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The Friday Morning Listen: Cecil Taylor – Silent Tongues

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I wish I had known Harvey Pekar. Heck, I wish I’d read some of his books before he died. I’ve seen the words “American Splendor” in passing many times, but for some reason had never investigated. Silly me. And then, just a couple of months ago, me and TheWife™ rented the movie from Netflix. It sort of knocked me back a few steps. There was just something about Pekar that resonated. I’d love to say that there’s commonality between me and him, at least as far as his story arc goes, but that’s mostly not the case.

Pekar led a straight-ahead blue collar existence that, in the end, allowed him time to dig in to what was important: the stories. What made me sit up and take notice was his passion and single-mindedness of purpose. He saw the glory in the everyday and had to share it with the world. Too bad so few people listened. I guess that’s my point of resonance. I have not led a blue collar existence, but I do have a passion for music, one that I have only recently begun to share. Is there an intersection between a story about somebody who pissed Pekar off in the checkout line and my love for a newly-discovered singer-songwriter? I think there is, though it might not be obvious.

Before I get to that point (and because honestly, I’m not sure how I’m gonna describe it, though I can promise that the word “oeuvre” will not be used), I have to say that the fact that I lived in Cleveland for a time seems to have something to do with my belated attraction to Pekar. By “for a time,” I mean that I lived there for a couple of summers during my college years. Yes, I “summered” in Cleveland (a phrase as weird to type as it is to read). West 85th Street, to be more precise. I didn’t do a hell of a lot. Slept late. Listened to records. Read books. Bought more records (at a shop out in Lakewood). Listened to the new records. Read some more. It was your typical slacker existence. I think the low point came during the viewing of the Major League All-Star game. We rolled the tee-vee out onto the front porch, filled a cooler full of Blatz beer, and reveled in the American pastime. The problem is that I reveled a little too much in the Blatz. When coming back outside from a bathroom break I miscalculated the line between my drunk backside and my chair, ending up on the white styrofoam cooler…which of course exploded, sending ice and bottles of beer tumbling down the front steps and onto the sidewalk. Somehow, this was all a lot funner back in 1982.

So is there a connection between me and Pekar? I’m not sure. Pekar took a stab at his dream and I’m only taking baby steps. Learning of his success (via the film) inspired me. We’re often bombarded with all manner of self-help advice. So much so that we become jaded to its message. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that good things do indeed happen.

I’m torturing the inside of the Subaru this morning with the not-so-soothing sounds of pianist Cecil Taylor. Somehow, I did not know that one of Pekar’s other passions was jazz music. He was incredibly knowledgeable and was not afraid of letting his opinions fly. Check out his review of the Ken Burns jazz documentary. Entitled “Better Than Nothing,” Pekar let Burns and his enablers have it. He was right to point out that the series pretty much ignored any modern jazz. Explanations for the oversight were offered but it was pretty obvious to me (and to Pekar) that people like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch had no use for the stuff, especially anybody coming out of Chicago’s AACM. Sorry guys, you don’t get to decide what is or isn’t jazz, no matter how many times you find “new” ways to recycle Ellington.

Well… so long, Mr. Pekar. We all loved you, and deep down inside, you knew it. Thanks.

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About Mark Saleski

  • anyway, I don’t put down Ruvy’s beliefs, he’s entitled to believe whatever he wants to. What I try to do is challenge his assertions about the West, Iran or any other thing that his beliefs bring him to.

    I also put down people who believe in the existence of superbeings and then try to tell other people how to live their lives.

    Personally, I would be quite happy if there was a god, it would make a lot of things much easier but, wishful thinking apart, there just isn’t any credible evidence for the existence thereof…

  • when the chips are down, you’ll realize how thin they are.

    As long as they’re not McDonald’s.

  • Calm down, Stan. “Kvetch” is a Yiddish word, and you’re as likely to hear it in Golders Green as you are in Brooklyn.

    Perhaps I picked it up from my Mum. Her family took in Jewish evacuee kids from north London during the war.

  • zingzing

    stm–“kvetch” is now a “seppo” word? oi. if kvetch is seppo, then seppo is next. you’ll all be americans one day the way this shit is going. when the chips are down, you’ll realize how thin they are.

    el b: “CRose repeatedly putting down Ruvy’s beliefs”

    which deserve to be put down like a sick dog, mind.

  • STM

    Doc: “one or two people you forgot to kvetch about”.


    Geez, Doc, I’m getting worried about you. You are sounding more like a Seppo with every passing day.

    Get a grip man … don’t take the soup! Remember who and what you are!

