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Law & Disorder: New Orleans Police, Post-Katrina.

An ongoing investigation by PBS' Frontline, The Times-Picayune and ProPublica examines the many violent incidents that took place between police officers and civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Reporter A.C. Thompson recounts the difficulties of trying to piece together the details.

31:10

Other segments from the episode on August 4, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 4, 2010: Interview with A. C. Thompson; Interview with Fred Hersch.

Transcript

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Law & Disorder: New Orleans Police, Post-Katrina

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and as New Orleans
continues to rebuild, the Justice Department is investigating the New Orleans
Police Department.

Since February, federal prosecutors have charged 16 current and former New
Orleans police officers for offenses ranging – for offenses allegedly committed
after the levies failed, including shooting, murder and covering up crimes.
Five officers have pleaded guilty. The Justice Department is also investigating
hate crimes committed after New Orleans flooded.

My guest, journalist A.C. Thompson, broke some of the stories that contributed
to the Justice Department's decision to launch investigations. Thompson says
what emerged from his work was a disturbing picture of New Orleans in the days
after the storm, when the city fractured along racial fault lines as its
government collapsed.

Thompson is a reporter for ProPublica, an investigative journalism website.
He's been collaborating on the series Law & Disorder with reporters from the
New Orleans Times-Picayune and the PBS documentary series "Frontline." He's the
correspondent for the "Frontline" edition "Law & Disorder," which will be
broadcast August 25th.

A.C. Thompson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the case of Henry Glover,
since that's one of the cases you've been investigating for ProPublica and for
the PBS series "Frontline." Tell us what you know about how he was attacked.

Mr. A.C. THOMPSON (Reporter, ProPublica): What we know is that on September 2,
2005, Henry Glover was shot on the west bank of the Mississippi River near a
strip mall. And in that strip mall was a police substation.

He ran away after he'd been shot, and his brother and a friend and another man
put him into a car and drove him to a school, where a police SWAT team was
camped out. And the idea was that they were going to get medical help for Henry
Glover.

They thought, look, this is the closest place to go. We know the police are
trained in lifesaving. We want to get him help. It's closer than the hospital.
Let's take him there.

And so they drove him to the school with the idea that we're going to rescue
Henry. He's bleeding, but he's still alive. When they got there, according to
the other three men, the police didn't offer any help. What they did was they
physically assaulted the three able-bodied men, and they left Henry in the back
of the car, and they let him bleed to death.

And eventually the able-bodied men, after allegedly being physically assaulted
repeatedly by the police, were turned loose, and the witnesses say that the
police drove off with Henry's body.

When I came into investigating the story, what I learned was, from the autopsy
report, I went through about 800 autopsy reports from the post-Katrina time
period, and I found one that described how Henry Glover was found and what
state his body was in.

And what it said was that he had been severely, severely burned, just burned to
almost nothing. And I tracked down a source who knew about this, who had photos
of Henry Glover's body.

It was in the car that his friends had tried to rescue him in. It was left on
the banks of the Mississippi River, just a short distance from a police
station, and in the car, looking at the photos, you could see all of this, all
the stuff described in the autopsy report.

You could see a burnt skull. You could see pieces of big bones. You could see
ashes. And that was Henry Glover. He was delivered to the morgue in five body
bags, and nobody knew what happened to him.

His cause of death was left unclassified, which means we're not even going to
rule this undetermined. We're just not even going to fill in the blank. That's
what the coroner did, just left it blank. And nobody did anything about it.

GROSS: How did you first get on this story of Henry Glover?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, the way I came into reporting this story is that I came
across a statement by a guy named William Tanner(ph), who said this whole crazy
story - and he made this statement to a police accountability group in New
Orleans - and he had this crazy tale, and it went something like: Shortly after
the storm, I encountered a man who'd been shot. I tried to rescue him. I drove
him to a school, a public elementary school where the police were camped out,
but the police didn't help him. I thought they'd help him, but instead the
police physically attacked me, and they physically attacked the other people
with me. They let Henry bleed to death, and then they took off with my car,
which I'd tried to rescue the man in, and they burnt up the car, and they burnt
up Henry Glover's body, and they dumped it on the banks of the river.

So I'm reading this, and I'm thinking, wow, this is really bizarre. This is a
really weird thing. And when you're an investigative reporter, you get kooky
people who come and tell you kooky stories, and they're, you know, they're
delusional. And I thought this might be the case.

But as I continued to work on reporting about the aftermath of Katrina, I came
across the autopsy report for Henry Glover, the man described in this account,
and he in fact had been burnt up.

And I thought, oh wow, this crazy tale that I had just read in this statement
might actually be true. There might be something to it, because here was a guy
who was very, very seriously burnt up during a flood, which looks pretty
suspicious.

And so I called around, and I finally tracked down the Glover family, and I
spoke to Henry's mom. And she said yes, I'd like to talk to you about my son.
Can you come to our apartment tomorrow?

And I went over there, and there were about 20 people in it, this small place,
and she said: This is all of Henry's family, and this is 2008. He died in 2005.
We still have no clue what happened to him. Do you know what happened to him?

And everyone was clamoring for information. All of his family members needed to
know what happened to Henry. All they knew was that the last time they'd seen
him, he'd been in police custody, and his remains had been found burnt up on
the banks of the Mississippi. They knew nothing.

And his brother, who'd helped to try to rescue him, was there. The man who had
made the statement about trying to rescue him was there as well, William, and
they all told me the same story, and it was just this macabre, disturbing
mystery.

GROSS: What did you learn about how and why Henry was shot in the first place?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, you know, at first I had no clue why he was shot. I didn't
know at all. And there were different theories, you know. One person thought,
well, perhaps it was a police officer because there was a police substation in
the strip mall right near where he was shot. Other people thought it was a
shopkeeper who might have thought that Henry was trying to steal something from
the strip mall. Other people thought it might have been just a random act of
violence.

Nobody knew. Nobody that I was talking to early on had a clue. And over time
what came out was that there had indeed been a police officer at that strip
mall who had fired a shot at Henry Glover. And what became more and more clear
– and a lot of this was uncovered by my friends at the New Orleans Times-
Picayune – was that a police officer had fired a shot from his rifle. He in all
likelihood had shot and hit Henry Glover.

Henry's companions had spirited him away from that section, that area, without
really knowing that he'd been shot by the police, and according to the federal
indictments, that there was pretty quickly a cover-up that went into effect
where officers were basically trying to hide the fact that this shooting had
occurred.

GROSS: When you say a cover-up, what was the shape of that cover-up?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, what you can divine from talking to sources and looking at
the federal indictments is that the federal government does not believe that
the incident report that was written up in the wake of the shooting describing
it is an accurate and truthful document. That's clear from what the federal
government is alleging in their indictment, in court papers.

Our reporting that I've done with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS
"Frontline" has showed the same thing. The reporters at the Picayune really
figured that out early on, that this report that was written by the police
department about the shooting did not look to be a truthful, accurate
reflection of what happened.

You know, further, the federal government is saying that the officers involved
in this mess lied to federal investigators about what happened.

GROSS: What is one of the biggest obstacles you've run into as a result of
those cover-ups?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, with the Henry Glover matter, the police department at
first told me they knew nothing about it. They knew nothing about it. There was
no information about it.

And when you look at that case, Henry Glover's mother went to the police
department and she said: My son, I believe he was shot. I don't know where he
is. I don't know if he's alive or dead. I think he's probably dead. Can you
figure out what happened?

And what we now know is that the police department, instead of following up on
her worry and on this, you know, terrible story that she's come and told them,
that they either did nothing or they actively made sure that that report didn't
go anywhere and nobody followed up. And that's the kind of stuff that you
encounter in New Orleans.

GROSS: You've read 800 autopsy reports as part of your research. Was it hard to
get access to those reports?

