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Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound


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Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound (graphic novel)
Dave Chisholm
150 Pages
ISBN: #9798886560428
Z2 Comics

Artist and jazz trumpeter Dave Chisholm has created a series of graphic novels that combine his two loves. The most recent was Enter the Blue (Z2 Comics, 2022), a supernatural jazz story incorporating the history of Blue Note Records. But in many ways, this story recalls Chasin' the Bird: Charlie Parker in California (Z2 Comics, 2020) even more: Chisholm describes it as an "unofficial sequel." Both books are biographies of legendary individual jazz musicians. Faced with very little first-person material giving Charlie Parker's perspective, Chisholm opted to portray him exclusively from other people's points of view. But with Miles Davis there were numerous interviews and an autobiography to draw from: so all of the narration was adapted from Davis' own words.

The story opens in 1982. Davis' right hand was paralyzed as a result of a stroke. His doctor prohibited alcohol, sex, smoking, drugs and playing the trumpet. But he also recommended drawing with the right hand as a form of rehabilitation. While scribbling Davis recalled an experience seeing and hearing ghosts at night in Arkansas as a boy, which suggested a previously unsuspected sensitivity to visual art. The first chapter begins the story of his musical career, starting with coming to New York in 1944 to enroll in Juilliard. His real reason was to play jazz with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and he soon found himself struggling to fill Gillespie's big shoes in Parker's band. He also met the arranger Gil Evans, who helped him with the "Birth of the Cool" nonet. After a trip to Paris, he began his four-year addiction to heroin, which almost ended his career and his life. He returned to East St. Louis to kick cold turkey and returned to New York eager to play music and make records, to make up for lost time.

After meeting the pianist Horace Silver he recorded the Walkin' album in 1954 (Prestige Records, 1957) that turned his life and career around. Capital Records released the Birth of the Cool album (Capital Records, 1957) from the nonet recordings at about the same time, so Davis was back in the spotlight. His 1955 Newport Jazz Festival appearance had caused a sensation, leading to a contract offer from Columbia Records. In Davis' recollection, all of these events feel as though they were happening simultaneously, so the narrative is subjective, not strictly chronological. He formed the first great Miles Davis Quintet with saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

It was an exciting time, yet the band started to fall apart—a pattern that will recur throughout the story. The same thing happened with the legendary band that recorded the classic Kind of Blue (Columbia Records, 1959). Groups are notoriously difficult to maintain in any style of music, but there is still something eye-opening to see it happen at this level. Shouldn't the creation of such transcendent music somehow elevate the musicians above the demands of everyday life? Of course, the repeating hand rehabilitation sequences demonstrate the falsity of this assumption. The fusion recordings seem almost inevitable, with a cast of players that have already made connections. But they had a market impact that put Davis back in the driver's seat, especially the album Bitches Brew (Columbia Records, 1970), which Chisholm captures with a gorgeous splash page.

As the title implies, music is the main focus of the book. But Davis also spoke candidly about other matters, especially his marriages and love affairs, and there is a notable series of pages depicting his 1959 beating and arrest outside the Birdland jazz club where he was performing. The incident is also a vivid example of the racial tensions that frequently underlie the narrative. The later years were almost an echo of Davis' early career: after a serious automobile crash he again became addicted to drugs, and almost left music behind. But old friends stuck with him, and young players restored his love for music. The story ends in a triumphant career renaissance.

Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound is another triumph in Chisholm's bibliography. He is an accomplished artist who has created notable comics outside of musician's biographies. But he has a special gift for biography, which inspires him to present rich character portrayal and visually inventive depictions of musical events: pictorial analogs of music probably only possible for an artist with equal experience as a musician.

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