  • El B, I’m a little concerned there may have been one or two people you forgot to kvetch about. Mr Nalle, maybe? Clavos? Ahnold? Tilikum the killer whale? Has Michelle Bachmann said anything unusually lard-headed lately?

    Just let me know.

  • STM

    Only from the outside perspective.

  • Jordan Richardson

    The irony is strong in this one.

  • Yes, I got your teasing of Alan. Don’t think you not as impenetrable as you imagine yourself to be. So yes, you’re arrogant and at times verging on being belligerent. But that’s OK, LB, you can’t change your spots, however hard you may try. Actually, more often than not, you’re behaving like a grumpy old man – and I say “behaving” because I don’t believe you to be. And that’s even worse.

    In closing, it’s you that can’t seem to take satire, especially when it directed at you (as your last line amply indicates), but you’re so quick at dishing it out.

    So why don’t you lighten up, get a life, get laid, whatever it takes. There is life besides BC. Too often you forget.

  • “I never got the facts wrong, Jordan.”

    Actually you repeatedly got them wrong. First, you misunderstood my teasing of Alan and his previous silly declaration that he didn’t want anyone but U.S. folk commenting on his articles and twisted it into something it wasn’t.

    “why should anyone give a hood whether Mark graces a comment with a response or not”

    Ask Alan whose defense you ran to. He’s the one who felt the need to repeat and simplify what he was saying when he didn’t get a response from Mark as Jordan pointed out.

    “Well, I see nothing but arrogance.”

    Considering it regularly skews your vision, that’s not a surprise.

    “I’m getting rather bored…”

    Speaking with my comment-writing hat on Doc, it’s rather odd that you get bored by two instances of something, one of which was obviously done in jest, when you don’t appear to get bored by CRose repeatedly putting down Ruvy’s beliefs in what has to be nearing the hundreds. Your inconsistency is rather tiresome.

    “when we from Politics visit your site – and this includes the Sports enclave as well – we’re told in no uncertain terms to shove off.”

    More unadulterated BS. You should go into the fertilizer business.

    “I still get the impression that some of you think of yourselves in terms of ‘inner circle.'”

    You’re entitled to be incorrect about that as well.

    Lastly, I consider it my prerogative to comment on whatever I feel like as is everyone’s prerogative here. There’s no other agenda/

  • Well, we’re in agreement then!

  • zingzing

    roger: “Some of you are so committed to new and emerging forms that you necessarily equate newness with progress…”

    if it’s truly something new (not only “current” but also “original”), then yes, it’s progress. and it’s not always linear. every now and again, genres have little, profound seizures of original thought. it’s when the history goes non-linear and gets messed up that the ideas pop out.

  • Anyway, I have no issues with you, Mark. Just thought that Alan was handled rather curtly, which is the only reason I spoke up.

  • But there is a larger, underlying point, Mark. Nowhere in what he had said did he imply that new forms of art are not evolving. But that’s not to say that the old forms simply do not come to an end, as it were, having reached their peak.

    It’s the linear progression of an art form that, to my thinking, was at the heart of the dispute. A philosophical point, granted, but one with important implications on how one views the evolving present.

    Not everything that evolves from the past is continuous with it, nor should it be. (Perhaps the best works are discontinuous and attempts to make ’em so represent a step back). Nor is everything that evolves from the past necessarily worse – just different.

    A simple enough point, or at least one I think that should merit discussion (because you guys are at the top of your game). Yet, I find this obsession with the “continuation” theory quite prevalent among many of you – zing and Jordan come to mind (in connection with a series of articles on bip bop).

    There is only one explanation I can think of. Some of you are so committed to new and emerging forms that you necessarily equate newness with progress (which isn’t to say I’m against experimentation), and Zing comes off as an extreme example of this perspective. (That’s what I meant by being overly impressed with modernity.)

  • alan totally knows more about jazz than me. that doesn’t mean i have to agree with him.

  • Alan’s comments were far from irrelevant, Mark, and you know it. Yet you dismissed them offhand simply because you disagreed. Or is it perhaps he knows more about jazz form than you?

    So don’t blame me for my conclusions.

  • Stop being so freakin’ apologetic for modernity, you and Mark, too. It smacks of insecurity, and I certainly don’t want to accuse you of that, so don’t make me.

    i’m apologetic for nothing. i just don’t agree that forward progress has ceased in this area. at all.

    Then perhaps the reasons why he resonated with you are juvenile, or at least liable to be suspected so. Which makes you a fair game!

    ooh! tough words! also, completely irrelevant. you then go on to make up this idea that somehow i don’t want people to comment here. not true. where did you get that?

    and somehow i’m rude? i write an appreciation of a man who has just passed away and a reply goes into why the person was a bad writer? sorry, that is rude.

    next thing you know ruvy will be in here telling me that i’m somehow an anti-semite.

    irrelevant? yes, like most of this comment train!

