Harvey Pekar on Jazz

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.”