Mr. THOMPSON: When I started doing this reporting, the Nation Institute was
supporting it and bankrolling it, and they hired an attorney to sue the
coroner's office to make those documents available to us. They're public record
in the state of Louisiana, and they were supposed to be available to us, but
the coroner's office wouldn't do it.

So we had to go to court. We spent tens of thousands of dollars. The Nation
Institute poured a ton of money into it, and it was only after litigation and
winning in court that we finally got to review those documents.

GROSS: Why was it necessary to sue?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, when I first called down and I spoke to the staff at
the coroner's office, I said, you know, look, I'm only interested in people who
were shot or otherwise died violently after the storm.

And the coroner's office staffer said, well, you know, I don't know what we can
do for you. And I said, well, would it be easier if I made a formal public
records request? And the person on the other end of the phone said, well, sure,
you know, you can do that, but we don't follow the law anyway.

GROSS: Well, what does that mean?

Mr. THOMPSON: That means that they weren't going to turn over documents that
they legally had an obligation to turn over, even if I made the formal request
under the law for them.

GROSS: Is there a possibility that the leadership in the city, in their
attempts to maintain a lawful atmosphere and to prevent anarchy from breaking
out, gave orders that were interpreted too harshly by some cops who were maybe
too ready to pull the trigger when they thought somebody was a looter?

Mr. THOMPSON: That is an ongoing question. That is something that we are still
really trying to figure out. What we have been told by many people is that
officers were instructed by higher-ups in the department to quote-unquote "take
the city back," to go after looters with extreme prejudice, to use force in
contexts that wouldn't normally be lawful, that normally if you are going to
use deadly force, you need to be threatened with deadly force yourself as a
police officer. You can't just shoot somebody willy-nilly who's stealing
something. And it's been alleged to us that that's what was going on at that
time period.

Now, other people, other officers, higher-ups in the department, say that's
definitely not true, that that did not happen. And so for us, that's something
that we're still trying to wrestle with, is why did these shootings occur and
what happened in the chain of command that might have triggered them.

Eleven people were shot in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And when you look at
those shootings, there are a lot of disturbing similarities that make you
wonder both about the mindset of officers at that time and the possibility that
orders were given that gave officers the belief that they could use deadly
force in ways that they wouldn't normally use it in peacetime, in a non-
catastrophe situation.

As well, the mayor said we have martial law in effect right now, which might
have affected police officers and made them think oh, the normal rules of
engagement have changed.

The governor said: I'm sending in all these military troops, and they're locked
and loaded, and they're going to shoot people if they have to. And so there may
well have been a mindset with officers at that time that, hey, the normal rules
are out the window. You do what you got to do.

GROSS: Does it seem to you like Eric Holder, the head of the Justice
Department, is making the New Orleans Police Department, investigating the New
Orleans Police Department and cleaning it up, priorities?

Mr. THOMPSON: It's clear that investigating the New Orleans Police Department
and reforming the New Orleans Police Department is a major priority for the
Justice Department. There are at least eight ongoing civil rights probes of the
police department in New Orleans.

I can't think of any other police department in the United States of America
that is under that kind of federal scrutiny.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is A.C. Thompson. He's an
investigative reporter for ProPublica and a correspondent for the PBS series
"Frontline." He has been investigating hate crimes and shootings by civilians
and by police in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Let's take a
short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is A.C. Thompson. He's an
investigative reporter for ProPublica and a correspondent for the PBS series
"Frontline." He has been investigating hate crimes and shootings by civilians
and by police in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Now, we talked a little bit about one of the cases in which police were alleged
to have shot and then burned the body of and then covered up what happened to
an African-American man after Hurricane Katrina.

Let's look at one of the civilian, a civilian set of crimes committed,
allegedly committed, in the wake of Katrina. And I'm thinking here of a white
militia group that was formed as the floods were building up and people were
fleeing. Would you just, like, describe the neighborhood this happened in?

Mr. THOMPSON: Algiers Point sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River. So
it's cut off from the main part of New Orleans that you think about: The French
Quarter, the central business district and Canal Street, the heart of New
Orleans.

