Chapter 1 Short Arms These days I rarely make a set list. Whether I'm performing solo piano in a concert hall or playing a set with my trio in a jazz club, I prefer not to plan what I'm going to play too thoroughly. I like to work spontaneously, organically--in the moment. Though I might have an idea of the tune I want to open with for any given set, as I'm walking onto the stage I start to pick up a feeling for the audience. I sit down, settle onto the piano stool, and see what kind of mood I'm in. Sometimes when playing with my trio I will ask them what they feel like starting with--a nice surprise for me, as I tend to play better if I don't overthink things. If I'm playing with the group, I get a thousand cues from the bassist and the drummer, and I send my own cues back to them. The music is like a rhythmic and harmonic river rushing along, and each of us jumps into it in our own way as it flows by. We are making spontaneous music together--and the fact that we are speaking the same musical language gives the music power and a feeling of pure joy. When we are in sync with one another it's unlike anything I have ever experienced. The music and each evening takes on a shape of its own. Every night, every performance, every tune--every moment--has its own character, its own life. I believe in honoring that. I've never been a big fan of overplanned, tightly constructed show business--nor of the practice of some jazz musicians stuffing generic licks and patterns they've worked out in advance into whatever tune they are playing. I can admire the craft involved, but it doesn't move me. This "one size fits all" approach is pretty uninteresting; for me, each piece should occupy its own specific and considered musical world. I have always been most interested in the kinetic, almost magical spontaneity of improvisation, the open give-and-take among musicians. I love jazz--and great jazz has to have the element of danger, even if it doesn't sound wild or crazy. Sometimes just changing one tiny detail in the moment can open a musical door. There are many reasons for my aversion to elaborate constructions of theatrical show, and one of them is surely that I grew up in an environment of carefully planned and meticulously executed artificiality. I spent my childhood in a household that would have appeared from the outside like a model of middle-class American excellence. Everything about it adhered to the script of midcentury domestic rightness. But it was essentially a grand charade, more than a bit like the film Ordinary People--and I felt lost in it all. I was raised in a handsome older neighborhood of Cincinnati called North Avondale. It was a gaslight district, literally. The streets were spotted with flickering gas lamps set atop cast-iron poles, conjuring something of an old-world atmosphere in the modern Midwest. The houses were well designed and sturdily built in an eclectic range of styles, with Tudor, Victorian, and Gothic Revival elements artfully employed and sometimes combined. They were homes that sought to show the sophistication, and not merely the prosperity, of the people living in them. North Avondale was one of the first suburbs of Cincinnati proper--not one of the super-fancy, newer, snooty ranch-house suburbs where the richie-rich families lived but a neatly tailored community. Each house had a real personality, and the oak, maple, and gingko trees lining the winding streets were enormous. It was a postcard image of the ideals of social aspiration and assimilation that midwestern Jews such as my parents upheld. It was racially integrated and religiously diverse; incomes ranged from solidly middle class to upper-middle class. Both of my parents had grown up in West Virginia, not known for its large Jewish population. They met in Charleston, married there in 1952, and decided to settle in Cincinnati, where my father helped build a prominent legal practice in corporate law and my mother served, for as long as she could, as a good lawyer's wife. I came along in 1955, followed by my brother, Hank, just over two years later. My mom, a petite, smart, poised, attractive, and eternally optimistic woman, educated at Smith College, has always had a strong sense of what should be done and how things ought to be, though I'm not sure if she could always tell you why. My dad, a graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School, was also intelligent and good-looking in a fifties movie-magazine way, and he exuded the competence and self-confidence expected of successful males in the Mad Men era. As I entered the double digits, I realized that my parents' marriage was an unhappy one. In the midst of their marital difficulties, neither one of them was available to teach me life skills and discipline. My father was largely disengaged from his family--none of us knew until many years later that he had a problem with alcohol. He was a member of "the greatest generation," who lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II, but he didn't talk to me or Hank about those experiences until he was in his late eighties and I persuaded him to write down what he went through as a nineteen-year-old army sergeant in the trenches of France. He was a small-town kid who saw unimaginable horrors that no doubt scarred him for life and may have led to his self-medicating by drinking. And though I have tried many times, I can barely remember an instance of the two of us doing anything together when I was growing up. My mom seemed to always be busy doing something, though I am not completely sure how she filled her days given that she didn't work and had help at home during the week. An energetic woman then, as now, she did do a good amount of schlepping Hank and me to and from various after-school activities. But until I was able to drive myself at age sixteen, I do remember her taking me out after school to run errands with her in a somewhat conspiratorial way--"Don't tell your father, it's our secret." I think she was lonely at home and needed an ally. In addition to her involvement in groups such as the temple sisterhood, my mother was part of a group of women who had all gone to elite eastern colleges and needed a reason to keep their minds sharp. They held meetings they called "Current Topics"; rotating among their homes, each meeting two women would read a "paper" they had written on a subject of their choosing--followed, of course, by "luncheon" featuring elaborately shaped Jell-O molds, tomato aspic, and other sixties buffet foods. Shortly after we moved to a bigger house in 1965, my mom wrote a paper entitled "My Life with HHH" (my father's initials). In a happy, sitcom manner she