Fireworks! Listening to Walt Whitman and Fred Hersch on Independence Day

In January, 2010, I filed in line down an old flight of steps and into a venerable jazz haunt in New York City. My good friend Andrew and I took our seats at the Village Vanguard. Soaking up the ambience created by generations of musical performances and applause, we joined in the hush as a trio quietly took the small stage. Fred Hersch sat down at the piano. Fred Hersch at the piano.

Every moment felt right. I knew something about Hersch’s life and had prepped for the occasion by listening to a CD, but being present with him “Live at the Village Vanguard” was extraordinary. Later, eagerly delving into more of his music and his story, I came upon a recording titled Leaves of Grass. Could it be that one of my favorite (nineteenth century!) poets had teamed up with a contemporary musician? Ever since this discovery, I celebrate the Fourth of July (but not limited to) by listening to this marriage of Hersch’s composition set to the rhythm of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Hersch plays the piano, Kate McGarry and Kurt Elling lend their voices to Whitman’s words, and Hersch’s ensemble completes a stirring celebration.

Hersch finds much to admire in Whitman’s work and spirit, and he composes a score to match Whitman’s “Song of the Universal” as well as excerpts from “Song of Myself.” What a thrill, imagining the union of “myself” and the “universal,” a union deeply felt by Whitman and intimately scored by Hersch. These two lives—brave, compassionate, daring, inclusive, resilient—and their art speak to the promise of this country. Their “collaboration” soars and inspires.

No time to waste! Here’s a link to the live performance of “Leaves of Grass” at Zankel Hall, presented by NPR, spliced with brief and telling interviews with Hersch. Savor it, as Whitman writes, “After the dazzle of day is done.”

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,” Whitman proclaims. Happy Fourth of July, with a prayer for Union.