It's a little bit isolated from the rest of the city, and it's this beautiful
old neighborhood of well-maintained houses right on the river, and it's
predominately white, and it is linked to the city by a ferry terminal.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that ferry terminal turned into an
evacuation center set up by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard had an operation
there, and they were bringing all kinds of people into that ferry terminal by
land, by boat, and then they were taking them out of the city on buses, getting
them out of the city.

And in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when I talked to people about what
happened in that area, it was clear that for some of the white folks who lived
in that area, they were unhappy about this influx of new people to their
neighborhood, their small neighborhood, and that they had set up barricades in
the street.

They had taken fallen trees and rubbish and all kinds of stuff and barricaded
the streets so that people couldn't get in and out of their neighborhood very
easily, and they had mounted armed patrols. They were riding around the streets
and walking around the streets with assault rifles and shotguns and handguns,
and this was dry land.

This neighborhood didn't flood. So this was where people who were drowning were
coming to. And what the federal government says is that there was a plan to use
force and threats of force to keep African-Americans off the streets of this
neighborhood for about two weeks in the aftermath of that storm.

What people in that neighborhood will tell you, who I've interviewed, they'll
say it wasn't about race, it was just about keeping outsiders and criminals and
thieves out of our neighborhood. The federal government says otherwise, and
people who got caught up in this, African-American people, will tell you that
they think it was all about race.

GROSS: Can you give us an overview of the crimes that happened that were
allegedly tied to this white militia in Algiers Point?

Mr. THOMPSON: The federal government indicted a guy named Roland Bourgeois for
allegedly opening fire with his shotgun on three African-American men and being
part of this group of people who were conspiring to keep African-Americans off
the streets.

My reporting suggests that there were more shootings than that, there were more
incidents of threats and intimidation than that, but the total number is still
unknown.

What we know is that Donnell Herrington, one of the three men that Roland
Bourgeois is accused of shooting, very nearly died. He was shot in the throat.

GROSS: You're the person who identified the alleged shooter. How did you do
that?

Mr. THOMPSON: I first started reporting on this in 2008. The first story came
out about this group and about these alleged hate crimes, and after that I got
a tip, and the tip was there was a woman who was around at that time period,
she might talk to you, she thinks she saw something.

And I contacted this person, and she gave me information that made me think
that she might know who shot Donnell Herrington, and then she disappeared. She
quit taking my calls, and she quit returning my emails.

So I wound up driving about eight hours from New Orleans to her house and
showing up at her house, which is in another Southern state that I won't
disclose, and she said, you know, I thought you would show up at some time;
some in and I'll tell you what happened and you can put it on film for PBS
"Frontline."

And she told me: My neighbor, a guy named Roland, I saw him jumping around,
threatening to kill people, apparently using his shotgun, and I believe that he
shot somebody, and it might be this guy Donnell Herrington.

GROSS: My guest, A.C. Thompson, will be back in the second half of the show.
He's a reporter for ProPublica, the investigative journalism website. He's also
the correspondent for the PBS "Frontline" edition "Law & Disorder," which will
be broadcast August 25th. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with journalist A.C. Thompson, a
reporter for the investigative journalism website ProPublica. We’ve been
talking about his investigations into crimes allegedly committed by members of
the New Orleans Police Department after the levees broke five years ago.
Thompson has also been investigating shootings allegedly committed by
vigilantes from the white neighborhood, Algiers Point, who are accused of
trying to keep out African-Americans trying to get to dry ground.

Roland Bourgeois of Algiers Point has been charged with shooting Donnell
Herrington. Bourgeois was first identified in one of Thompson’s stories.
Thompson got the tip from one of Bourgeois’ neighbors. But then Thompson had to
do a lot of research to back up her claim.

