Harvey Pekar, Paul Shapiro & Me: No Garden-Variety Jews

It was a distinct honor and the oddest of pleasures to edit Harvey Pekar’s work for Jazziz magazine in the late 1990s. When I saw the film based on his life and celebrating his work, “American Splendor,” I wondered if I was part of the composite editor Harvey referred to simply as “asshole” in a scene wherein Harvey can’t find his Ornette Coleman recording, and needed to file his review. I remember well the phone call in which Harvey called me a “garden variety Jew” in a combative tone when I queried his commentary about Sephardic musical themes, in a review about a John Zorn album.

Which brings me to Paul Shapiro, a wonderful tenor saxophonist I first heard during his long tenure with the Microscopic Septet. Shapiro is a player Harvey would love; I imagine Harvey wrote about him at some point. My point of connection for all of the above is that Shapiro has a new album, Shofarot Verses within the Radical Jewish Culture Series of Zorn’s Tzadik label, which interprets last of three sections of the Musaf (additional) service recited on Rosh Hashanah. Here, as in his other work, Shapiro reflects the seriousness of musical purpose, natural sense of humor and essential Jewishness embodied in Harvey’s work, too.

To celebrate, there’s a comic strip in the tradition of Pekar (this was his favorite mode of communication), written by Jeff Newelt, and drawn by Joseph Remnant. (both worked with Pekar on his final graphic novel “Cleveland”).
If you’re in New York City, there’a a “Shofarot Verses” launch concert June 19, 2014 at Eldridge Street Synagogue.
And all of this gives me good excuse to pull out an short piece in memory of Harvey that I filed for Jazziz after his death, in 2010, below:
Splendorous American: Harvey Pekar, 1939-2010
By Larry Blumenfeld
Harvey Pekar was pissed at me. He told me so himself but I’d seen it coming. As a parting gift, the outgoing editor of this magazine, who’d just handed over the reins to me, had repeated to Harvey my criticisms–all legitimate–of his article about Jazz at Lincoln Center, knowing it would raise his substantial ire. I was “one of those Wynton sycophants,” he raged, another “spineless suckup” looking for power and missing the real music. Harvey was wrong. I mean, he was right about the real music–Harvey was more often than not right about music; he had great taste and the knowledge to place it in context. But he was wrong about me: I agreed with his point of view, I just had some issues with the way he’d expressed it in print, with his research or lack thereof.
There was no such thing as a short conversation with Harvey. And boy do I miss that today. There will be no more conversations with Harvey — in truth, there haven’t been for me in a decade, since I left the editorship of JAZZIZ. And the world I now inhabit, one filled with emails and texts but little in the way of actual human discourse, is a place Harvey predicted, along with a dozen other dour but spot-on prophecies. Harvey’s shit could bring you down if you let it, sure, but it was usually accurate.
Harvey was again incorrect a few calls after that first one, when he called me a “garden variety Jew” in a combative tone when I queried his commentary about Sephardic musical themes. (I think he was reviewing something by Joe Maneri, but it might have been John Zorn. Or maybe neither.) When I explained that my grandfather on my mother’s side came from Greece, that I’d been Bar Mitzvahed in a Sephardic temple, landing on t’s, not s’s at the ends of certain Hebrew words, he seemed convinced of my legitimacy as a Jew (if not an editor) of some meaningful distinction.
Things went more smoothly after that.
The intern in JAZZIZ’s Florida office still had to transcribe into computer files the stuff Harvey would fax from the Cleveland Veterans Administration hospital where he worked as a file clerk. And he’d call, excitedly, always late on a Friday night or early on a Sunday morning, upset that a certain Albert Ayler reissue had not arrived in the mail or troubled by the inadequate wordcount for his pending review. Years later, when the film about him, “American Splendor,” came out, I wondered if I was part of the composite editor Harvey referred to simply as “asshole” in a scene wherein Harvey can’t find his Ornette Coleman recording, and needed to file his review; I’d have been honored to be another asshole provoking Harvey’s anxiety, so rich and productive was his worry.)
I was working on a shoestring budget then, driven by a sense of editorial mission that Harvey acutely sensed—to avoid at all costs the same stuff every other jazz magazine was and had been doing—and to which he was a willing accomplice. When I put together an issue devoted to Duke Ellington, I asked Harvey to do a comic strip. The one he came up with one, illustrated by his longtime collaborator Gary Dumm, was about trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, and titled “Duke’s Forgotten Voice.” Harvey was like that: He’d hone in on forgotten or neglected voices and give them treatments that were memorable and attentive. Aside from Don Byron’s essay on Duke’s subversive musical tendencies, was the best thing in that issue.
You know, rethinking, maybe Harvey was right. About me being a garden variety Jew, that is.  I think he might have been too. Harvey was never really one for pretense, you know. And whatever title is good enough for Harvey–who made artful suffering out of everyday life and faced the genuine suffering of battling cancer with artful heroism, and who rolled the stuff of everyday conversation into bona fide art–is more than good enough for me.

One Reply to “Harvey Pekar, Paul Shapiro & Me: No Garden-Variety Jews”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *