When five-time Grammy Award nominee Fred Hersch was 4, he played the piano with ease. By age 10, he was winning national piano compositions. That same year, he began studying composition with a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati.
Eventually, Hersch graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and went on to collaborate with Renee Fleming, Bill Frisell, Christopher O’Riley and others. Hersch, who has released more than 45 albums, has performed at Carnegie Hall and other venues throughout the world. He was awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship, taught at the Julliard School and is currently on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music.
But Hersch said his only composition teacher was Walter Mays, the doctoral student that he studied under in his hometown of Cincinnati.
“He’s responsible for me having a toolkit,” said Hersch, who will perform with his jazz trio at Chamber Music at the Barn next week. “I studied composition and counterpoint with him.”
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After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Mays became a music professor at Wichita State University. The two composers rarely spoke but kept up with each other’s music. Several years ago, the student and his mentor were reunited when Mays received a distinguished professorship. Hersch wrote a recommendation letter and read it to the WSU committee.
It was when Hersch read his letter and explained how instrumental Mays had been in his life that Mays realized his impact on his young student.
“Fred is my first composition student and my only 10-year-old student,” Mays said. “Even then he liked to improvise.”
Hersch is known for his improvisations. “Ninety-five percent of what I play is improvisation,” he said.
Mays remembers how at 10 Hersch would imitate great composers like Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.
“He just absorbed it. I would tell him if he did all the written work I would let him improvise,” Mays said. “This was pretty advanced stuff for a 10-year-old. I didn’t know that he would become a jazz genius and improvisation would become the bread of his life.”
As soon as Mays found out Hersch was appearing at Chamber Music at the Barn, he bought his ticket. Mays says that when he listens to Hersch’s music he can sometimes hear Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel – composers Mays taught his young student about.
Hersch will perform with bass player Aidan Carroll and drummer Eric McPherson.
He’ll play a mix of his own compositions, along with some Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and Thelonius Monk.
“I want people to leave having felt something,” Hersch said. “I try to connect with the people I am playing to. I want them to take something away with them.”