Mr. THOMPSON: We spent the next year trying to figure this out and piecing the
whole thing together. It took a year to do a 2,000-word story and a couple
short videos. And what we ended up doing was really reconstructing those
events. We, first of all, figured out that this Roland she was talking about
was a guy named Roland Bourgeois. We identified him as the possible shooter.
All we had, at first, was the first name.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: From there, we went to Donnell Herrington and his cousin, who was
with him at the time of the shooting, and described the witness’s testimony and
her statements. We showed him a photo of Roland Bourgeois and he said that was
definitely one of the guys who was there that day; that was definitely one of
the men who was there when I was attacked.

We went to Roland Bourgeois’ mother and we interviewed her. And she said, oh
yeah, my son and another man were definitely involved in a shooting. They
definitely opened fire on an African-American man and the only reason the
federal government is investigating my son is because the guy he shot survived
and is talking to the media. So we started thinking that we might have the
right guy. But there was a thread that ran through this. There was a clue for
us that we followed.

Our first witness said that Roland - she hadn't actually seen the shooting -
that she’d seen him take off planning to shoot a black man, using racial
epithets, and he ran around a corner and she heard a sound...

(Soundbite of mimicking gunfire)

Mr. THOMPSON: ...a gunfire. And that he came back with a bloody blue baseball
cap and he was happy about this shooting and that he was celebrating. And his
friends, who were also armed, were celebrating.

I went to Donnell and I said hey, what were you wearing that day? And he said
oh, I was definitely wearing a baseball cap - probably a Detroit Tigers or a
New York Yankees. And then finally, when I spoke to Roland’s mother, she said,
oh yeah, and he kept the baseball cap from the man that he shot. I told him to
get rid of it and he finally got rid of it. And when all those things lined up,
we said oh, this probably is exactly the guy we're looking at. And that whole
thing about the baseball cap ends up in the federal indictment, that they
described the same scene.

GROSS: Why is this incident worth a year of reporting?

Mr. THOMPSON: This was an unsolved crime. This was somebody who had very nearly
been killed. Donnell Herrington was shot in the throat; he was shot in the
back, the arms, the torso. He had seven pieces of buckshot in his throat. His
internal jugular vein was shredded. He was going to bleed to death if he hadn't
been rescued. And he was luckily rescued, taken to the hospital and survived.
His surgeon told me he was close to death.

I thought that it was very disturbing to me, that a man fleeing a catastrophe,
trying to get to an evacuation center, trying to get out of the stricken city,
could allegedly be targeted for death because of his race. And that was what
really made me feel that I needed to figure out what happened.

GROSS: So what does the Justice Department have to say about this case?

Mr. THOMPSON: The Justice Department is not really talking beyond bringing down
charges on Roland Bourgeois. And in those charges, it portrays this incident as
a racially motivated attack and as part of a broader conspiracy, a broader
pattern of African-Americans being targeted in that area.

GROSS: So now that you’ve been publishing about these shootings and hate
crimes, are more people coming forward to speak with you?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, it took a long time to get people to talk about a lot
of these things. And what I find in New Orleans that’s different than other
places is people are very, very scared to talk about a lot of these things; and
that it takes a long, long time to convince them to talk. It’s not like other
places. In a lot of other places, people are very happy to – or they're not
happy, but they're very willing to discuss these kind of incidents. And in New
Orleans there is a culture of fear that pervades, that keeps people from
wanting to go public with some of these things.

GROSS: What do you attribute that to?

Mr. THOMPSON: I think that in New Orleans, especially where you have a police
department that has been embroiled in scandals for the last 30 years, that
folks are scared to speak out about that police department, oftentimes, and
that’s what they have told us that, you know, that’s what’s come through in our
reporting.

I have been writing about criminal justice and reporting on the criminal
justice system for more than a decade. And that was what was different about
New Orleans is, you know, with the alleged hate crimes I had all these people
describing shootings and attacks and racial threats to me. And the people who
were describing them were the people who were the victims of these attacks and
threats and harassment, as well as the people who were part of this group doing
it. And the police had never spoken to any of these folks. They'd never spoken
to the alleged victims or the alleged perpetrators or this broader group of
militia types. And that was what was different about New Orleans, is that there
didn’t seem to be any interest from local law enforcement into finding out what
happened to people like Donnell Herrington who was shot in the throat.

