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By Bob Weinberg
Once considered “low-brow” entertainment, jazz and comics have each attained high art status. For fans, their pairing is a match made in heaven.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, jazz and comic books share plenty of common ground. Both art forms are uniquely American, innovated by minorities (namely, Blacks and Jews) who largely shaped their aural and visual vocabularies, as well as their underlying ethos. For the most part, jazz and comics creation are team sports, dependent on give-and-take between collaborators — say, band mates King Oliver and Louis Armstrong or Superman progenitors Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
And both art forms — widely considered low-brow entertainments at best — were once thought to be a pernicious influence on American youth. Their value was degraded in often racist, xenophobic and homophobic attacks that appeared in newspapers and radio broadcasts and, in the case of comics, led to legislation and an onerous “Comics Code” that curbed what was deemed as salacious or subversive content.
A tidal change in societal norms was wrought by the 1960s counterculture, and was vividly expressed in the burgeoning underground “comix” movement. Author-illustrators such as R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton bypassed the Comics Code by going through independent publishers and retailers and aimed for more adult (or at least not kiddie) audiences.
Art Spiegelman, who came of age during the heyday of underground comix in the 1970s, brought a new respectability to the format with the publication of Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale — My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale — And Here My Troubles Began (1991), and even non-comics fans appreciated the literary merits of his extremely personal narrative. Using anthropomorphized animals — Jews were represented as mice, Nazis as cats — Spiegelman related his father’s Holocaust experiences in the graphic novel format and the work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. (Alarmingly, school boards and other groups have sought to ban the book from schools in recent years.)
Jazz has also proven fertile ground for graphic novel creators, with books appearing about figures such as Thelonious Monk (2018’s Monk! Thelonious, Pannonica and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution by Youssef Daoudi), Bix Biederbecke (2020’s Bix by Scott Chantler) and John Coltrane (2013’s Coltrane by Paolo Parisi). In this digital edition of JAZZIZ, we present a glimpse of graphic novels about Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, a modern-day jazz fable (Enter the Blue) and a graphic novel written by a jazz innovator (Wayne Shorter’s Emanon), as well as an interview with graphic novel artist, author and jazz musician Dave Chisholm, who provides insights into jazz and comics from both sides of the equation.
Featured images by Dave Chisholm, courtesy of Z2 Comics.