Harvey Pekar, Jazz Critic

Harvey Pekar died this week at the age of 70. He will, inevitably, be more widelyharvey-pekar.jpg remembered for his seriously adult American Splendor comics and the movie they inspired than for his jazz criticism. As a writer about music he was—no surprise—eccentric and uneven but at his best wrote with precision and frankness about what he heard in his careful listening. Here is the conclusion of his Austin Chronicle review of the reissue of the Miles Davis Cellar Door Sessions.

Maybe Miles was thinking of himself more as the lead voice of a collectively improvising ensemble than a soloist. He plays in fits and starts, screaming, improvising complex but sloppily executed runs, not making good use of wah-wah effects. His efforts don’t hold together well. The loose group concept might be prime suspect in Davis’ cliché-filled performance, but there’s (Keith) Jarrett, member of the same group, playing so well. Jazz fans tend to think of and evaluate Davis’ fusion recordings as a whole, but actually there’s a wide variation in their quality, and that should be kept in mind when purchasing them.

To read the whole review, go here.
Pekar was infatuated with some of the least tethered free jazz. Writing about his avant garde heroes he sometimes went as far out as they did. Yet, he was capable of an open mind and an even keel, as in this observation from a review of the box set reissue that includes Ghosts, saxophonist Albert Ayler’s 1964 collaboration with Sonny Murray, Don Cherry and Gary Peacock.

Here we have characteristic and mature performances by Ayler. In evidence are his honks, above-the-normal-upper-register screams and squeals, lines played so fast they seem to be a blur of notes and a huge vibrato. His original compositions are also unique, so archaic sounding that they seem modern. The influence of both church and martial music is apparent in them.

Unlike some critics of his avant leanings who categorically rejected music of the so-called West Coast movement, Pekar learned to understand Chet Baker.

When I was exposed to jazz in the mid-Fifties, it was as a fan of robust hard bop, musicians like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. The popular West Coast jazz of that time seemed to lack vigor and as a whole was less progressive. Baker was suspect because his trumpet playing was so quiet and introverted; it seemed to lack strength. But after listening to him for years I had to admit that he had a rich melodic imagination, putting his solos together smoothly and swinging gracefully. I grew to like his small, velvety tone, and eventually came to the conclusion that he was an original and admirable performer.

Readers will miss Pekar most of all for the penetrating honesty and sardonic humor of his social observations as a comics writer. They should not overlook his value as a jazz critic. Of the Pekar obituaries I have seen, by far the most comprehensive is the one by William Grimes in The New York Times.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


  1. says

    Pekar was a great writer on jazz and I can still remember a piece he wrote for the Jazz Times Overdue Ovation series:
    Which I was able to draw upon to write this piece:
    He was the kind of jazz critic we really need and there are few left. Having never read American Splendor or any of his non-jazz related work I’ll remember him as a great jazz writer and jazz lover without boundaries above all else.

  2. says

    Harvey was a jazz nut! I’ll be eternally grateful for the liner note he did on my CD, “Hypnotic Suggestion”. Years ago, we sat long after one of my gigs at the Cleveland Bop Stop while I raved about Von Freeman. He seemed skeptical. When I got home, we began a nightly routine consisting of me calling him to play recordings of extended Vonski solos over the phone.
    I would hold the receiver up to my stereo speaker for the 15 minute + solo, and then he would say, “Yeah, that was pretty good, call me tomorrow and play me another one. ” This went on for a week. Finally, Harvey conceded that Von was one of the greats, and began extensive research leading to his “Overdue Ovation” article for JazzTimes.

  3. Steve Beck says

    We’ve all heard the phrase “musicians’ musician.” If ever there was a musicians’ critic, it was Harvey Pekar. He found a way of writing about jazz that considered technique without being a Gunther Schuller-style analysis. Importantly, he strove to avoid what he correctly recognized as the preference for “impressionistic” criticism among most jazz writers, criticism which is more narrative and literary in style and less focused on the actual CONTENT of the music.
    I first heard of him through studying jazz history in college. His name is mentioned numerous times in Mark C. Gridley’s fantastic “Jazz Styles”. In fact, Gridley indicates in his preface that each chapter in the book reflects Pekar’s output. I would strongly assert that he is as important a critic in jazz as Leonard Feather or his mentor Ira Gitler. Just think of all of the obscure musicians he advocated! With his death, a serious campaign should be mounted to publish his collected jazz writing (including the jazz-related comics). I hope to one day be able to write professional jazz history and criticsm with the insight that he had.
    Thanks Harvey!

  4. says

    Very sorry to learn of Harvey’s passing. I followed his writings over the years. One of the best, and always incisive; spot-on remarks about Miles (above).

  5. Lucille Dolab says

    Thank you for your entry on Harvey Pekar! What a blessing you are to those of us who love Chet’s music!!! Your inclusion of positive comments about him are so deeply appreciated!!! It is really refreshing to read honest comments about Chet, as opposed to the hackneyed diatribe that abounds!!!

  6. says

    Blue Lunch mourns the loss of one of Cleveland’s most iconic figures, Harvey Pekar. He’ll be missed by all but we in Blue Lunch will miss him as a friend of the band and as a booster and supporter of Cleveland artists, poets, writers and musicians. See our tribute, and what he wrote for us at:

  7. Max says

    I lament Harvey’s passing; 70 is too early to check out for a guy who had so many rich contributions to make. My thoughts are with Joyce and his daughter. Thanks, Doug for the Austin Chronicle review and Matt for the additional links. I’d be pleased to see a compilation of Harvey’s jazz criticism writings; they covered elements of the art form not typically addressed elsewhere. What a good guy.

  8. Jim Brown says

    Last night, my wife and I watched the DVD of American Splendor, a wonderful 2003 film about Harvey. Strongly recommended. It’s one of the best biographical films I’ve ever seen, providing wonderful insights into the creative process. There’s live footage of Harvey and still scenes of his Cleveland intercut with the actors portraying Harvey, his friends, and family, some of his own narration, and fine acting, especially from Paul Giamatti as Harvey.