GROSS: A.C. Thompson is a reporter for ProPublica, the investigative journalism
website. He is also the correspondent for the PBS Frontline edition, "Law and
Disorder," which will be broadcast August 25th. You can find links to his
articles on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, pianist Fred Hersch describes emerging from a two-month coma and
starting to play again.

This is FRESH AIR.

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Fred Hersch: Giving The Piano A 'Whirl' Post-Illness

(Soundbite of song, "Snow is Falling")

TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch has been a guest several times on FRESH
AIR. I was shocked to learn about the medical crisis that he experienced. He's
had AIDS since the late '80s and has managed to keep composing, performing and
touring. But in 2008, as a result of complications from AIDS, he suffered
temporary psychosis and then fell into a two-month coma. After emerging from
the coma, he had to relearn to use his hands. He's just released his first
album since recovering. It's called "Whirl." We’ve been listening to his
composition, "Snow is Falling."

Fred Hersch, welcome back to the show, and more important, welcome back to the
living. I'm just amazed that you were able to build yourself back up to the
point where you could make this album. It's remarkable.

Mr. FRED HERSCH (Pianist, composer): Yeah. It's been quite a couple of years of
what I might call just simply medical hell - a series of illnesses and
hospitalizations. The most dramatic of them being actually in a coma for two
months. And coming out of the coma for that length of time, you know, you
pretty much can't do anything. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat. I was on a
feeding tube for eight months. I couldn’t swallow. I had no hand coordination.
I couldn’t hold a pencil. So I had to completely rebuild myself and, you know,
now I'm back and playing and feeling, if anything, better than I did before all
this.

MARTIN: You’ve had AIDS since the mid-1980s. What set off this latest series of
illnesses?

Mr. HERSCH: Well, in the fall of 2007, I was quite busy. I was touring a fair
amount. I was losing weight. I wasn’t eating well. And in December of 2007, I
was pulled off of my anti-retroviral drugs in order to give my system a break.
And unfortunately, what happened was the virus then attacked my brain, so I
spent the first two and a half months of 2008 basically psychotic.

GROSS: Were you very paranoid during - was it the kind of psychosis?

Mr. HERSCH: Yeah. I was very paranoid. I kind of holed up in my apartment. The
only people that I wanted to see was my partner Scott Morgan and my brother
Hank. I pretty much cut myself off from the world. I was convinced that people
had conspiracies against me and I was convinced that I had magical powers and
could stop time at will and it was pretty nutty.

GROSS: So when you were going through this really paranoid period, were you
afraid of your own family and of your own friends, and even of your partner?

Mr. HERSCH: No, I wasn’t afraid of my partner nor my brother. I thought many of
my friends were lying to me. I didn’t trust anybody. And it was scary. I mean I
began that period in what they call a semi-coma. I was in a hospital. I was
kind of in and out of consciousness for 10 days but if you would've asked me
afterwards how long I’d been in the hospital, I would've said oh, two or three
days. So I wasn’t aware to the extent and the length that I was hospitalized,
while they tried to stabilize me, not only physically but psychologically.

GROSS: When did that stop? When did the craziness stop?

Mr. HERSCH: The crazy stopped early March of 2008 and then I had sort of a
honeymoon period. I was eating. I was gaining weight. I wrote a whole bunch of
music. Everything looked good. Two brand new anti-retroviral drugs had come on
the market just as I was entering this crazy period and they reduced my viral
load, which is the measure of the viral activity the AIDS virus in your body -
they reduced it from, you know, six or eight million copies to undetectable. So
that was a very good sign that I responded so quickly to these drugs, which are
new - they are a new classes of drugs, in fact, different ways of attacking the
virus.

