"My first and most important goal at the time was that I really wanted to make it in jazz," he recalls. "I came to New York to play with the best people I could play with, and I wasn't going to let anything stop me."
Hersch was "so ambitious" and "so driven" that he felt compelled to suppress who he was, terrified of the consequences if the jazz legends he was working with were to discover his sexual orientation.
"At that time, I knew no other gay jazz musicians," he says, "so I led a kind of dual existence--gay friends on one side, musician friends on the other, but never the same. And the funny thing is that the feeling of isolation I experienced in the jazz community wasn't really all that unfamiliar to me, because that's how gay people often feel throughout their childhood. You realize that you're attracted to members of your same sex, and there's nobody to talk about it with. The others are always talking about the opposite sex."
In addition to the "Ballad Album," Hersch has a new solo release on Concord ("Fred Hersch at Maybeck"), a trio album on Chesky ("The Fred Hersch Trio Plays . . . "), several compositions on two other AIDS benefit albums ("The AIDS Quilt Songbook" on Harmonia Mundi/Nightingale and "Memento Bittersweet" on BMG/Catalyst) and has produced and played on albums for Andrade and cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran.
But he worries that his expanded visibility may be countered by a hesitation on the part of promoters to book him for future dates.
"Look, the simple fact is that I'd like to work more," he says. "I'd like to work as much as I possibly can. When you're facing the clock, you just sort of say, 'Well, what's important to me?' And making music is important.
"But I know there are some people out there who are going to say, 'I'd like to book Fred next summer, but I don't know if I want to risk a booking. Maybe he won't be here.' I can't control that kind of ignorance. Of course, it's true, I might not be here. But that could apply to anybody.
"It's very weird. If you have cancer, you can look at it on a CAT scan and say, 'Well, there it is.' But this is more mysterious. It's like you're a little kid, and it's at night, and your parents have gone to sleep. The closet door is open a little bit, and you imagine there's some monster in there that's going to come out, but you don't know what it's going to look like or what it's going to do. It's pretty strange."
But "the main thing for me is what it's always been--to keep growing as a musician, to keep trying new things, to keep stretching by playing with people with whom I can be myself and to keep challenging myself.
"Sure, I wish I wasn't HIV-positive. But that's just the way it is. I wish there was no war and no cancer, too, but it just doesn't work out that way.
"I've seen some people with AIDS go through amazing transformations, with great realizations. It's ironic that they sometimes don't get it together until the last years of their lives. But as long as you get there, it really doesn't matter when it is. There's a line from George Eliot that says it all: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' "