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A Jazz Pianist Who Doesn't Play The Blues

Fred Hersch performs at Jordan Hall in Boston. (Andrew Hurlbut/NEC)
Fred Hersch performs at Jordan Hall in Boston. (Andrew Hurlbut/NEC)

Playing the keys is the passion and the lifeblood for most professional pianists. But during a recent period in his life, that's one thing noted jazz pianist Fred Hersch couldn't do.

In 2008, Hersch, an HIV/AIDS patient, fell into a two-week coma after a bout with pneumonia that left him without his fine-motor skills. Two years on, Hersch has released a critically acclaimed album with his trio and says he's now the strongest piano player he's ever been.

He recently shared the story of his physical and artistic recovery with Here & Now's George Hicks.

When Hersch woke from his coma, he was being fed through a tube and was in serious pain.

"When I came to, my right vocal chord had been paralyzed where the tube had gone down my throat," he said. "I couldn't walk, I couldn't stand up, I didn't have the strength to move a pillow on my bed."

With rehab, Hersch's condition began to improve. "But the thing that did not come back was my hands at first," Hersch remembered. "I was weak, my hands wouldn't move, I couldn't remember anything. It was, really, very depressing. I thought, 'What a tragic thing, if I lose the use of my hands at the level that I'm used to, how am I going to go on?' "

Hersch's hands meant everything to him. He had had a prolific career as a jazz pianist and composer and had played with greats like Joe Henderson, Stan Getz and Bill Frisell. Hersch said that after his hospitalization, sitting down at a piano was "horrifying."

Still, Hersch kept sitting down at the piano. "I'd just go to the piano and play for as long as I had endurance," Hersch said, "and then my memory started coming back. I knew in the back of my mind that if everything else had come back the way that it had, there was no reason that my hands shouldn't come back too. It was just logical."

In October, at a small club in New York, Hersch made his triumphant return to the stage.

"It was probably the most emotional set of music I'd ever played," he said. "There was just so much love in that room that I even get a little choked up just talking about it."

Hersch's new CD, "Whirl," has received critical acclaim — and he's playing gigs with as much fervor as he did before he was hospitalized.

"Technically I may be playing as well as I have ever played, which is kind of miraculous, and in some ways I think technically I'm a little better," Hersch said.

Hersch is currently composing a full-length musical for more than 11 instruments based on dreams he vividly remembers from his coma.

He believes that his recovery has given him a unique perspective on life and added depth to his art. "(I am) finding new and interesting creative challenges, like this coma piece, continuing to improve as a jazz pianist," Hersch said.

Aside from composing, Hersch travels from New York to teach jazz piano at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. He is also a high-profile HIV/AIDS activist raising awareness about the effects of the disease.

"I have this opportunity to even affect maybe one or two people's lives in a positive way. I must do that," Hersch said.

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This program aired on July 2, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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