Chasin' the Bird: Charlie Parker in California

Douglas Groothuis BY

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The author and artist, Dave Chisholm, knows Bird well and employs his medium to trace out the different contours of the man, his music, and his time.
Chasin' the Bird: Charlie Parker in California
David Chisholm: writing drawing and lettering; Peter Markowski: colors
144 Pages
ISBN: 978-1940878386 (13)
Z2 Comics

History remembers (and misremembers) the greats of human achievement. They are celebrated, critiqued, deemed over-rated, deemed under-rated, interpreted, and reinterpreted through myriad forms of expression, such as books, articles, films, poems, and plays. Charlie Parker (aka Bird), the alto saxophonist and composer, is one such great as a pioneer of bebop, whose frenetic and adventurous playing altered the entire landscape of jazz forever. One is hard pressed to find an alto saxophonist in the 1950s and '60s and beyond that did not sound like him (although Paul Desmond did it).

Charlie Parker left an indelible mark on jazz, even though he died at the thirty-four in 1955 after a troubled, if consequential, life. The physician who verified his death thought he was in his fifties. Bird was professionally unreliable, but reliably a junkie, a glutton, an alcoholic, a womanizer—and a jazz genius. The misery and greatness of humanity (as Blaise Pascal would put it) was on full display with Charlie Parker.

Since I am interested in all things about jazz, my interest was piqued by the illustrations in advertisements for Chasin the Bird and by the concept of a jazz graphic novel about the pathbreaking musician. The publisher provided the deluxe version for review (you can also buy the stand-alone book), but they asked for no favors. The deluxe edition includes a slipcover for the hardcover book, which is sturdy and stylish. The three different color prints of Bird are well drawn and not cartoonish. The vinyl 45 RPM disk of two unreleased recordings of Bird playing "Out of Nowhere" and "Ornithology" live in Los Angeles in 1948 is a gem and the fidelity is good for that time. He is backed by Al Haig on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums. My edition included a "certificate of authenticity" signed by the artist designating that it was 25/1500 copies. This is all hipper than hip for a jazz aficionado.

Now to the graphic novel itself. The introduction gives six episodes of the stories that will follow (as a kind of overture). This is followed by six short stories or "choruses." The last section, "the outro," offers several imaginary depictions of Bird without words. The choruses begin in 1947, when Bird and Dizzy came from the New York's jazz scene to introduce bebop to Los Angeles, starting with a two-month stint at Billy Berg's Hollywood jazz club. While in California, Bird bummed around, got into trouble, spent time in a mental hospital, experienced racism, had a love affair, and recorded and performed spectacular music. Each chorus is drawn in a different way and narrated from a different perspective. We hear from fellow bebopper and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Armenian-American artist and mystic, Jirayr Zorthian, photographer William Claxton, sculptor Julie MacDonald, a young John Coltrane, and the founder of Dial Records, Ross Russell. The author and artist, Dave Chisholm, knows Bird well and employs his medium to trace out the different contours of the man and his time. It is no surprise that Chisholm is a jazz musician himself and an educator with a Ph.D. in jazz trumpet. He has spent some time in the woodshed on jazz history to transpose Bird's life into a graphic novel.

The author's notes at the back of the book relate each chorus to historical events. Oddly, though, Chisholm refers to page numbers of the text which are nonexistent. (You could paginate it yourself.) The six choruses chime in with themes and events in Bird's life, but this is a novel, not a biography.

Concerning the drawings, Bird looks like Bird and his buddy Dizzy Gillespie, looks like Dizzy. The same goes for the chorus featuring John Coltrane, a Parker acolyte. Chisholm portrays a full range of human expressions and his style fits the events and characters he draws. Like jazz, he explores different ways of telling a story, using both realism and the creative enhancements that drawing allows. He attempted to model the drawing and stories on the musical forms that Bird played. Chisholm uses his medium in a jazzy way to depict a jazz life. So, as a graphic novel about jazz, I think it works. The medium fits the message.

The dialogues are laced and laden with obscenities. The jazz vernacular may have been off-color at the time, did artists as intelligent as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane resort to the f-bomb that often? (I am sure that Coltrane did not.) But even if Bird and Dizzy did cuss up a storm, why rub it in?

One scene raises philosophical issues. Bird plays a gig during which a woman rips off her blouse and begins to dance. (Note: People did not dance to bebop.) Bird drops his pants (!) and plays before an audience that quickly descends into a jazz-spiritual-sexual orgy. The drawings are not explicit, but you get the idea. Joining the saturnalia are several spiritual beings. One is reddish with horns, wearing an appropriately devilish—a guest worthy of exorcism. What is this scene saying?

Supposedly, the best jazz, along with assorted revelries, can evoke a spiritual-sexual energy that liberates people from the doldrums of everyday existence and connects them to ultimate reality. That is an ancient and intoxicating philosophy. It appears in many religions and cults throughout history, asserting that salvation is available through mystical trance. The musician becomes a medium who channels spiritual forces. That is a heavy dose of metaphysics for a graphic novel. This event may or may not reflect Charlie Parker's own worldview, but the novel embraces this gnostic worldview.

During this ribald rave, the narrator and celebrant bathetically cries: "This is beyond oneness with nature!" Would anyone really want to be one with a parasite or with cancer or with CODIV-19 or with nature as a whole? If not, going beyond oneness with nature is not a bad idea. But the philosophical idea is that this jazz experience eclipses nature mysticism. In fact, one of the narrators (Zorthian) and Bird himself are presented as New Age mystics.

But mystical language aside, this jazz orgy offers nothing beyond erotic, kinesthetic, and aesthetic pleasure—and pleasure, by itself, is a rather poor indicator of the good, the true, the beautiful, or the sacred. One may feel a sense of transcendence or ecstasy through music (jazz or otherwise), but that is a far cry from experiencing enduring spiritual liberation or finding ultimate meaning for life.

Jazz offers rich and healthy enjoyment. Some of my happiest moments during a terribly long season of suffering came from attending live jazz performances. But jazz—even performed by Bird, Monk, Dizzy, or Coltrane—simply cannot bear the weight of right religion. Nevertheless, the final story scene of the book shows Bird literally walking on ocean water while he played. Jazz is a great gift, but a poor savior—and Charlie Parker was no savior.

Criticisms aside, Dave Chisholm, along with his inker, creatively offer us a graphic portal into the storied life and spectacular music of Charlie Parker. That was no easy task, and many jazz and graphic novel fans will appreciate this unique, well-conceived, and interesting work.

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