Fred Hersch: The First Time I Played for Charles Mingus
By FRED HERSCHOCT. 24, 2017
The jazz pianist is a 10-time Grammy nominee. This is an edited excerpt from “Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz,” by Fred Hersch (Crown Archetype). Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
In 1977, a week after I graduated from New England Conservatory in Boston, I moved to New York to play with the greatest players in jazz — isn’t that why most young jazz musicians come to New York? Soon after I arrived, while I was picking up gigs at a variety of small jazz clubs in the Village (and one night at a piano bar on the Upper East Side, where I unhappily sang show tunes), I began going to Bradley’s, a bar on University Place owned by Bradley Cunningham, a gregarious, imposing former marine in his early 50s.
I was 21 and Bradley’s was the place jazz musicians went to be with other musicians, hear gossip, learn material, steal ideas, get drunk — and possibly get laid.
I quickly insinuated myself into the scene. Truth to tell, I was pretty full of myself and probably too pushy. I suppose I was a nuisance, in everybody’s face a little too much. I made sure all the other pianists knew who I was, and I constantly asked people if I could sit in. Most of them were nice about it, considering how obnoxious I was. Eventually, the bassist Red Mitchell, whom I had sat in with a few times, said to Bradley, “Give the kid a gig already.”
I was just 22 when I was booked to play a full week at Bradley’s. It was heady. There was nobody else my age headlining at a place so prominent. Nearly all the other pianists who played Bradley’s were twice my age or older.
I was paid $100 a night — a lot of money in those days, almost my month’s rent. And Bradley offered you free dinner or free drinks. I took the dinner. Four sets a night — 45 minutes on, 30 off — from 9:45 to 2:45.
Not long after I began to play at Bradley’s, I got my first flattering notice in The New Yorker. In a listing in the magazine’s influential “Goings On About Town” section, Whitney Balliett, the magazine’s longtime jazz critic, described me as “a slender, bearded, light-fingered poet of a pianist.” To be recognized at my age by someone as highly regarded as Mr. Balliett was awfully gratifying, and to be called a poet specifically was a thrill. But I couldn’t help bristling a bit at “light-fingered.” I get that he was saying I didn’t have a heavy hand, and that was great. But I thought of “light” as a loaded word. It was a common antigay slur to call someone “light in the loafers.” Was Mr. Balliett trying to suggest something about me in a nonmusical sense?
I was paranoid, for sure — secretive about my sexual identity and terrified that the truth would come out and hurt me professionally just as I was beginning to have some success. There was not yet a gay consciousness in the jazz world. I was playing Billy Strayhorn’s music but didn’t even know that Strayhorn was gay. Jazz is an intimate art: You’re interacting spontaneously with other musicians, expressing yourself and responding to the way they express themselves. My fear was that if the straight musicians I played with knew I was gay, they would mistake my intense musical connection to them for coming on to them. I didn’t think that would go over well.
One night I went to a gay bar on Christopher Street, and as I walked out, a straight jazz pianist I knew, Jim McNeely, passed by. I thought, “There goes my cover. Now McNeely’s going to tell everybody my secret, and I’m sunk.” (Looking back now, I realize he probably never even saw me. My secret was still safe.)
In the fall of ’78, I was playing at Bradley’s with Sam Jones when Charles Mingus entered the club. This was late in his sadly abbreviated life — in less than six months, he would die from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 56. He was using a wheelchair, aided by his devoted wife, Sue. I saw him start to roll down the aisle toward the piano, and I thought, “Oh my God.” Other than Miles Davis himself, nobody could have been more intimidating to me. As a master bassist, a highly significant composer and an all-around jazz legend, he had a presence that totally freaked me out. I finished the set early, bolted up, ran to the back office and barricaded myself there. I hid for about 20 minutes until Sam came in with a glass of sherry and a concerned expression and sat down next to me.
He said softly, “Fred, you have to get a grip. Listen, there’s nothing you can play that that man hasn’t heard before. Just play your stuff. Do your thing. He came out of his house in a wheelchair because Bradley told him you had something going on. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t deserve to be.”
So when the break was over, I went up to Mingus and nervously said, “It’s an honor to meet you. Thanks for coming down to hear Sam and me. Your music has been an inspiration to me for as long as I’ve been listening to jazz.”
He just smiled and said, “Thanks.” This wasn’t the profane “Beneath the Underdog” Mingus of yore, but still, just being in his presence gave me a shiver.
Trying to look cool, I went back up and I played what I played, and Mingus liked it well enough to sit there listening. This may not sound like that big a deal, but it was tremendous validation to me as a new citizen of the New York jazz community. Jazz, after all, is a music steeped in tradition as well as innovation. Every generation of musicians learns the music from the model of its elders — in the oral tradition. And everyone steals ideas from predecessors as well as from peers. The elders carry weight.
Mingus’s attention was his tacit mark of approval. That night he silently confirmed something I had been telling everybody else but wasn’t entirely sure of myself, deep down: I was good enough to be playing there as one of the “cats.”
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