Harvey Pekar’s Top 10 Jazz Innovators

August 31st, 2009 by Jeff Newelt

Duke Ellington by Tara Seibel

Duke Ellington by Tara Seibel

In addition to writing comics, Harvey’s been a jazz critic since 1959 starting with The Jazz Review, which was his “favorite jazz magazine of all time and short-lived.” He’s also written hundreds of articles for Jazz Times, DownBeat, The Village Voice, as well as liner notes for Verve and other labels. Here, for The Pekar Project’s first special feature (comics run every other Monday with “extra” in between) Harvey offers his list of “a top ten, not the top ten” jazz innovators, his reasons for choosing them, and an album recommendation. As a bonus, Tara Seibel and Sean Pryor, two Pekar Project artists, drew portraits just for this piece.

Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers:
“A great early jazz composer / arranger”
Check out: Jelly Roll Morton, Vol. 2: The Red Hot Peppers

Louis Armstrong with Earl Hines:
“Swing wasn’t a quality of jazz in the beginning; it started about 1923 with Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Armstrong’s playing was idea rich and thrilling.  The combination of Armstrong on trumpet and Hines on piano was just amazing. Huge innovators.”
Check out: The Louis Armstrong Collection Vol 4, Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines

Duke Ellington:
“Around 1940/41 Ellington and Basie had the two greatest big bands in jazz history. Ellington was the greatest composer / arranger and his personnel was at a peak in 1941 with Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax.”
Check out: Never No Lament: The Blanton / Webster Band

Count Basie by Sean Pryor

Count Basie by Sean Pryor

Count Basie:
“In the ’30s, Basie led the greatest most swingin’est big band rhythm section of all time, the ‘All American Rhythm Section’ with Basie on piano, Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Greene on guitar, and Walter Page on bass.”
Check out: Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings

Lester Young (with Count Basie):
“Young was incredibly graceful and swinging on tenor sax and had a great melodic imagination. His work with Count Basie on Columbia is particularly of note. It’s also worth listening to the classic sides he did with Billie Holiday.”
Check out: Count Basie: America’s Number1 Band, The Columbia Years

Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker:
“The main contributors to the bebop movement, to creating the language of bebop in the early 40’s. They’re collaborations are coincidentally the best stuff they ever did and my favorite is the complete Savoy records… but ‘Bird & Diz,’ the ‘reunion’ record they did in 1950, was somethin’. I don’t know what they had in mind before they came to that session, but its like they were loaded for bear, not necessarily to tangle with each other but wanting to play their best. At that session, both of them invented licks and phrases that they never played before — as good as they were they had pet licks  — but this was fresh and just unprecedented… they were so imaginative, and it was still bebop.”
Check out:  Bird & Diz

Miles Davis:
“Miles was very sharp and at different points he would take an overview of the whole jazz scene, who was heading in the direction he was wanting to go in… he was often the second guy, the guy who popularized movements not who started them. Kind of Blue did that for modal jazz, and the guy he brought in with the sound he wanted was pianist Bill Evans.”
Check out: Kind of Blue

John Coltrane:
“Giant Steps — on this record Coltrane plays with blistering heat and boundless imagination.”
Check out: Giant Steps

Ornette Coleman:
“The records Coleman made for Atlantic was the real beginning of Free Jazz, which means jazz not based on a set foundation like chord changes or anythin’. His band was terrific with [Coleman on sax], Scott LoFaro and Charlie Haden on bass, Ed Blackwell on drums, and Don Cherry on Trumpet.”
Check out: Beauty Is A Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings

21 Responses

  1. Dean Haspiel

    That’s a great DUKE illo, Tara.

    Sean’s COUNT is killer, too.

    Swell jazz article, Harv.

  2. alex

    where’s mingus? how can any jazz innovation post exclude that guy?

  3. Molly Crabapple

    beautiful illustration by Tara Seibel

  4. Xavi


    So, the classic: the ones that say some hot shot is missing from the list… the ones that say it is too obvious and that they have come out with a better one.

    Lists, I believe, are not meant to be complete (they are, by very definition, a personal, subjective selection) nor they are meant to be indisputable. They are just supposed to open doors to other people, so you can go places you don’t know.

    As for me, for example, I didn’t know where to start with Gillespie and Parker… and now I know. Good enough.



  5. sean

    i think thats why jeff said it was a list and not the list. when i talked to harvey about it he was specific in saying that others could feel differently, hence the “disclaimer”. great illustration, tara, and many thanks to all who dig the blog.


  6. James Jajac

    I am in love with these posts! Beautiful Basie Illustration! Great great work, I’m very excited about these.

    Seriously though is this gonna make me feel bad for liking Depeche Mode sometimes?


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  11. N.

    Coleman over MINGUS??? I thought you had ears.

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    I like your article. I have played saxophone when I was young. My sax is alto saxophone.

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  21. DSU person Donny

    This is interesting because almost all of these artists were at some point under the influence of Heroin. If anyone is wondering this is for my Jazz class and I chose to do a review of all of these innovators. Someone that I think this blog fails to mention is that John Coltrane was also a great innovator. He created a form of music that even until now continues to impact aspiring Jazz musicians.

    This article is very well done though!

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