Gay Jazz Performer ‘Floats’ Into Philadelphia for Festival Appearance

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Fred Hersch's jazz trio is gearing up for the Philly-hosted OutBeat Jazz festival, the first event of its kind to focus solely on gay performers.

As a longtime AIDS activist and one of the most prominent gay jazz musicians of the modern era, Fred Hersch is happy to be taking part in the OutBeat Jazz festival, the first event of its kind to focus solely on gay performers. He’s just not so sure about the festival’s tagline.

“Quite honestly, I wasn’t expecting the word ‘queer’ in the title of the festival,” he says, referring to the festival description, “America’s First Queer Jazz Festival. “Maybe it’s a generational thing — I’m 59, and to me, ‘queer’ means ‘odd.’ It’s a pejorative word from when I grew up, although a lot of the younger LGBT people have turned it around and made it into a positive ID.”

Hersch says that despite his semantic misgivings, he wanted to do his concert on Sept. 19 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art because “there may be people who are going to come to these concerts who may not necessarily be jazz fans but who come for the umbrella — it’s a chance to reach a new audience.”

His music certainly deserves a new — and wider — audience. The six-time Grammy nominee is regarded as one of the most commanding jazz pianists alive. Both his playing and songwriting are on display in Floating, his 41st album as bandleader, which was released in June. The 10 tracks mix standards — like a bouncing take on “You & the Night & the Music” and a quietly enthralling version of the Camelot classic, “If Ever I Would Leave You” — with original works like the ethereally layered title track and an elegiac ode to his mother and grandmother in “West Virginia Rose.”

“Musically, some of what we are doing” on the album “is floating, but in that Muhammad Ali ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ way,” Hersch explains.

As on the vast majority of his albums, Hersch’s band for Floating is a trio — his preferred combo since his days at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It was there that chamber music changed the course of his musical career.

Up until that point, he says, his musical education, which began when his parents hired a doctoral student in music to help a 9-year-old Hersch with music theory and composition, had been a steady diet of classical music. This meant hours and hours of practicing alone.

When the conservatory’s course­work required that he study, play and practice chamber music with other students, he says, it was transformative. “It was really fun to be playing music with other people — I got involved with two other serious musicians, and I happened to be around some people at Grinnell College who turned me on to the books and records that got me hooked on jazz.” It wasn’t long before he left the conservatory to begin his education in the jazz clubs of Cincinnati and, ultimately, New York, where he has lived since the 1980s.

Hersch is a native of Cincinnati, the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States. While he never became a Bar Mitzvah, he was confirmed, and he says that his parents’ involvement in the city’s Jewish community and his Jewish education greatly contributed to his enduring commitment to fighting AIDS, which began in the 1990s.

“I call myself an accidental activist,” he says with a slight laugh. “In 1993, I produced the first jazz benefit album to benefit an AIDS organization,” Last Night When We Were Young. Its resulting success, and the freedom he felt from coming out and acknowledging his HIV-positive status, confirmed for him the need to keep working on that type of tikkun olam.

He says that he is motivated both by his ability to help people,  especially other gay musicians, and his understanding of the Jewish concept of how a person can live on in the memory of loved ones. “If you’re a good person in this life, that’s your reward. If you’re a schmuck, that’s how you’re remembered. That’s why you need to do good things in this life.”

IF YOU GO

Fred Hersch Trio
Sept. 19 at 5:45 p.m.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art — the Great Stair Hall
26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia
outbeatjazzfestival.com

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