Harvey Pekar—namesake of famed underground comic series American Splendor, Veteran Affairs office clerk, book writer, curmudgeon. But before all of those, the Cleveland native was a jazz enthusiast and critic. Even in the last years before his death, he still was; see his work in outlets like NPR and the Austin Chronicle to find some of the finest, to-the-point treatises about bebop-era jazz by any American critic, or look up "Leave Me Alone," the jazz opera he co-wrote and starred in last year.
Most people know how he looked and acted through actor Paul Giamatti's eyes, or maybe Robert Crumb's, or any of the other underground artists who penned his American Splendor tales through the years. I felt lucky to see him—and, of course, hear him—in an unfiltered way, when he gave a presentation at a small Texas music conference last year. He sat in a chair three times his size and asked his friend, Jeffrey Barnes of Brave Combo polka/jazz fame, to play selected avant-garde jazz CDs for the crowd. Hundreds of college-age Texans, all in unabashedly hipster-ish garb, sat back, closed their eyes, and listened along to Pekar's musical whims while he rambled about the tunes as he pleased. It was a concert, in a way, but it was also a gift he wanted to give to a new musical generation.
I was even more fortunate to get Mr. Pekar's phone number and call him a few weeks before the keynote to talk about jazz for the conference's program notes. It's how I'll always remember him—to-the-point, but giving and excitable, and exceedingly patient with my relative jazz novicehood. After our talk ended somewhat abruptly (his wife had just come home), Mr. Pekar said I could call him anytime if I needed more for my story. That is no longer true today. But I'm hopeful this interview will be solace to anybody else as sad about his passing as I am.
You recently stated in an interview with NPR about jazz that more people need to care about the avant-garde in general. I'll play devil's advocate: why should they?
They need to care, or they need to be at least aware of it, because if people stop experimenting, you know, and trying to push the boundaries of art, then they're gonna be repeating themselves year after year. The art form will turn into a folk art form, which doesn't grow.
What's really changed in art? Why is it so important that we call for a return?
Do you understand why I'm saying it's important? That the art form needs to grow?
I'm just playing devil's advocate, would like your perspective on what has—
You know, not only jazz, but a whole different, um, set of art forms. I don't know, maybe, humans [now have a] physical inability to be able to appreciate some of these things that people are doing, which would be too bad. It's like, what, you're just not genetically set up to enjoy this stuff? There's less interest in this stuff as it gets farther and farther out.
I want to get at how you became a fan of jazz, how it became a part of your life from the earliest days.
I was 16 years old and I was just flailing around, looking for an interest. I heard, you know, these jazz records. They were modern records, at the time in the '50s, and I realized that I didn't fully get what was going on. But I liked a lot of what I heard. What I felt was, if I listen to this stuff enough, I could train my ear so I could hear what was going on. I kept on buying records and listening to them. Finally, I was able to hear the relationship between the jazz improvisers' solos and the underlying structure that it's based on, the chord progression. That was pretty easy to do in the swing era, y'know, when jazz was, like, pop music, you know. It had made the charts and everything like that.
When bebop came along, bebop was more complex. To really dig bebop, you know, you had to work. I s'pose there are some people that have such good ears that they were able to follow it from day one. But I think most people had trouble with it, not understanding what was going on, not understanding how the soloists were constructing their solos, where they were in the composition, what part of the composition they were playing on at a given time. So, after a while, some of 'em said, "I can't deal with this, man, I'm listening to Chuck Berry and Frank Sinatra."
I come at it from a totally different direction. I'm a kid; as far as jazz, I started with the RVG remasters [on Blue Note Records]. I worked backwards from acid jazz to hard bop to swing. Does that change the appreciation for it? Where did you start?
In college, I worked at a CD store, where people put jazz records in my hands. I guess Lee Morgan was my gateway. Before that, acid jazz was the only thing that might've been "cool jazz."
Did you have any problem understanding certain things? Or did everything come easy to you?
It wasn't even understanding. It just felt really great. I came from a shitty music family, my parents were into pop-country and all that. The band Morphine based out of Boston in the '90s had a sax instead of lead guitar—wasn't trying to be ska or anything ridiculous, it was pretty pure attempt at jazz with beatnik poetry on top. That got me started, Then something like Lee Morgan comes along, and I really liked letting go. Not trying to figure it out.
