In a release marking the centennial of the birth of Jazz alto saxophonist and bebop co-creator Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955), this month cartoonist, trumpeter and educator Dave Chisholm will publish Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker In California (Z2 Comics), a graphic biography that recounts Parker’s stay in Los Angeles during the late 1940s.
Commissioned by the Charlie Parker estate and written and drawn by Chisholm (with color by Peter Markowski), Chasin’ The Bird is a capsule biography of one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians. Parker’s short, tumultuous life spurred a revolution in Jazz in spite of the ruinous impact on him of drugs and the vicious American racism of the time. Told through accounts from Parker’s close associates, the book is focused on a period beginning in 1945 during which Parker traveled to California with a band organized by his close friend (and co-bebop revolutionary) trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The work chronicles the gigs, the drugs, Parker’s time at a mental hospital, and the fundamentals of his visionary music.
PW talked with Chisholm, a talented cartoonist who also holds a doctorate in Jazz trumpet, about the origin of the book, his musical and visual influences, and the genius of Parker’s artistry 100 years after his birth.
Publishers Weekly: Tell us about the origins of this book.
Dave Chisholm: In 2017, Z2 Comics published a graphic novel of mine called Instrumental, about a trumpet player. That was my first published work. They were contacted by the Charlie Parker estate management team about the possibility of doing a book for his centennial. Then, Z2 reached out to me, and asked if I would put together a pitch for the estate. So I pitched a story and it was approved.
It was like kismet: It was such a confluence of all of my obsessions for my whole life, coming into one project. The earliest music I remember hearing was Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, and Kind of Blue; and Let my Children Hear Music, and Mingus Moves—both by Charles Mingus. And I’ve been obsessed with comics my whole life, too. My mom, to this day, claims that my first word was Spider-Man [laughs].
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I read a bunch of Charlie Parker biographies including Bird Lives by Ross Russell, and William Claxton’s photography book Jazz Life; but because the time period was so focused, it allowed me to focus on parts of the biographies that dealt with California. And I found as many old interviews with Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that I could find. I also found a long interview with Jirayr Zorthian [the artist and ranch owner that Parker befriended in Los Angeles], and some anecdotal articles about the infamous party he threw [which is depicted in the book]. There’s also Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, edited by Robert Reisner, that was helpful.
In the book, you used a lot of dialogue from actual Parker interviews to recreate the events of his life.
When I talked to the estate, they didn’t want the book to be a dry documentary. And I was thankful for that, because I’m not a huge fan of graphic novels like that: it doesn’t really feel like a real storytelling method that lends itself to taking full advantage of the comics medium. And also, a huge part of the Charlie Parker story is the myth-building, legends, the impossible tall tales that could not be true, but could be true, and all the different versions of the same story—like a Rashomon kind of storytelling.
So there’s the legend side of Charlie Parker, versus the reality of Charlie Parker. So that angle led me to the storytelling method used in the book, where there’s a series of vignettes; each one from the point of view of someone whose life intersected with Charlie’s during that time.
As a musician yourself, the trumpet players that influence you show up in your performances. As a cartoonist, what visual influences do you draw on?
I use a wide variety of styles in the book. Every chapter is in a different visual and storytelling style. In the Dizzy Gillespie chapter, I was imagining the work of cartoonist Alex Toth: He would use large areas of black ink to kind of guide the eye through the page. Another artist I was using for a reference is Nate Powell, who did the art for Rep. John Lewis’s March Trilogy. In the Zorthian chapter, I modeled the artwork of Jean Giraud [creator of] Moebius, who I regard as the quintessential European comics artist. I tried to use the same tools he would use to ink.
The third chapter is the Claxton chapter [Claxton later became a noted Jazz photographer]. At that time he was this young, suburban white dude who was interested in photography. And I said I’m going to make [the art] a formally rigid, square chapter. So each page is set to a 2 by 3 grid, and the style is deliberately quite simple. And then in the Julie MacDonald chapter [a sculptor and Parker’s lover], there’s the visual influence of cartoonist Bill Sienkiewicz, and then for the last chapter—told by record producer Ross Russell—there’s the late cartoonist Darwin Cooke. He has done a film-noir, graphic adaptation of a Donald Westlake 1962 detective novel called Parker. So when I was researching Russell, I discovered that he wrote some pulp [fiction], and I said that connection is perfect.
In the book, there are references to Parker’s music, from “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” to “Ornithology.” Music is an aural art form. So how did you meet the challenge of representing music in the graphic novel format?
That’s a great question that I’ve ruminated on for years, and I’m teaching a college course about it. Fundamentally, it’s impossible. The temporal aspect of music, versus the temporal aspect of a still drawing … that’s the bridge you want to [span]. You want to create points of synchronization between the two. Or, you can try to capture the mood, or use music notation. Thankfully, by using a series of vignettes that change styles, I could explore all of those different ways off expressing music.
Why do you think the estate chose to use the graphic novel format to represent Charlie Parker’s artistry during this landmark celebration of his birth?
Graphic novels are really reaching people right now. In terms of this book, the estate wanted to reach people who wouldn't otherwise find Charlie Parker’s music. My goal was to provide a new platform for people to discover Charlie’s music. And in order to do that, I had to make the book as entertaining and as good as I could.