  • Irene Wagner

    Word, Glen. Well, I have to be not a bitch here for one more comment, as he is out with my son. And I realized the last comment might be disrespectful to him, making it sound like we were in the middle of a fuss, which we are not. He is a good man.

    I think women are bitches to the men they should love most more than they are bitches to other women, on the whole. There are ways all of us have picked up stupider from Jupiter, XX and XY. Well, signing off.

  • It’s a street thing Irene. Word to your Mutha!


  • Irene Wagner

    Thankyou for both your apology and your MOST timely reminder to us ladies about the male ego.
    Well, I’m going to go not bitch at my husband now. I got all the irritating “boys are stupider, they come from Jupiter” vibe out my system. Thanks fellers!

  • Silent tongues, but not so silent darts (or antlers, or whatever else the case may be). And they pierce.

  • If I read Dreadful correctly, male bitchery puts the female analog to shame. If that’s his meaning, then I thoroughly agree. Women have got a bad rap.

    There is nothing as fragile as the male’s ego; and the fragility is proportional to male’s insecurity.

    Peace, Irene. I have been bitchy in our most recent encounters, for which I apologize. But at last I hope you understand.

  • Irene Wagner

    Thanks, Dr. Dreadful for #32. I think that maybe, this imbalance (post adolescence) holds off the net as well. And again, this isn’t an expression of offense at the use of the term “petty bitchery,” but I sometimes wonder…why men who are acting like…male elk fighting one another til their antlers drop off…are refered to as “bitches.”

    Just a musing, you know, totally a propos, because the title of this article, after all, is Silent Tongues…

  • how does the average female BC bitchery level compare to the male analog?

    Irene, unless you count the regular “Selena vs. Miley”-type pre-teen spats which occur in the TV and music sections, it’s not even close!

  • Irene Wagner

    Glen, I took no offense to the apt term “petty bitchery,” by the way, though I would narrow its use to describing personal put-downs, by either sex, rather than aggressive attack of IDEAS.

  • Irene Wagner

    Speaking of petty bitchery. I don’t know if the comment editors keep stats, but I’d be curious to know: how does the average female BC bitchery level compare to the male analog?

    I don’t know that any of us have ever treated you guys to a ringside seat of an honest-to-goodness cat fight.

  • Fair enough, as I said. I still get the impression that some of you think of yourselves in terms of “inner circle.”

    Not that I don’t understand the sentiment, but believe it or not, at times it does come across.

  • Speaking strictly on my own behalf, I would never tell anyone to “shove off”. But I might take issue or otherwise call them out on something I disagree with.

    But just to point something out here…we music folks aren’t a secret society and we don’t have a secret handshake. In fact, me and your pal LB have been having a little debate of our own over at one of my own articles. So you see? We are just as prone to petty bitchery amongst ourselves as anybody else. ;>p

  • Sorry for stirring things up, Dreadful. Let me not-so-gracefully withdraw.

  • I never got the facts wrong, Jordan. My response was to LB’s presuppositions.

  • Fair enough, Glen. I was being purposefully testy. It’s just that oftentimes when we from Politics visit your site – and this includes the Sports enclave as well – we’re told in no uncertain terms to shove off. Never by you, to be fair. The same, however, doesn’t obtain when you comment in Politics. As far as I am concerned, everyone is a fair game but perhaps, just perhaps, some of you consider yourselves “experts,” and that other voices don’t count.

    I don’t comment much on BC anymore, mainly for lack of challenge, partly because I’ve found another site. But be that as it may, when I see the kind of rudeness displayed on Mark Salesky’s part, or insecurity, or whatever else you want to call it, dismissing offhand what may well have been a valid point that Alan had made, respond I will.

    And then, LB always considers it his prerogative to stand up for his partners- in-crime in absentia.

    Well, I don’t buy it. Everyone’s shit stinks.

  • Roger,

    As one of the BC “musicologists” you speak of (actually, make that “Rockologist”…heh, heh), I’m a little puzzled as to the nature of this “affinity” amongst us you mention.

    Truth be told, we bicker amongst ourselves quite frequently…it’s actually part of the job description. ;>)


  • Speaking with my comments editor hat on, I’m getting rather bored with all the bickering over who is or isn’t entitled to comment where, and will be inclined to start editing with a heavier hand if the noisy brawling in the muck at the back of the pigsty gets any more tiresome.

