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‘Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California’ (review)

Written by Dave Chisholm
Illustrated by Dave Chisholm
and Peter Markowski
Foreword by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Published by Z2 Comics


Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California is a tough book to review.

Not because it isn’t particularly good because it certainly IS good.

No, I think it’s because it doesn’t have a soundtrack.

A graphic novel about a musician is always risky because the music is so integral to the story that it pretty much IS the story! In my case, I put on some Charlie Parker music but perhaps you don’t have any. Perhaps you aren’t even familiar with the great Charlie Parker, gone now these 65 years. If not, this book, lacking sound, is simply not capable of showing you a full picture of the man.

By contrast, just listening to his soaring music could never convey to you his whole, complex story, either, with all its triumphs and tragedies, all his muses and his demons.

“I Hear” is the title of the book’s Foreword, written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the leading writers and thinkers in America today (and who saw THAT coming back when he was shooting baskets, kicking over Bruce Lee’s head, or making us all laugh so hard in Airplane?). Kareem’s essay is as good as it gets and could easily stand on its own without even the rest of the book.

But the rest of the book isn’t exactly a quick cash-in.

Nor is it a straightforward biography.

Oh it tells the story of the handsome, troubled, innovative jazz saxophone player all right, but it places it both in the context of its day—with the racism, drug problems, jealousies, and other real-world issues—and also in the context of cultural and pop cultural history. “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend,” is an old saying. Chasin’ the Bird succeeds at giving us a pretty good mix of the man, his myth, and his magic.

From what I understand, Parker’s estate personally chose Dave Chisholm, himself a musician as well as a writer/artist, for this project.

He was an inspired choice.

The book is told in different segments, each with a different feel to both art and writing, but apparently all done by Chisholm (but with coloring on some chapters by Pater Markowski). The artist demonstrates a particularly good knack for conveying moods the way a soundtrack might, which helps tremendously. His style switches from vignette to vignette, often reflecting—to my eye, at least—the styles of other artists from, among others, Bill Sienkiewicz to Moebius to Peter Bagge. And yet somehow it’s always original. The ultimate effect is like each chapter representing a different-sounding album cut.

Punches aren’t pulled.

Parker’s mental health problems and drug issues aren’t unduly exploited but neither are they ignored. By the time you come out the other end, you’ve grown to like the man, feel sorry for the man, be angry at the man, and most of all, little by little you’ve been led to appreciate the myth and the legend.

That type of near-perfection is probably about the best you can do without a soundtrack.

Booksteve recommends.


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