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Interview: Charles Hamlen on Fred Hersch

Photo: Fred Hersch performs. Photo by John Rodgers.

The New York Times has praised Fred Hersch as “singular among the trailblazers of their art, a largely unsung innovator of this borderless, individualistic jazz — a jazz for the 21st century.” We’re very excited to host the Fred Hersch Trio in Ann Arbor for two different sets on January 30.

We chatted with Charles Hamlen, chairman of IMG Artists, a classical-music management company, about his personal friendship with Fred Hersch, as well as their work together with Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS.

Jesse Meria (UMS): What lead to your meeting Fred?

Charles Hamlen: I met Fred for the first time around 1993. I had just started an AIDS fundraising organization called Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. I met Fred first in the the recording industry through David Chesky, who had recorded Fred on his label. And he said, you know Fred Hersch is a great pianist, he might be interested in getting involved in Classical Action.

So Fred and I met. He had been an ardent spokesperson on behalf of AIDS and HIV for years, and he has been HIV positive for more than twenty years as well as having AIDS for many years. He offered to do a benefit recording for Classical Action. It was called “Last Night When We Were Young” and that first album, which he produced but donated to classical action, raised something like $125,000, which is amazing.

Over the years he continued to produce, I think maybe a total of 5 albums for Classical Action, and for the parent company Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and we had a very strong relationship, and in the course of all that we became very close personal friends. I’ve been to probably dozens and dozens of his concerts

JM: Can you talk a bit more about Classical Action specifically?

CH: Classical Action is an organization that I started back in 1993. It was really in response to the AIDS crisis, and the idea was to create an organization where performing artists and colleagues professional colleagues would be able to help raise funds for AIDS service organizations around the country.

It started out as primarily artists donating their time and then the fundraising efforts grew over the years. One of the trademarks of classical action was “house concerts,” which are benefit concerts in people’s homes.

The second or third year of its existence classical action became part of the fundraising program of Broadway Cares, a nation-wide organization with the same mission. I left Classical Action myself about four years ago, but I’ve remained closely in touch with the fellow who is now directing it.

But Fred is, probably of all the people who have donated their services over the years, he is the one who has done most, performed the most often, done the most creative projects, been the most generous, but there are hundreds and hundreds of performing artists who have donated their service sin one way or another as well as opera companies and concert presenters. UMS hosted a couple of house concerts several years back in Ann Arbor.

JM: What’s significant about the Fred Hersch Trio coming to Ann Arbor? Why should we be excited about this?

CH: Well for a number of reasons. First of all, Fred is one of the pre-eminent jazz musicians in the world.  In all my travels around the world, whenever I mention Fred’s name to jazz lovers, they always say, “Oh my god, he’s a genius.” Everybody feels that way, his colleagues, audience members, and so forth.

And it’s not just for jazz aficionados. One of the great treats I think is hearing someone at that level if you don’t know him, and if you don’t know the jazz world particularly well.

I think that in terms of the quality of the music, Fred’s extraordinary creativity in improvising creates a kind of magic in his performances, and there are very few people like that. He and the trio work together like hand and glove.

JM: Do you think that Fred has been made a different musician through all of his struggles? Have they made him more passionate?

CH: And it’s not just for jazz aficionados Well, I think it’s certainly made him perhaps more deeply committed than ever. I think partly, quite frankly, because he never expected to live that long. He’s gone through several severe crises in his health, and he always seems to come back stronger.

I mean you’d have to ask him this, but my impression is that when you don’t expect to be around as long as he is, and you are, you take fuller advantage of every moment in your life than other people normally would. I think also those experiences have clearly affected the depth of his music making, both his compositions and his way of communicating through music.

Listen to an audio excerpt of the phone interview:

Interested in learning more? Listen to an artist playlist curated by pianist Fred Hersch.