Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cool Jazz in Type and Graphics

Jazz: Cool Birth
By Gary Scott Beatty

Historically, jazz found a home in after-hours clubs and bars of varying degrees of repute. Of course, the nightlife world has always attracted a certain unsavory element, which has caused problems for musicians. Louis Armstrong’s loyalty to his problematic manager Joe Glaser always troubled his admirers, but the father of jazz was always grateful to his well-connected business agent for extricating him from some difficulties with the Chicago mob. In Gary Scott Beatty’s Jazz: Cool Birth, fictional trumpeter Smooth Willie Jefferson also gets caught up with the criminal element, but things will not work out as well for him. Birth is in fact a short, illustrated murder mystery, and Jefferson is its victim.

In format, Birth resembles a comic book, but Beatty uses type and iconic imagery to tell his story. There are no boxes or dialogue balloons. Deliberately using Jim Flora and other 1950’s record jacket artists as his inspiration, Beatty’s figures are representational but abstract, in a hip kind of way, perfectly suiting his story of the perils of the jazz life.

Fontessa, Birth’s narrator pianist, only played with Jefferson once, subbing on what would be the final gig of the trumpeter’s life. Stylistically and temperamentally, Jefferson sounds a lot like Clifford Brown, easy-going and popular with his fellow musicians. According Fontessa: “this hep cat had a real gift of diplomacy.” (p. 3) However, unlike the scrupulously clean Brown, Jefferson got involved with drugs and other dangerous entanglements and it cost him his life.

Needing someone hip to the jazz lingo, Detective Herschel Benedict (could that be a nod to Herschel Bernardi a.k.a. Lt. Jacoby on the jazz-scored Peter Gunn?) enlists Fontessa’s help with the investigation, which leads to the various nocturnal people who patronize jazz clubs.

Beatty’s opening description of Jefferson’s last gig is a nifty piece of jazz writing, as when Fontessa explains the perfect audience reaction: “when a room full of people sit there starin’ for two full seconds before thunderous applause, you know you’ve grabbed ‘em.” (p. 7) However, the hipster jive-talk gets a tad bit overdone. Still, Beatty shows a real affinity for his jazz subject matter.

Birth is a brief story (24 pages), more of an investigation than a full mystery, but Beatty’s art and typography is quite striking. Altogether, it is very evocative of the early hard-bop era of the mid-to-late 1950’s.