I really love jazz, so the other night when I was driving home from work, I was listening to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” It got me thinking about the movie I had seen a few days earlier called “American Splendor,” because Coltrane’s treatment is featured on the soundtrack. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the late comic book writer and noted music critic Harvey Pekar, whose “American Splendor” comic book series touched a nerve with those looking for a little reality with their morning coffee. He wrote about everyday life in his native Cleveland, Ohio, mundane things like grocery shopping, moving, recording buying or funny co-workers. He described himself as “just an average guy having experiences like everyone else has.” Harvey was whiling away the years as a file clerk at the local Veteran’s Administration Hospital when budding underground cartoonist Robert Crumb agreed to illustrate his work, a break that led to his first publication.
As I maneuver through DC’s dark and empty streets, with Coltrane soloing at the 7-minute mark, I remembered that the music for “American Splendor” was largely inspired by Pekar’s love for jazz, especially the be-bop era of the ’40s and ’50s. But he once admitted that he had to re-train his ears to appreciate jazz, that at first he didn’t fully get what was going on. He said, “Finally, I was able to hear the relationship between the jazz improvisor’s solos and the underlying structure that it’s based on, the chord progression.”
Improvised solos and chord progression are the hallmark of “My Favorite Things.” It plays briefly during a scene where Pekar’s wife Joyce is ice skating with their daughter. Coltrane’s swirling version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard was recorded for his 1961 album of the same name. It features Trane on soprano sax with support from bassist Steve Davis, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner, who at age 21, proved a masterful soloist and improvisor. The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Finally, I arrive home, and as “My Favorite Things” fades, I wonder how a simple Broadway melody can inspire such a complex jazz masterpiece. Who knows? That may have puzzled Harvey Pekar at the end of his day as well.