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Fred Hersch combines music and activism

Fred Hersch performs with his jazz trio in Herrick Chapel Thursday, Oct. 2. Photo by Chris Lee.

Last Thursday, Oct. 2, acclaimed musician, composer, activist and Grinnell alumn Fred Hersch and his trio brought jazz music to life for students, faculty and staff in Herrick Chapel.

Since his graduation from Grinnell, Hersch has accumulated numerous commendations for his work, including six Grammy nominations, multiple glowing reviews from The New York Times and a top-selling album in the iTunes jazz category.

Fred Hersch performs with his jazz trio in Herrick Chapel Thursday, Oct. 2. Photo by Chris Lee.
Fred Hersch performs with his jazz trio in Herrick Chapel Thursday, Oct. 2.
Photo by Chris Lee.

But it is his accomplishments outside of the musical sphere that made him particularly appealing to the members of the Public Events Committee who facilitated his return to Grinnell. Hersch has worked for the past 30 years to raise awareness and fundraising for AIDS services. Director of Conference Operations and Events Rachel Bly said that this work makes him particularly relevant to Grinnell students.

“[The Public Events Committee] thought how cool it is that he is not only a model for our students in being an artist, and making it successfully as an artist, but also in being an activist and being out there speaking boldly about the things he cares deeply about,” Bly said.

Hersch himself claims that his route to activism was in part accidental. The discrimination he witnessed against HIV-positive people in the 1980s served as a catalyst for his desire to enact change both through fundraising and by serving as a role model.

“I wanted to do what I could, raise as much money as I could for people who really need it and also to get out there, be in my way a role model for somebody who’s known about his condition [in order to] kind of take away some of the stigma,” Hersch said. “So people might say, ‘Well, you know, Fred’s got HIV but he seems to be doing great, and maybe I should come out to people about it.’”

Hersch’s impressive career began early—he started playing the piano at four, and was composing by age eight. After one semester at Grinnell, he elected to return to his home in Cincinnati and began playing professionally, honing his craft as he gained experience. His work has involved numerous collaborations, including numerous pieces performed with a trio, quintet and pocket orchestra. But Hersch hasn’t limited his experiences to the purely musical. His piece “Coma Dreams,” inspired by his real-life experience, is a work of “jazz theater” which combines jazz music with projections and stage acting to tell the story of an HIV-positive man who is placed in a medically-induced coma and experiences surreal dreams. Hersch said that the crossover between theater and music was a natural fit for the piece.

“People think of interdisciplinary [works] as kind of some sort of forced marriage and, to me, in those cases the content dictated the form, and it’s just sort of how it worked out,” Hersch said. “These big pieces that I’ve done, they don’t have any particular models, they just sort of get built the way they need to be built.”

Bly said that these diverse and interdisciplinary experiences are part of what makes Hersch accessible to members of the Grinnell community, regardless of their familiarity with jazz music.

“I think he does a really good job of making even the person who is not a jazz aficionado feel comfortable and enjoy the music,” Bly said. “We want people to hear something they might not get to hear somewhere else, or being here in Grinnell, so we want to bring the arts to them … we want people to feel like the music and the musicians are approachable so that it’s real.”

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    Michael ReinemerJun 12, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    It’s great that Fred came back after all those years. Fred lived across the hall from me in Yonkers in 1973.