New Life: A Documentary on Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch Revives Both Filmmakers and Subject

When filmmakers Carrie Lozano and Charlotte Lagarde approached jazz pianist Fred Hersch about making a documentary, they intended to capture the making of his ambitious new multimedia production, My Coma Dreams. What started as an investigation into the fantastical creations of Hersch’s unconscious mind turned into a sumptuous celebration of his entire musical world.

An AIDS activist who came out more than 20 years ago when there were no other openly gay instrumentalists in jazz, Hersch is one of the genre’s most revered pianists and composers. In the summer of 2008 he lapsed into a coma so deep that doctors didn’t expect him to regain consciousness. He emerged two months later unable to walk or speak, let alone play piano, but the hallucinations he had experienced were so strange and vivid he knew he wanted to shape the visions into some kind of musical expression. “I’d gone through this awful near-death experience,” Hersch says, “and as an artist it behooved me to use what I’d been given.”

Lozano and Lagarde, respectively graduates of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford’s Documentary Film and Video program, use the making of My Coma Dreams as one thread running through their 74-minute documentary, The Ballad of Fred Hersch, but instead of focusing on the theatrical production the filmmakers take a wide-angle look at his singular career. Lozano started the project thinking it would follow the basic blueprint of The Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic, the documentary about the John Adams/Peter Sellers opera by Jon Else, with whom she studied at the Graduated School of Journalism. But after trying to shoehorn Hersch’s story into that structure “we realized that he was so much more than the coma,” Lozano says.

“He’s so much more than the AIDS story or the coming out story. There were plenty of people and funders who said the coma is so dramatic, start with that. We tried to make that film, but it didn’t work and wasn’t the film we wanted to make. We ended up with a mantra: It’s the music, dummy. There is no Fred Hersch without music.”

The Ballad of Fred Hersch premiered in April at Full Frame Film Festival and makes its West Coast debut Oct. 11–12 at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Hersch performs a solo recital at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall following the Oct. 12 screening (and also performs as part of SFJAZZ’s Thelonious Monk birthday celebration on Oct. 10). The doc provides a brief, incisive account of his rise from first-call accompanist for jazz legends like trumpeter Art Farmer and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson to bandleader and oft-commissioned composer. But it’s especially effective at letting his music speak for itself, something many jazz documentaries (see Ken Burns and Jazz) fail to do. It includes a full solo version of his piece for ballet star and fellow Cincinnati native Suzanne Farrell, “Whirl” and a duet with guitarist Julian Lage.

“We let it play,” Lozano says. “We made a decision, if it’s going to be about the music, you’re going to have to sit through some music. It was all recorded on camera except for some archival footage. There are three full songs in the film from start to finish, one near the beginning, one in the middle and one in the end.”

Like so many documentaries, The Ballad of Fred Hersch emerged out of a magazine profile—this one from the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Lozano’s husband happened to sit next to the pianist on a flight in the winter of 2010 and they struck up a conversation. Hersch mentioned that he was the subject of a recent story in the Times Magazine detailing his return to performing after the coma ordeal. Intrigued by David Hajdu’s article, Lozano and Lagarde met with Hersch shortly before he started rehearsals for My Coma Dreams “and three weeks later we were shooting,” Lozano says. “It wasn’t exactly well thought out.”

They may have jumped into the project without much research, but the filmmakers had a good deal of experience, both together and separately. During Lozano’s undergrad years at Cal in the mid-1990s as a film studies major she made a nine-minute short about a man losing his partner to AIDS. As the producer of Sam Green’s acclaimed 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, she enrolled in the J-School the following year with a resume that left her looking overqualified for the program, “but film studies was very theoretical, not about journalism,” she says. “I was constantly winging it. I could see the trajectory of what I wanted to do and I needed a stronger journalistic foundation and some technical skills. I definitely got that at the J-School.”

Lozano was in Cuba in 2004 for a San Francisco Film Society–sponsored screening of The Weather Underground when she connected with Lagarde, who was there for a screening the documentary she made with Lisa Denker, Heart of the Sea, about legendary Hawaiian surfer Rell Sunn. Lozano was trying to figure out what to do with her J-School master’s thesis film, about pioneering gay San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts, Reporter Zero.

“I joke that it’s the most expensive student film in UC Berkeley history, because it’s so heavily archival, and that footage isn’t cheap,” Lozano says. “When I graduated I went to Jon Else and said that in order for this film to have a life I need to do some serious fundraising and that’s when Charlotte came on board. We’ve been fast partners ever since.”

They had spent several years working on a film that came to naught about poet June Jordan when they met with Hersch, whose career was back in high gear after his recovery from the coma. “Fred was the rebound,” Lozano says. “We’d had this project that we’d made a decision not to pursue. He kind of fell in our laps and was incredibly generous.”