw her dance many times and there's something about a rhythm when, you know, a dancer spins and, of course, they can't just keep spinning. They sort of have to spot at a certain point or theyll get dizzy or fall over. So the rhythm is kind of taken from the spinning and spotting of Suzanne. And I think she's, you know, just the most deep and graceful and classically beautiful dancers that I've ever seen - just really magnificent. She's a magnificent artist.

GROSS: Well, why dont we hear "Whirl?" So this is composed and performed at piano by Fred Hersch. It's the title track from his new CD "Whirl."

(Soundbite of song, "Whirl")

GROSS: That's the title track of pianist and composer Fred Hersch's new CD "Whirl."

We'll talk more with Hersch after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Fred Hersch, the pianist and composer. He has a new CD called "Whirl." We're featuring the Fred Hersch Trio, and we're talking about the two years in which he was very sick. He's had AIDS since the mid-1980s but he - this was just a particularly horrible period these past two years that included a two-month coma.

So let me ask you, after emerging from the coma, you spent quite a while where you were helpless. You couldnt move. You had lost one of your vocal cords because of the tube that was placed down your throat when you were admitted into the hospital. You couldnt eat. You could barely speak. Just a hoarse whisper was all you could get out. You had to have surgery to get your second, your other vocal cord work - another vocal cord. I dont know how many we have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCH: We have two.

GROSS: We only have two? Okay. So you needed surgery to get the other one working again. So you had a feeding tube for months. Going through all that, what makes you - what gives you the drive to keep pushing forward and keep living? I mean it can seem like a really bleak and hopeless existence, I would guess?

Mr. HERSCH: Well, around the time that I found out that I had AIDS in the mid-'80s, that was when I first began making my own albums - albums we called them then - and for a number of times through the early '90s until better drugs -protease inhibitor drugs, what they now call cocktail medications came along, you know, AIDS was, you know, there wasnt anything anybody could do about it. I was just luck of the draw if you were going to live or not. So I certainly felt, during that period, that every CD or album I was making was going to be my last. And my motivation then was that God forbid I should die, I'd like to at least create some body of work where somebody might, you know, remember me. I wanted to be heard.

And certainly, since the coma, and this is not just my opinion, I'm reflecting opinions of others, because its very hard to talk about one's work - in general, I find it hard. There seems to be more relaxation, maybe more depth, more direct connection to what I'm playing. Fortunately my technique has come back, virtually completely, at the piano. But I realized, you know, when I was that far down that I really wasnt done yet. There was more that I had to do as a musician, as a partner. And whether it was just stubbornness or crankiness or whatever, I felt like I'm not ready to checkout.

GROSS: At what point did music start becoming beautiful to you again? Were you able to listen to it right away after emerging from the coma?

Mr. HERSCH: When I was in the rehab center I had a CD player and a little portable DVD player - I could watch a movie. And I did begin listening again. I found it very therapeutic. I didnt have enough energy to read - that took too much energy at that point. But I emerged from the coma in early August, went home shortly after Labor Day of 2008, and then I was knocked down with another pneumonia, which probably caused by a gallbladder infection and I began vomiting blood. I actually lost four units of blood and was readmitted to ICU for - thank God it turned around in about four five days.

But I got out of the hospital on a Saturday in early October. I believe it was the 11th. And there's a small jazz club here in New York called Smalls, and I was just looking around on the Web. I, for some reason that day when I got out of the hospital I had tons of energy. It was a classically beautiful fall day in New York and Scott and I walked all the way through the Village and it just felt great to be back in the world - and probably I was just pumped up with saline or something and feeling good. But I went online later that afternoon and looked at the Smalls website and I noticed that two days after that, the Monday night, it said for the 7:30 set, it said pianist TBD - to be determined. So I called up the owner and I said look, I know I just got out of the hospital, but if I can pull a trio together I would really like to come and play a set. So Scott, who'd been napping woke up and I said, you know, youre not going to believe this but I booked a gig for two days from now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCH: And, you know, he was nervous and thought I was maybe a little nuts, but I went down and I played a set with a bass player and drummer, who I'm very friendly with. And it was something that I really needed to do to prove to myself that this all had not taken away everything. I listened to the recording subsequently, and sure it sounds, you know, a little weak and, you know, not my A game playing but it wasnt bad either. And I think just doing that and also the place was packed and everybody was there. I mean there was just this incredible feeling of love. And the jazz community, you know, such as it is, was incredibly solicitous while I was ill.

When I went home people came to visit, people visited me in rehab, people were in touch with Scott, they really wanted to know how I was doing. And so, the room was packed with people who really wanted to be there and this incredible just big embrace from the jazz community. I think after I did that I realized that okay, there's hope here, that I'm going to be able to do this. Ands so, I started gigging again in the fall of 2008, you know, and, of course, I was still on a feeding tube, so traveling with cans of liquid food and a food pump was not the easiest thing in the world but...

GROSS: I can't believe you did that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCH: But I was determined, you know, and I never quit.

GROSS: Well, Fred Hersch, thank you again for being with us and I'm just so happy to hear how well youve done after your period of health hell - medical hell, as you put it. So, thank you again and all best to you.

Mr. HERSCH: Thank you. And I'm really feeling like I'm continuing to move forward and continuing to challenge myself and that feels really good to me. So thank you very much.

GROSS: Pianist and composer Fred Hersch's new album is called "Whirl." You can hear three tracks from the album on our website,, where you can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: While shooting the action scenes for the new police comedy "The Other Guys," director Adam McKay stressed safety first. But the film's star, Will Ferrell, got his priorities straight...

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): I would then, behind Adam's back, tell everyone dont listen to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Weve got to get this shot.

GROSS: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on the next FRESH AIR.

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)

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