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Fred Hersch, Setting Whitman to Music

Fred Hersch is an acclaimed jazz pianist and composer, with more than 20 recordings and two Grammy nominations to his credit. He's also an avid reader, and over the last three decades, he's drawn much inspiration from the works of poet Walt Whitman. For Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, Hersch shares his story with reporter Jeff Lunden.

Hersch first became curious about Whitman's poetry as a freshman at the New England Conservatory of Music in the mid-1970s. Hersch, who is openly gay, was drawn to Whitman's Calamus poems, a series written in 1860 that celebrates friendship and "manly attachment." In one of the poems, When I Heard at the Close of the Day, the narrator is famous but unhappy, because he's not with his lover.

"It’s really one of the great love poems," Hersch says. "And when you think, too, just of the guts that it took to write that in 1860 about somebody of the same sex, that's rather remarkable. As an… 18-year-old gay man, to read that was like 'wow.'"

Two years ago, Hersch reread that poem and composed an instrumental work based on it. That inspired another idea -- setting several of Whitman's poems for voice and instrumental ensemble. The resulting work, Leaves of Grass, shares its name with the collection of poems Whitman first published in 1855 and continued to tinker with until his death in 1892. The music ranges from chamber music to funk, from blues to bossa nova.

Hersch says he's attracted to Whitman's exuberant spirit, democratic ideals and emphasis on the present: "[That's] basically the essence of Buddhism, which says life is change, and the only thing we have is this moment."

Hersch's Leaves of Grass will be presented at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina this June. Hersch's new piano trio recording goes on sale Tuesday.

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