  • Jordan Richardson

    It was Alan who wondered why Mark didn’t reply, Roger. I think you’re getting mixed up.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Mark is laboring under the impression that he owns this section, that unless you write music review, you don’t belong.

    How in the sweet blue hell did you come up with that, Roger?

  • And why should anyone give a hood whether Mark graces a comment with a response or not, LB. Now you’re elevating your colleague to a level of divinity.

    Amazing the affinity that exists among BC musicologists. [edited] Must be a symbiotic relationship of a kind, or a contact high.

    Well, I see nothing but arrogance.

  • Don’t get pissy, LB. We all know what we’re talking about, each in their own way, so what point is it that you’re really making other than just commenting for the sake of commenting? Is that part of the editorial privilege?

    And if Mark doesn’t want outside commenters on his site, let him do a disclaimer just as Alan did. Besides, let’s hear from the horse’s ass himself rather than the horse’s-ass advocate. It would carry a far greater weight as far as I am concerned. Your assertions as to Mark’s probable state of mind are utterly unconvincing.

  • Maybe Mark doesn’t like people who live in the US reading and commenting on his articles? Or maybe it’s not always about you? Hard to believe, I know.

    Roger, you are laboring under the impression that you know what you are talking about here. It’s not about who thinks they own the section but who thinks they are entitled to a response.

  • “… and seriously, dumping on pekar’s skills as a jazz writer completely misses the point of why he resonated with me.”

    Then perhaps the reasons why he resonated with you are juvenile, or at least liable to be suspected so. Which makes you a fair game!

  • Never mind that, Alan. Mark is laboring under the impression that he owns this section, that unless you write music review, you don’t belong. To which I say, fuck it!

  • Mark, you certainly put me in my place. Sorry I commented here. I won’t make that mistake again.

  • zing, old forms die out and new ones evolve. Why is there just a big deal with you admitting that. It’s no different with literature. For Chrissake, not everything is linear.

    Stop being so freakin’ apologetic for modernity, you and Mark, too. It smacks of insecurity, and I certainly don’t want to accuse you of that, so don’t make me.

  • zingzing

    mr. kurtz: “There’s no shame in recognizing that jazz stopped evolving decades ago…”

    except in recognizing that you haven’t been paying attention. everything evolves. jazz has slowed down its evolution to a certain extent, but to suggest it has “stopped” is just ridiculous. steve coleman and john zorn (although his forward-thinking work is more about genre-fucking than anything else these days) would beg to differ.

    jazz changed with remarkable violence between the 30s and the 70s, but every genre is bound to slow down and speed up at various points. classical, although never coming to a dead end, was fairly static for large swaths of time, and i’d say it’s currently in on of those swaths, after the ridiculous activity that came about from the creation of electricity and recorded sound through the late 60s or so. it’ll bounce back. hip hop is in a minor ice age at the moment as well, but i’d bet that 10 years from now, you’ll be amazed at how far it’s moved. all it takes is one idea.

  • alan, you made two points…to which i did not reply. i was talking to bicho.

    i realize what your points are and i don’t care. if you think the progression of the music has stopped, then you have stopped listening.

    and seriously, dumping on pekar’s skills as a jazz writer completely misses the point of why he resonated with me.

  • Roger, in the lyrics to his song “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)” on the album Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), Frank Zappa declared, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” It’s gotten a great deal of mileage since then, and is now virtually treadless. Thus my proposed update.

  • What was the original formulation, do tell!

  • Mark, I made two points, and neither had anything to do with your being “really disappointed” in the Burns series. I realize you’re busy, so let me simplify: (1) As a jazz writer, Harvey Pekar finishes last in a field of one. (2) Zappa’s famous maxim needs to be updated. It should now read, “Jazz smells funny because it’s dead.”

  • bicho, i vaguely remember seeing pekar on letterman…but i obviosly didn’t know who he was at the time.

    as for burns, i was really disappointed in the jazz series.

  • “Somehow, this was all a lot funner back in 1982.”

    I don’t know. It’s pretty damn funny in 2010 from my vantage point.

    Are Mark and Tom saying they only know Pekar from the movie and hearing about his work? Surely you saw his appearances on Letterman, right?

    Pekar doesn’t seem to understand Burns. Sure it would be nice if Burns was up to date with modern artists but that’s not the way he works. He thinks events have to become history and gain additional perspective before they get covered. It’s why the innings in Baseball cover a decade each except the last where he covers 23 years and the most recent years whiz by. Besides ending when Duke and Satchmo died seems like a great end of an era to close out the series. He may revisit it as he is now doing with baseball.

  • Mark, I think my use of Kenny G as an example is misleading. Please substitute Cecil Taylor. Better illustrates my point.

