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The Provincials

There is localism, and there is yokelism. Which was the greater factor in Harvey Pekar’s mystique? I considered the question in an illuminating location this week.

My wife, who is a singer, took a booking at a swanky hotel in Palm Beach, and our seven-year-old son and I tagged along to support her and to sunbathe. (Discretion prevents me posting a link to her music, which, I should add, is easy to find through a YouTube search of her name, which is Karen Oberlin.) Far from my usual haunts in New York, I tried out a local restaurant with live music (L’Europe) and enjoyed an hour of unexpectedly fine bar piano. The musician, a blind Boston-area transplant named David Crohan, played a tasteful, idiosyncratic set of standards, jazz tunes, and classical pieces: “I Thought About You,” a movement of a Mozart sonata, an improvisation on what sounded to me like the chords to “Ruby Tuesday.” He provided unobtrusive pleasure to inattentive diners, but did so with sensitivity and delicacy that reminded me of Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.

What was he doing at an Italian restaurant in a resort town? The very question, which I kept asking myself, points to the urban provincialism of New Yorkers like me. Crohan probably came to Palm Beach to work, as my wife did, and perhaps to soak in the ocean air, as I did. It is smug foolishness to presume that every musician is or should be driven to pursue the fame and glory to which New York supposedly grants access. The same provincialism has another effect: the idealization of quirky non-New Yorkers like Harvey Pekar as exotics privileged by a kind of workaday genius. This exaltation of presumed yokelism is foolishness, too.

Hard as this may be to process in a culture absorbed with fame and glory, there have always been great and important musicians making world-class music in places that can be called out-of-the-way only if one considers New York the only way. I think immediately of Bill DeArango, one of the most skillful and original guitarists in the history of jazz, who for decades led the band at the Smiling Door Saloon, not far from Harvey Pekar’s house in the two men’s hometown of Cleveland. (Pekar wrote a couple of good pieces about DeArango, whom he knew.) And of Linton Garner, Errol Garner’s older brother, a superb bebop pianist who recorded with Miles Davis, moved to Vancouver in the early ’70s and labored for 20 years there as the piano player in Rossini’s Italian restaurant. And of Jimmy Hamilton, the jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, who played with Duke Ellington for years and spent his final decades fronting a lounge band at the Buccaneer Hotel in St. Croix. In the early ’90s, when I doing research on the Ellington Orchestra, I went to visit Hamilton, found him blissful in obscurity, and heard his joy in a set of languid, breezy music.