So I came out and I felt good and strong, and went out around Memorial Day
weekend to Northern California. Happened to be the town where my father lives
in Healdsburg, which is up in Sonoma County - a wine country. And I played a
jazz festival there and felt fine and came back to New York in early June and
started to feel kind of off and, you know, running little bits of fever and
kind of feeling weird. And there was nothing that alarming. And then on the 9th
of June, I spoke with it wasn’t actually my doctor, but his associate, since my
doctor was on vacation, and he gave me an antibiotic and he said if this
doesn’t improve I'm going to order a chest x-ray for Tuesday. So on Tuesday I
was running fever and I decided it might be nice to just get in a bath and cool
out.

So I got in the bathtub and was unable to get out physically. And Scott and I
kind of looked at each other and said we're going to the hospital. So we got in
a cab, went to the hospital and they checked me for fever. And I wasn't
presenting with fever, but then they stuck one of those gizmos on your finger
that measures your blood oxygen level and mine was below 70, which is
considered like kind of near death. And they immediately put me in triage and
discovered that I was in septic shock and my organs were all failing.

GROSS: Fred, you said during the period when you seemed to have recovered from
your psychotic period because the AIDS virus had gone to your brain, and there
was this like honeymoon period when you seemed to be okay that you started
composing again. Is any of the work that you composed then represented on the
new album?

Mr. HERSCH: Yes, three pieces, actually. I composed a suite of music for trio -
piano, bass, drums trio, and it was a full evening of music, and it was 12
pieces and 12 keys that were dedicated to 12 different people. "Whirl" is
dedicated to the ballerina Suzanne Farrell, and the rhythm of it comes from the
rhythm of her spinning and pirouetting. "Sad Poet" is a dedication to Antonio
Carlos Jobim, who I played his music ever since I started playing jazz. And
"Still Here" is dedicated to Wayne Shorter, who is not only one of my big
influences, but he's 75 and still making, you know, interesting and creative
and vital music. So I wrote that for him. And those compositions do appear on
"Whirl."

GROSS: "Whirl," you said is dedicated to the ballerina Suzanne Farrell. Why
were you thinking about her?

Mr. HERSCH: Something about the rhythm of the piece. She's from Cincinnati, as
I am. I saw her dance many times and there's something about a rhythm when, you
know, a dancer spins and, of course, they can't just keep spinning. They sort
of have to spot at a certain point or they’ll get dizzy or fall over. So the
rhythm is kind of taken from the spinning and spotting of Suzanne. And I think
she's, you know, just the most deep and graceful and classically beautiful
dancers that I've ever seen - just really magnificent. She's a magnificent
artist.

GROSS: Well, why don’t we hear "Whirl?" So this is composed and performed at
piano by Fred Hersch. It's the title track from his new CD "Whirl."

(Soundbite of song, "Whirl")

GROSS: That's the title track of pianist and composer Fred Hersch's new CD
"Whirl."

We'll talk more with Hersch after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Fred Hersch, the pianist and composer. He has a new CD
called "Whirl." We're featuring the Fred Hersch Trio, and we're talking about
the two years in which he was very sick. He's had AIDS since the mid-1980s but
he - this was just a particularly horrible period these past two years that
included a two-month coma.

So let me ask you, after emerging from the coma, you spent quite a while where
you were helpless. You couldn’t move. You had lost one of your vocal cords
because of the tube that was placed down your throat when you were admitted
into the hospital. You couldn’t eat. You could barely speak. Just a hoarse
whisper was all you could get out. You had to have surgery to get your second,
your other vocal cord work - another vocal cord. I don’t know how many we have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCH: We have two.

GROSS: We only have two? Okay. So you needed surgery to get the other one
working again. So you had a feeding tube for months. Going through all that,
what makes you - what gives you the drive to keep pushing forward and keep
living? I mean it can seem like a really bleak and hopeless existence, I would
guess?

Mr. HERSCH: Well, around the time that I found out that I had AIDS in the mid-
'80s, that was when I first began making my own albums - albums we called them
then - and for a number of times through the early '90s until better drugs -
protease inhibitor drugs, what they now call cocktail medications came along,
you know, AIDS was, you know, there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it.
I was just luck of the draw if you were going to live or not. So I certainly
felt, during that period, that every CD or album I was making was going to be
my last. And my motivation then was that God forbid I should die, I'd like to
at least create some body of work where somebody might, you know, remember me.
I wanted to be heard.

