Rex Hessek: Music Man

“Ideally the point of music is community, not the player. Musicians are simply channels to link the audience to the music and to each other.” — Trey Anastasio

Community is the hallmark of the Philadelphia Freedom Band (PFB), a band of approximately 100 musicians. The band is comprised of community members dedicated to providing visible, active support to the LGBTQ+ community. The organization has three major components: the concert band, marching band, and recently-restarted jazz ensemble. 

Originally founded in 1988, the PFB’s marching band was the first openly LGBTQ+ organization to march in Philadelphia’s Independence Day parade and their members have had the honor of performing in both of President Barack Obama’s inaugural parades. 

To mark the 15th anniversary of the group, the concert band will be performing a special show, the 15th Anniversary All-Request Nostalgia Fest on Jan. 28. Artistic Director Hayley Varhol polled band members about some of their favorite pieces from high school and college to assemble a program with a stylistic variety of compositions meant to spark nostalgia in many generations of concert band aficionados. 

Perennial staples in the literature, such as Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide,” Johan de Meij’s “Hobbits” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” will make their PFB premiere alongside some lesser-known genre gems. The concert will take place at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral with tickets starting at $20.

I had a chance to speak to one of the band members, Ray Hessek, a talented sax player who started playing as a mere tot. 

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lehighton, Pa., a small town in the Poconos. I lived there until I went to college at Penn State. After college, I moved to this area just outside of Philadelphia and then into Philadelphia in about 2007.

Siblings? Parents? 

I have an older sister, Nicole, who lives in the Scranton area and she has four kids. My parents are still with us and still together and they live in the same house that I grew up in. So that’s what I think of when I think of home.

When I think of the Poconos, I just think of skiing or hiking. I’ve never known anyone who lived there. Tell me a little about growing up in the Poconos?
It really is beautiful there, which is why it’s so popular for skiing and hiking. It’s kind of a best kept secret from the rest of the world. It’s not just for vacationing. It’s a great place to live. 

And was your home in a rural area or more populated section?
It was pretty rural. I mean, until I was about 10, we had an RR address. I grew up near a farm.

Rural Route, isn’t that when you don’t have an address, just a box number?
Yes, a small town; everybody knew each other. It was nice.

And how would your parents have described you as a kid?
I was very creative, very quiet, well… pretty quiet, but with a good sense of humor, and kind. I think they’d say that. 

What did they do?
My mom was an emergency room nurse, and my dad ran. His parents had a clothing factory that he ended up taking over. It closed when I was in high school, and he and my uncle got into Subway restaurant franchises. 

Wow, so they had you covered! Between the two of them, you had medical care, clothing and food!
[Laughing] That’s right! 

You left home to go to college. What did you study?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to do something to make money and survive, so initially, I studied to be an art teacher. I did that for about two years and found out that I wasn’t suited for it nor was I that interested in it. At the time, I was also working at a mental health treatment center for kids and got interested in the therapy side of that so I went back to school and got a masters in clinical psychology. 

What didn’t suit you in teaching art?
Too much keeping track of things! [Laughing] From the materials, pencils, markers, records — that whole responsibility of managing people and objects. In therapy, there’s just maybe a paper and pad and one person to engage with. It’s much easier to focus on my skill set. 

That’s funny. I’m looking at a big box of markers and art supplies that I’m giving to a person I featured recently who works with an organization that teaches art to kids. They provide supplies to underfunded schools.
Good for them. That’s a big deal. 

What was a favorite class as you were studying psychology?
Hmmm, in clinical psychology? You know none of the classes were actually that great. I didn’t find them very engaging. I took a lot of classes in statistics because I had planned to get my doctorate and then I got over that pretty quickly. The best learning happened after I got my masters. I’m currently taking classes in Gestalt therapy and I’m finding that curriculum to be very helpful for my practice. I took some classes at the Philadelphia School of Psychoanalysis and found that very interesting too. But for me, grad school was just a means to an end, to get the paper so that I could take the next step. 

I think it’s such an interesting field. [Laughing] I’m constantly watching things that people do and saying, “If I were in the psychiatric research field, I’d study to see what makes people do XYZ.”
Yeah, humans are so fascinating — what we do and why we do it. It’s funny. Talking to you is almost like an introductory therapy session; you setting up the environment for me to feel comfortable to speak and helping me to open up and talk about myself. There are definitely similarities. 

Ha, I never thought about that, but yes I can see it. I often have people get emotional and sometimes tell me things their partners never knew about them. What was something that surprised you when you first started practicing?
How incredibly we are able to cope with our environments. With all the stuff that people deal with, the trauma and horrific things, we create behaviors and ways of being that might seem dysfunctional or problematic to others but they are ways of surviving. From the outside looking in, it might not always look great, and often people judge others without knowing that really it’s a profound method of dealing with sometimes very hard things. I’m always amazed at how people can survive very difficult situations. 

Give me a general idea of what you do.
I do a lot of work with trauma therapy and EMDR, which is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and a way to heal from past trauma. I work with a lot of LGBT people as well, working on navigating a relationship with self and with the world. I’ve done some work around substance abuse and other abuse work. 

That’s a lot. What do you do to decompress?
I like making things, building things or trying to figure out how things work. For a while, I had a little workshop to make mechanical creatures and other automatons. Two years ago, I learned about electricity because I was like, “I have no idea how things work! I use electricity every day and it’s like… what? You plug it in and it just…”  so I learned how to play with circuits and stuff and got a rough idea of how things work. 

