Rick Hirsch is just the “local jazz guy,” according to his website. The Newark, Del . native moved to Happy Valley in 1999 from Madison, Wis., to be closer to family, and over the years, has built a jazz career that extends past the Centre region.
Hirsch has been awarded the Fellowship in Jazz Competition twice by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and his bands have steady local gigs in State College. Zeropoint Big Band , which was created in 2009, is a 16-piece band that plays every first Tuesday of the month at the American Ale House. His jazz trio entertains those every Sunday who attend the brunch at the Gardens in the Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel .
Hirsch sat down with The Daily Collegian on Monday to discuss how he built his career.
Q: When did you begin playing jazz music?
A: When I was in high school, around 14 or 15 [years old].
Q: How did you get into jazz?
A: I auditioned and got into the jazz band somehow, and after being in it for a year, I really got into the music.
Q: Have you always played the saxophone since the beginning?
A: I wanted to play trumpet, but none of my friends were playing trumpet. So I picked saxophone and then, of course, my friends picked up the trumpet.
Q: Who first inspired you as a musician?
A: The first saxophone [player] that caught my ear was Paul Desmond . If you heard any jazz, you would have heard him on a song called “Take Five,” which was sort of the first five-four jazz piece with a band called The Dave Brubeck Quartet . [Desmond] has this beautiful sound.
Q: Did you think that you would make a career out of jazz?
A: No, it just ended up that way.
Q: Did you want to do something else first?
A: Well, when I was a teenager and figured out I wasn’t going to make the Yankees , I thought I would do something with computer engineering.
Q: What made you change your mind?
A: I studied at UMass Amherst and I went there as an undecided with really no idea what direction I was going to go in. I had some neat opportunities there. I was able to study with legends of jazz.
Q: Who were some of the legends?
A: My primary influence was Yusef Lateef , who was recently recognized as a NEA Jazz Master from the National Endowment. There were two other jazz legends that came through campuses: Max Roach and Billie Taylor . So eventually, I earned a B.A. in Music.
Q: Over the years you have won a couple of awards, how it did it feel to be recognized for your talent?
A: Oh man, that was a shot in the arm. It was great.
Q: When you moved to State College, is that when you began Hirsch Jazz groups?
A: It really is, because when I lived in the Midwest, I didn’t have to have my own bands. I was busy playing with other bands, but when I moved here there were already two really good saxophone players [in State College]. With a town of this size, that’s a lot. So if I wanted to perform, I had to start my own bands.
Q: How did you gather all these musicians for your bands?
A: When you’re a part of a community, like-minded people gravitate toward each other. Whatever passions or interests you have, you’ll probably find people who share those interests. Early on when no one knew who I was, it meant showing up to other people’s gigs and hanging out.
Q: As a way of putting your name out there?
A: Yeah and bringing my saxophone along with me as a way of musical introduction.
Q: After years of being in the business, do you have any stories to tell from the past?
A: Ten years ago, my jazz trio played for a reunion of the 1973 Nittany Lion football team with John Cappelletti . I have great snapshot of my jazz trio with JoePa .
Q: Besides the gigs you have lined up, do you have any other upcoming events on the calendar?
A: February 9, I’m actually a guest soloist with the Penn State Centre Dimension , which is sort of the top student jazz band at Penn State. Performing is part of what I do, but I am also a composer. The music I write is published all around the world. The Internet is awesome for a composer like me in the middle of Pennsylvania. Right now, I’m writing a whole lot of music because I am hoping to record with my sextet this winter. That’s keeping me pretty busy.