If you didn't have to try to figure it out, you had it figured out! If you don't have to try and figure it out, man, either you're completely missing it or completely getting it.
(Laughs) I've heard both before. So was understanding jazz like solving a puzzle for you?
For me, the thing is, the '40s and '50s, bop music, Lee Morgan is what I'd call a post-bopper. He came in the generation after Dizzie and Charlie Parker. He wasn't in the founding generation of bebop. A lot of people continue to play bop or solos based on bop-like chord progressions. And so over time, it became easier for people, they were exposed more to this kind of play, so they had less trouble with it than people did when I was a kid. I'd say, if you're listening to Lee Morgan and you like it right off the bat, (laugh) you're doing what you're supposed to be doing.
Back to my original question, if jazz and art are to be important to the mainstream again, what can anyone really do to reach that as a massive, national effort?
We need a new Leonard Bernstein for that. The conductor of the New York Philharmonic who used to give lectures about jazz on TV and stuff. That might help. If you're looking at someone doing something on a large scale.
Is that really feasible?
It's been done before. If someone took it into their head, to try and introduce people to jazz, depending on whom they are, they could probably get some airtime. You know, Wynton Marsalis is always getting his stuff on, but his stuff's old-fashioned. He's got this Lincoln Center Orchestra. He tries to dress up old jazz, older forms of jazz, which I'd rather hear played by the originators than by him... he's a commercial success, but he hasn't really helped anything. As far as pushing the boundaries further or anything. The most far-out he ever was was when he just started, and he was playing Miles Davis. And then he went backwards from there.
You didn't necessarily come from a hippie or beatnik upbringing—
So what clicked for you at a young age?
I mean, I was young and interested in all this stuff. I had access to people who knew something about it. I used to talk to them about it all the time. Jazz or novels, you know, I'd read books about 'em. I'm self-educated on it.
Could you tell us about the book you co-wrote, The Beats?
I wanted people to get an idea of how the beat generation came about, who some of the early founders were. The first three chapters of the book are on Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. After that, I wrote a lot of shorter chapters on people who weren't as important as Ginsberg, but good. People who were real good but just weren't famous. I don't think a poet like Charles Olson is minor, but he's certainly not as well known. Other people contributed to the book, people with personal acquaintances with somebody in the Beat Generation, you know. Most of the chapters zeroed in on individual performers or artists.
You focus on the writing portion of the Beat Generation more than anything else?
Yeah, yeah. There are other things—a lot of loosening up of sexual morality during that time. I allude to that. But primarily, I'm interested in these people as artists, you know? Like, during the research for the book, I really lost a lot of respect for Jack Kerouac as a man. He was a racist. I'm talking about... he didn't just, he had been [a racist], since he was a kid. He came out of that kind of background. His views were pretty far right-wing politically. When I tell people that, they always ask, "Did he change?" No! He was always like that. He just came from a real narrow background. His parents were stone-cold conservatives. But I didn't let that influence my opinion of his work.
Do you like researching and getting this different picture of a favorite artist?
I do! I like to go back over history and check out what people have written and whether I agree with it or not. Some of the most valuable stuff I do has to do with my dissenting from the general opinion about people in movements. A guy can be a great artist and a shithead. But I'm not interested so much in the shithead part as the creativity, what he had to offer art. That's what I emphasize.
It seems like reading your reviews, jazz dies for you at a certain era. Can you pick a certain year where jazz falls off for you?
First of all, I have this huge... I sold a lot of it now, but I had an enormous record collection. I was getting stuff, people were sending me free records all the time to review and all that. I was just being bombarded with stuff. I kinda, you know, just burnt out on it. And then, along came all this writing stuff, and I didn't even have time to keep up with it. I'm still defending jazz, I'll defend it when I'm down in Texas. The fact that I got burnt out doesn't say anything bad about jazz, it just says [laughs] I just got burnt out, it was me!
I don't mean the amount of jazz, but the eras, I just—
I like all the eras. Every one of 'em. I've written about all of 'em.