Friday, July 28, 2006

Graphically Novel Jazz

R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar are two of the singular superstars of comics. Both are known for their devotion to jazz, and both have a distinctly dark style. They seem to have set the tone for the comic treatments of jazz which have followed them, with the jazz artist as victim being a common theme.

The most recent jazz themed graphic novel is Lance Tooks’ Between The Devil and Miles Davis, and it is also the most disappointing. It depicts a world in which everyone, not just jazz musicians are victims, of Bush, Capitalism, Haliburton, and any other leftwing bogeyman du jour.

A stronger but uneven jazz comic published this year was Narwain Publishing’s New Orleans & Jazz, a special anthology issue benefiting Katrina relief efforts of the American Red Cross. There are some strong stories including a portrayal of an adolescent Louis Armstrong playing for King Oliver, inked in grays before young Satch plays, but in bright colors after he raises his cornet. The most effective story from T.J. May and Lynx Studio integrates Katrina into fable form, as blues legend Stackalee (Stagger Lee) goes toe-to-toe with the Devil, concluding:

“The Devil blew a hurricane not seen in New Orleans for some hundred plus years. But Stackalee held back the storm from that honky-tonk dive to protect those that did right by him.

In the days to come, those same few helped out the city folk that weren’t so lucky. It was slow comin,’ but the city healed up nice. The folk got a little nicer, and the music played a little louder.

As time passed, the local folk took to calling that storm Katrina, cause it all started with that dark-haired, blue-dressed demon.” (p. 22)

While the Stackalee story hits the right redemptive note, the next story (more of a vignette) from Xavier Morrell is sadly typical fare from the Bush bashing left, with a TV reporter actually saying on air: “… President Bush proposed several times drastic cuts in the storm protection program in New Orleans . . .” (p. 29) Again, there is a reversion to jazzman (and everyone else) as victim, this time trafficking the same old myths from the media’s discredited Katrina coverage.

A surprisingly knowledgeable take on jazz comes in Gerard Jones and Mark Badger’s three issue mini-series Batman: Jazz, in which the Dark Knight protects Blue Byrd, a Charlie Parker figure, from a musical group of super villains called the Brothers of the Bop. Jones & Badger admirably contradict the stereotype of Bird/Byrd as a simple intuitive junkie, showing him as a family man and intellectual. Ultimately though, they fall back into the trap of characterizing Blue Byrd as a victim, first of pushers and organized crime figures, and then of the Brothers of Bop.

In his afterward to Carlos Sampayo and Jose Munoz’s Billie Holiday, Stanley Crouch complained: “Billie Holiday’s life and art are often victims of racial, sociological, psychoanalytic and feminist sentimentality.” (p. 50) However, the graphic novel itself, displays many of those excesses, reveling in every perverse degradation in an unseemly manner. With leering depictions of drug use and sexual abuse, Billie Holiday is all about victimhood, all the time, at the expense of the music. After all, “Strange Fruit” was a pretty important song, one would think a biography of Billie Holiday would want to mention it.

Truly jazz has endured significant tragedy. However, jazz also produced the archetype of the uncompromising artist, as exemplified by Miles Davis turning his back to the audience. It produced the beboppers who put up the “no dancing” signs, artists willing to say: “this is my music and if you don’t like it, stick it in your ear.”

It is frustrating that graphic novels focus on the victimization, and not the integrity and independence of jazz men. They are hardly alone in doing so, as novels, (John A. Williams’ Night Song, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn) and films (A Man Called Adam, Uncle Joe Shannon) often show the same prejudices. One would think the medium that brought us the superhero would be more attuned to the forceful jazz artist, refusing to make concessions to popular tastes.