Fred Hersch: Back On Stage By No Small Miracle The last year and a half hasn't been easy for Fred Hersch: The award-winning jazz pianist and composer spent months in a coma and almost died. But he has a new album out — Live at the Jazz Standard — and he's performing again at New York's famed Village Vanguard.
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Fred Hersch: Back On Stage By No Small Miracle

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Fred Hersch: Back On Stage By No Small Miracle

Fred Hersch: Back On Stage By No Small Miracle

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Last year and a half have been difficult for Fred Hersch. The award-winning jazz pianist and composer has been seriously ill and almost died. But between his illnesses, he recorded a new album. This week, he and his trio returned to New York's Village Vanguard, where Lara Pellegrinelli caught up with him.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Fred Hersch is happy to be back at the Vanguard, where his photograph has earned a permanent place on one of the green, felt-covered walls.

Mr. FRED HERSCH (Pianist): It's above Coltrane, and next to Bill Evans and catty-corner from Mingus, and not that I, in my wildest dreams, think that I'm at that level as an artist.

PELLEGRINELLI: Some might say he's pretty close.

Mr. KURT ELLING (Singer): He has a loving, beautiful way of creating nuance from the piano.

(Soundbite of song, "Leaves of Grass")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) I wander all night in my vision…

PELLEGRINELLI: Kurt Elling has sung Hersch's setting of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in concert and on record. Hersch won a Guggenheim Fellowship to create the work in 2003.

Mr. ELLING: He's as demanding on anybody as he is on himself, and that's pretty demanding. Fred sets a very high standard. And it's a pleasure to have somebody respect your intelligence enough to really challenge you and give you a big enough bite to chew off.

(Soundbite of song, "Leaves of Grass")

Mr. ELLING: (Singing) How softly they look there, stretched and still. How quiet they breathe. The little children in their cradles…

PELLEGRINELLI: Fred Hersch has appeared on over 100 albums in addition to 30 of his own. But his busy schedule came to a screeching halt early last year. Hersch has AIDS. He was diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. He came out in the '90s to raise awareness about the disease at a time when few jazz musicians were openly gay. Last January, Hersch suffered AIDS-related dementia. He recovered, only to contract pneumonia and fall into a coma for three months.

Mr. HERSCH: And of course, when you're in a coma like that, you lose - you can't walk afterwards. I was on a feeding tube for seven months. I couldn't eat or drink anything.

PELLEGRINELLI: It's something of a miracle that Hersch can even talk. One of his vocal cords was paralyzed. Not only did he have to learn to walk and talk again, he had to relearn to play the piano.

Mr. HERSCH: My hands were, at times they were swollen, at times they were achy, at times they were weak. When you go through this kind of trauma, typically large muscles come back first and fine-motor coordination comes last. So I still think there's some things that are just coming back.

PELLEGRINELLI: Not that you'd notice. Hersch and his trio mates took the Village Vanguard's stage to hearty applause.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LORRAINE GORDON (Village Vanguard): He looks great. He gained weight. I think it's just amazing when you think of the terrible physical damages that he had to endure. By golly, he came through.

PELLEGRINELLI: Lorraine Gordon is the Vanguard's formidable impresaria, a duty she inherited from her late husband, Max, in 1989. She remembers when Hersch first walked into the club.

Ms. GORDON: He came in as a sideman, a little skinny guy. I didn't know who he was. Well, I knew he played piano, but who doesn't?

PELLEGRINELLI: Her admiration for Hersch goes beyond his playing.

Ms. GORDON: People love him. Fred is not cold and distant from people. He's got a million friends who come, and they're all embracing and friendly and warm. You don't get that from everyone.

PELLEGRINELLI: Hersch's friends turned out for his most recent recording, "Live at the Jazz Standard," which he made between illnesses.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: While they watched his playing recover, they may have noticed that his attitude has changed.

Mr. HERSCH: When you're really helpless, you learn a lot about acceptance. So, you know, if I play a chord that I wasn't particularly happy with, it's not going to bust my day.

PELLEGRINELLI: Would it have before?

Mr. HERSCH: I might have sweated the small stuff a little more before. Now I'm much more forgiving and accepting and less - certainly less controlling about all of it.

PELLEGRINELLI: Not everything is different.

Mr. HERSCH: I can't say that I wake up every day and go, praise the Lord, I'm alive. You know, I want my double espresso like everybody else.

PELLEGRINELLI: For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

SIMON: You can hear more recordings of Fred Hersch's live performances at

(Soundbite of music)

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