That sounds on par with your personality; getting inside to figure out what makes something tic, whether it’s electronics or someone’s head. When did you start playing music?
I’ve been playing instruments since I was 6. I started on the piano and then at 8, I started playing the trumpet which I did up through college. I had a band called the Lesbian Dorkestra with some of my friends. I loved that name! We’d cover songs from lesbian musicians like Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls and it was fun because we’d play whatever instruments were available — the clarinet, trumpet, accordion, whatever. It was fun. That faded out and in 2017, I got involved with the Freedom Band. I found them by just googling. I started playing trumpet and last year, I switched to baritone saxophone and I love it. 

You started playing trumpet at 8! How do you have lips left? I played a friend’s trumpet for one night and my lips were numb 10 minutes into it. I was talking like, [with a lisp] “My mouth ith tingling. How do people play thith thing for any length of time!?”
I was never very good at it! I always felt like I struggled with it even though I tried for so long. No one ever told me that it probably wasn’t the best instrument for me. The saxophone is so much easier! It has a different mouthpiece that’s much better for my overbite! But the trumpet can be fun because it’s so loud. And it often gets to play the melody. 

What was your best trumpet moment?
Oh man, it was when I was in 7th grade and we were playing a Beatles medley, and I LOVED the Beatles. I was never the first trumpet. I was lucky if I was second, and there was a great trumpet solo in the piece. On the night of the concert, Matt, the first trumpet who was supposed to play it, was sick! So I got to play the solo in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and I killed it! It was such a great moment. I was like, “Yeah, take that Matt!” That was my crowning achievement. I peaked early on the trumpet. 

What’s it been like being part of the Freedom Band?
It’s a special experience. It’s one of those things where we create something bigger than ourselves. Everyone is so supportive. We have professional musicians sitting next to people who haven’t played for 30 years. People feel joyous just to be there and everyone comments about how good they feel after a rehearsal no matter how tired or stressed they were coming in. For people who are LGBT — and most but not all of us are — it’s great to have a place where you feel welcome, and to have that feeling of community. It’s hard to put it into words. I transitioned while I was in the band in 2018 and I don’t know that I could have done it without the band. There was something about having that acceptance while going through such a big life change that allowed me to do it. 

That’s great. What was your journey as you came into yourself?
It’s funny. I rethink my journey now that I’m trans. I came out as gay when I was in college, and the family was like, “Yeah, we always knew.” And they were fine. I was always a boy. 

Were you involved in sports? That’s usually the giveaway.
No! That’s the funny thing. I wasn’t into sports at all. I wasn’t a tomboy, but I was a boy, an un-athletic boy. Then as a therapist working with a lot of LGBT people, I found my self-supporting clients who were transitioning. Writing them letters for top surgery and being a good ally, and then I started feeling hypocritical because I knew I wasn’t taking care of myself around that. I was disconnecting from my own body and my life, until the cognitive dissonance between my private and professional lives got to be too much. So I got sober, which was part of my journey and decided to explore what it would be like to get gender-affirming treatment. And I’m very happy and proud of the life that I’ve created for myself now. My little boy self would be so proud of me. 

I’m sure. Did I read that you were a drum major with the band?
Not now. I was a drum major in high school and I was the drum major for the Freedom Band during the pandemic, which was interesting since we couldn’t really play on Zoom because of the time delay. So I made a lot of fun videos for everyone. I’d get people to tape themselves lip synching to Celine Dion for instance and putting them together — just a way to keep morale up and communicate even though we couldn’t meet in person. For this concert, I’m playing the bari sax and doing a lot of the social media. I asked all the band members to send me a picture of themselves as kids and I put the pictures of them playing instruments then and now on the Facebook page. It’s really sweet. 

OK, random question time. Tell me about your tattoos. How many do you have and what’s the most significant?
I don’t know how many because I have quite a few. I always wanted tattoos. Again, my younger self would be really excited about them. I got the first one in college. I think it just says “lucky.” All my tattoos are old traditional style. I like the idea of the tattoo for pure aesthetic reasons so they don’t have a lot of symbolic meaning for me, at least not that I’m conscious of. It’s more about the visual appeal and how they fit on my body. And it was great to get a chest tattoo that covered my top surgery scars. I guess the meaning for me is that it represents how I am choosing what I do with my body and how my body is seen. I go once a month or two to get a new tattoo. 

Last thing you purchased?
I got a chai gingerbread oatmeal latte this morning. It’s one of my treats. 

What would be your (exotic) therapy pet?
I love parrots — talking parrots. I follow them on Instagram. It would be nice to have one who could chime in during therapy and offer advice. An insightful parrot who could say things that maybe me or the patient hadn’t thought of. 

My ex’s mother has an African grey parrot and it speaks three languages. Her mother is Greek and her boyfriend at the time was Middle Eastern and the parrot would speak using their accents. And when her grandmother died, it would speak in the grandmother’s voice, which sounds spooky but her mother said it was comforting, almost like having a part of her mother there.
They’re amazing birds, so intelligent.

What sport in the Olympics would you want to compete in?
Oh my goodness, I’m so not sports oriented, but OK in this fantasy question, I’m an awesome athlete and I’m really good at swimming! I actually just learned to swim last year at the YMCA. I can do a doggie paddle but that’s it, so I wanted to learn how to swim. People look so graceful in the water taking those long strokes. So that would be me, taking home medals for swimming. 

So my final question is do you have a favorite motto or saying?
Ah, no I don’t and I don’t want one. When I got my tattoos, the artist said, “If you write words, people will be asking about them for the rest of your life.” I like the freedom of not being tied to a certain phrase or a certain way of thinking. So my motto is no mottos! 

[Laughing] You can let your sax do the talking.
Exactly! 

15th Anniversary All-Request Nostalgia Fest: The PFB Winter Concert will take place Jan. 28 from 4-6 p.m. at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 19 South 38th St. For tickets and more information, visit philadelphiafreedomband.com.