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MUSIC Legendary jazz artist plays and shares his life
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-09-09

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On the eve of a performance before thousands of fans at the Chicago Jazz Festival, Fred Hersch told a more intimate audience at the Center on Halsted Sept. 3 that when he publishes his memoir, the title will be "Good Things Happen Slowly."

He is one of the most prodigious figures in jazz—a genuine musician with a towering love for his art. His ability to extract sounds from a piano that surpass even unconventional expectations has garnered him eight Grammy awards.

His fight against the HIV/AIDS virus that sought to rob the music world of one of its defining craftsmen was one so defiant that within four months of clawing himself up from the edge of the abyss in 2008 and a coma from which he emerged without the use of his vocal chords and the ability to walk or eat, Hersch was playing a week-long festival with a feeding tube still attached to his stomach.

Hersch's appearance at the Center was part of ADA 25 Chicago, a collaboration of approximately 200 regional organizations designed to raise public awareness on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA ) that safeguards the civil rights of those engaged in their own daily battle against physical and mental conditions, including HIV/AIDS.

After delighting the audience packed into the Center's Hoover-Leppen Theatre with a pair of segued selections on the piano, Hersch shared candid thoughts on the history and influences of his life and art in a discussion moderated by Center on Halsted and Jazz Institute of Chicago board member David Helverson alongside Thresholds CEO and ADA 25 Chicago steering committee member Mark Ishaug.

"I had a somewhat divided existence," Hersch recalled of his early years. "I wasn't out in the media and over time, especially when I got my HIV diagnosis in the mid-'80s, it became this huge story. My message since I was thrust into being this accidental advocate or activist was that if you're going to be the artist that you can be, you might as well be yourself."

The working title of Hersch's memoire is drawn from something an ER doctor said in an attempt to reassure his partner, Scott, in June 2008, after the musician went into septic shock and was rushed to intensive care. "She said, 'In the ICU, good things happen slowly, but bad things happen fast. We don't know which way it's going to go but if he's going to make it, then it's not going to be a cakewalk and it can change very quickly'."

According to Hersch, her statement is the definition of his life.

For more information about ADA 25 Chicago, visit ada25chicago.org .


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