  • Roger, I’d call Luther Vandross an R&B artist rather than smooth jazz, although there were a couple of popular smooth jazz tribute albums called Forever, For Always, For Luther (Vol. I, 2004; Vol. II, 2006). But as usual you’ve put your finger on the nub of the issue: belief in “the ever-evolving nature of all art forms.” Among those few jazz fans and writers still left, most are in denial that jazz, like all other art forms, had a beginning, middle and end. That doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy it. Baroque music lasted from approximately 1600 to 1750. It categorically stopped evolving 250 years ago. But many people, including me, consider Bach the greatest of all composers, and can’t get enough of him and other Baroque masters such as Corelli, Purcell, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Telemann, Rameau, Scarlatti, Handel, and Pergolesi. There’s no shame in recognizing that jazz stopped evolving decades ago, nor does such recognition diminish the artistry of those musicians who have persisted in trying to breathe air into jazz’s carcass. But it’s sad that they refuse to see what a wasted effort it is.

  • It’s “smooth jazz,” so they call it, epitomized by the late Luther Vandross.

    Of course, you’re going to inspire a great deal of ire from those who believe in the ever-evolving nature of all art forms.

  • Mark, since I’m a generation older than you, the two of us come at Harvey Pekar from opposite directions. “Somehow,” you write, “I did not know that one of Pekar’s other passions was jazz.” For my part, before reading his obituary, I did not know that he wrote comic books. I did, however, remember his name as someone who wrote about jazz circa 1960. What I couldn’t recall is why I’d been unimpressed back then. So I took your advice and checked out his review of Ken Burns’ Jazz to which you provided a hyperlink.

    At 4,130 words, his piece is overlong and far from brilliant. Mostly it comes across as carping, which is no great literary feat. And it bristles with cheap shots. “Every nation has something unique about it, for crying out loud,” Pekar cries out loud. “Regarding the similarities between jazz and democracy, jazz is hardly unique as a form of collective activity that involves cooperation between individuals. Volleyball does as well. Can we, then, look forward to Burns doing a series on the history of volleyball?” Altogether, I’d call such writing sophomoric, except I think sophomores could do better.

    Reviewing the documentary’s companion book, Pekar says it “opens with Burns’ banal, cliché-ridden preface, wherein he claims that ‘the genius of America is improvisation,’ and that ‘the Constitution is the greatest improvisational document ever created.’ Pardon me, Mr. Burns, but the Constitution was not written in half an hour; its creation involved a great deal of preparation, debate, and discussion. Even ordinary school kids know it was far from ‘improvised.’ What kind of crap is he handing us?”

    Mark, as a much better writer about jazz yourself than Pekar ever was, you know very well that the best improvised music, jazz or otherwise, is the result of a great deal of preparation, debate and discussion. It’s not just slapped together in half an hour. In short, what kind of crap is Pekar handing us?

    I also take issue with his conclusions. “What Burns could’ve done without damaging the commercial appeal of his series,” Pekar opines, “would’ve been to give more attention to the efforts of today’s (i.e. living) innovators. Their performances might have posed difficulties for most viewers … but more people might support them if they were at least exposed to it. By ignoring recent developments in jazz history, Burns’ Jazz makes it appear that the genre’s evolution is over.”

    Fact is, the genre’s evolution is over. It’s 2010. Listen to some of today’s free jazz artists, such as our former Jazz.com colleague Chris Kelsey. His latest CD sounds like warmed-over Ornette Coleman Quartet, circa 1959 during their triumphant gig at New York’s Five Spot Café. The notion that Ken Burns’ epic 2001 documentary is the only thing standing in the way of vast hordes rushing to listen to today’s jazz is preposterous. The lack of acceptance for such music has nothing whatever to do with exposure. You could “expose” me nonstop for years on end to Kenny G, and I still wouldn’t like what I heard. Ditto exposing today’s listeners (who couldn’t care less) to today’s jazz. Let’s face it, the music itself is uninteresting at best, insufferable at worst. Jazz’s history may not have stopped on July 17, 1967, the day John Coltrane died (43rd anniversary tomorrow), but maybe it should have.

  • yeah, i totally have to find the books now, no doubt!

  • Tom Johnson

    American Splendor (the film) is also pretty much my only exposure to Pekar, but I thought it and he were both pretty brilliant. It just goes to show that if you’re a good enough writer, anything can be a good story. He found those amazing little nuggets of wisdom tucked into everyday life. I’m really going to have to pick up some of the AS books at some point, despite having no interest in comics or graphic novels. He’s just such an interesting guy. He definitely will be missed.