And certainly, since the coma, and this is not just my opinion, I'm reflecting
opinions of others, because it’s very hard to talk about one's work - in
general, I find it hard. There seems to be more relaxation, maybe more depth,
more direct connection to what I'm playing. Fortunately my technique has come
back, virtually completely, at the piano. But I realized, you know, when I was
that far down that I really wasn’t done yet. There was more that I had to do as
a musician, as a partner. And whether it was just stubbornness or crankiness or
whatever, I felt like I'm not ready to checkout.

GROSS: At what point did music start becoming beautiful to you again? Were you
able to listen to it right away after emerging from the coma?

Mr. HERSCH: When I was in the rehab center I had a CD player and a little
portable DVD player - I could watch a movie. And I did begin listening again. I
found it very therapeutic. I didn’t have enough energy to read - that took too
much energy at that point. But I emerged from the coma in early August, went
home shortly after Labor Day of 2008, and then I was knocked down with another
pneumonia, which probably caused by a gallbladder infection and I began
vomiting blood. I actually lost four units of blood and was readmitted to ICU
for - thank God it turned around in about four five days.

But I got out of the hospital on a Saturday in early October. I believe it was
the 11th. And there's a small jazz club here in New York called Smalls, and I
was just looking around on the Web. I, for some reason that day when I got out
of the hospital I had tons of energy. It was a classically beautiful fall day
in New York and Scott and I walked all the way through the Village and it just
felt great to be back in the world - and probably I was just pumped up with
saline or something and feeling good. But I went online later that afternoon
and looked at the Smalls website and I noticed that two days after that, the
Monday night, it said for the 7:30 set, it said pianist TBD - to be determined.
So I called up the owner and I said look, I know I just got out of the
hospital, but if I can pull a trio together I would really like to come and
play a set. So Scott, who'd been napping woke up and I said, you know, you’re
not going to believe this but I booked a gig for two days from now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCH: And, you know, he was nervous and thought I was maybe a little
nuts, but I went down and I played a set with a bass player and drummer, who
I'm very friendly with. And it was something that I really needed to do to
prove to myself that this all had not taken away everything. I listened to the
recording subsequently, and sure it sounds, you know, a little weak and, you
know, not my A game playing but it wasn’t bad either. And I think just doing
that and also the place was packed and everybody was there. I mean there was
just this incredible feeling of love. And the jazz community, you know, such as
it is, was incredibly solicitous while I was ill.

When I went home people came to visit, people visited me in rehab, people were
in touch with Scott, they really wanted to know how I was doing. And so, the
room was packed with people who really wanted to be there and this incredible
just big embrace from the jazz community. I think after I did that I realized
that okay, there's hope here, that I'm going to be able to do this. Ands so, I
started gigging again in the fall of 2008, you know, and, of course, I was
still on a feeding tube, so traveling with cans of liquid food and a food pump
was not the easiest thing in the world but...

GROSS: I can't believe you did that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERSCH: But I was determined, you know, and I never quit.

GROSS: Well, Fred Hersch, thank you again for being with us and I'm just so
happy to hear how well you’ve done after your period of health hell - medical
hell, as you put it. So, thank you again and all best to you.

Mr. HERSCH: Thank you. And I'm really feeling like I'm continuing to move
forward and continuing to challenge myself and that feels really good to me. So
thank you very much.

GROSS: Pianist and composer Fred Hersch's new album is called "Whirl." You can
hear three tracks from the album on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you
can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: While shooting the action scenes for the new police comedy "The Other
Guys," director Adam McKay stressed safety first. But the film's star, Will
Ferrell, got his priorities straight...

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): I would then, behind Adam's back, tell everyone don’t
listen to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: We’ve got to get this shot.

GROSS: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on the next FRESH AIR.

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
128976314

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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