described our home life, with the cute, high-spirited kids, the obligatory dog, and my father's constant volunteer work. She was putting a comic face on what she must have known, deep down, was anything but funny. So I ended up creating my own life, without much guidance. My parents were committed to showing the world a rosy, almost WASPy model of a marriage--though it was bankrupt in the important, emotional ways. Thank God there was music, my great escape from the unbearable tension in the house. Music had come down on both sides of my family in my grandparents' generation, and my folks appreciated it through their parents even though they didn't play themselves. My paternal grandmother, Ella Hersch, was a skilled amateur pianist. When she turned twenty-one and graduated with a music degree from Pittsburgh's Chatham College, her parents gave her a six-foot, mahogany 1921 Steinway Model O piano--an instrument built during a high point in Steinway history. After I inherited it in 1997, I have had it at various times in my New York home. And as I have upgraded instruments, I have lent it to some of my best students who needed (and couldn't afford) a grand piano. My grandmother emigrated from Russia in 1904 and lived until 1996, experiencing almost all of the twentieth century. She always did what she could to encourage my interest in music. She also, touchingly, went out of her way to show me that she welcomed the multiple ways in which I was different. Later in her life she would always ask me if I had a "special friend." For a person of her time and place, she had an enlightened attitude. On my mother's side, my grandfather Fred Bloomberg, whom I was named for, was a semiprofessional violinist. He was first generation, born in Brooklyn of Lithuanian and Russian heritage. He made his living in furniture sales but was passionate about classical music and helped found the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. I adored my grandfather and was broken up when he died, in 1974. He had a dignified appearance, with a mane of white hair combed straight back. We visited him often in Charleston when I was a child, and I was fascinated watching him practice the violin. I myself have always hated practicing, but I loved to watch him do it. His wife, Roslyn, née Thalheimer, was a descendant of German Jews who came to the Deep South in the mid-1800s. She was the granddaughter of the mayor of Selma, Alabama, where she grew up in a Victorian household complete with a staff of five. Coddled as she was, though well read and highly intelligent, she was much better at arranging for those in her employ to boil her an egg than making one herself. When my parents married, one of the things they made a point to buy with their wedding money was a piano--a five-foot Lester baby grand in ebony. By the time I was four I had discovered it. I started picking out little tunes--nursery rhymes and cartoon-show music like the themes from The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Flintstones, which I learned later is actually fairly hip and is based on "rhythm changes," the harmonic structure of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." When my parents saw me doing this, it struck them that I seemed to have some talent. They put me in class piano lessons at the age of five. To their credit, after it was clear that I was outgrowing the class lessons, my parents rather quickly arranged for me to study with the best teacher they could find in Cincinnati, a woman named Jeanne Kirstein, who was the local heavyweight. She was a New Yorker--she had that cachet--and had won the prestigious Naumburg Piano Competition. Her husband was Jack Kirstein, the 'cellist in the LaSalle Quartet, a group well regarded for its important early recordings of music of the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Jeanne was a serious musician and a lovely person, and I liked going over to her house and playing. And lying on the floor of their house and hearing the string quartet in rehearsal made me forever love music in four parts--I would try to hear the viola against the second violin or one of the two violins against the 'cello. But I didn't practice much and never went to my lesson fully prepared. I would get to a tough passage and either fake it or close my eyes and grit my teeth and hope that I could get through it. Unfortunately for my discipline but fortunately for my development as an improviser, I often got away with winging it. Looking back, I wish Jeanne had pushed me harder. She could have kicked my ass to make me better than I was, and I think that she should have. She should have explained why learning scales and arpeggios would be of service to me later on. But she held back, partly in deference to my mother, who had heard horror stories of overzealous, shrewlike parents pushing their kids too hard. She didn't want to turn into a stage mother. She told my teacher, "I know he's a talented kid, but he should enjoy himself. I don't want his piano lessons to be drudgery." So Jeanne didn't push me that hard. Under the cover of my best interests, I think that my mom was more concerned with what she might become than she was with what I could grow up to be. I enjoyed my piano lessons but avoided pieces that would challenge me technically--I favored slower, lyrical pieces over flashy and more difficult ones. I derived a lot more satisfaction from sitting at the piano at home making up music of my own. By early elementary school I was starting to create music--improvised pieces in the vein of the classical works I was playing for my lessons. I would follow my intuition, and the music would come out in the style of Bach or Mozart or Schumann, because that's what I had been playing and listening to. My mother would hear me, and for a moment or two she would think I was playing a piece from the classical canon, but she knew well enough what the written pieces sounded like and soon realized that I was inventing the music myself. She would yell out from the kitchen, "You're not practicing!" But making things up was a lot more fun, and she couldn't have conceived that what I was doing was practicing at a way of making music that neither one of us knew much about. I had not yet learned that anything like jazz existed. But my parents must have seen my persistence in creating my own music and realized that it might be enhanced by systematic nurturing. When I was eight, on Jeanne's recommendation they set me up with a private theory and composition teacher in Cincinnati, Walter Mays. It was the single best thing they ever did for me. Excerpted from Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.