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Graphic novelist Dave Chisholm chases jazz legend Charlie Parker 

click to enlarge A panel from "Chasin' the Bird: Charlie Parker in California" captures Parker's legendary performance at Jack's Basket Room in Los Angeles in 1947. - ARTWORK PROVIDED
  • A panel from "Chasin' the Bird: Charlie Parker in California" captures Parker's legendary performance at Jack's Basket Room in Los Angeles in 1947.
Anyone who knows anything about jazz sooner or later lands on the story of Charlie “Bird” Parker getting out of six months of detox and blowing the roof off a Los Angeles club with a legendary after-hours performance in 1947.

His show that night at Jack’s Basket Room was said to have been the saxophonist’s greatest of his life. No photos were taken. No recordings were captured. And two years ago the building burned to the ground.

But there is lore — loads of colorful lore — and it is what Rochester graphic novelist and jazz trumpeter Dave Chisholm mined for his latest work, “Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California,” a commission from the estate of Parker to celebrate what would have been the icon’s centennial birthday.

The novel, created with colorist Peter Markowski, comes out in October as a companion to the album “Bird in LA,” which features never-before-released recordings of Parker during his celebrated swing of the West Coast toward the end of his too-short life.

click to enlarge Graphic novelist Dave Chisholm. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Graphic novelist Dave Chisholm.
“It was such a serendipitous project to get,” says Chisholm, who is also an Eastman School of Music alumnus and an instructor at Hochstein School of Music. “Because I spent my life reading comics and making comics, and I’ve spent the greater part of my life learning about, obsessing over this great music that comes out of Black America that we call jazz.”

Chisholm’s publisher, Z2 Comics, approached him about the commission in August 2019. Chisholm had just finished a four-part, serialized comic book called “Canopus,” a psychologically surrealist story about a scientist who crash-lands on a distant planet with no memory of how she got there, which would be published this year to critical acclaim.

Parker’s estate encouraged Chisholm to take chances in telling his story — with a few caveats. It couldn’t be dull, come off like a documentary, or use a lot of esoteric music jargon.

It also couldn’t include explicit drug use — for which Parker was known. When he died at 34, he had advanced cirrhosis and the coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker to be between 50 and 60 years of age.

But Chisholm saw the limitations as freeing him up to eschew a strictly historical account of Parker’s life and indulge his legend, while staying true to his essence and hitting all the notes about his monumental impact on music.

“Jazz fans don’t like people messing with their stories, you know what I mean?” Chisholm says. “I would say that this book is very playful, in the way that the story is presented — very deliberately walking the line between fact and myth, between reality and legend.”

A novel about Parker that toes those lines opens at the only place it could possibly open, in that nexus of jazz on South Central Avenue called Jack’s Basket Room.

There, an eager audience waits in anxious anticipation for a rumored performance by the Bird after an extended, mysterious absence that in real life he spent at Camarillo State Hospital. Later that year, he would go on to record his famous “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” — a nod to his stint in rehab — for Dial Records.

When word spread that Parker was suited up and headed to Jack’s with an alto in tow, as many as 40 saxophonists, both local and transients in town, reportedly rushed to the club for a chance to play for him.

“They all played and Bird sat there and smiled,” jazz musician and composer Buddy Collette wrote in his memoir, “Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society.”

“Finally, Bird got up there and I don’t think he played more than three or four choruses,” Collette wrote. “But he told a complete story, caught all the nuances, tapered off to the end. Nobody played a note after that. Everybody just packed up their horns and went on home, because it was so complete, so right.”

In Chisholm’s version, everybody who was anybody in jazz was there that night. Dizzy Gillespie. John Coltrane. Parker’s ex-girlfriend Julie MacDonald. The eccentric artist Jirayr Zorthian. The photographer William Claxton. Dial Records founder Ross Russell.

click to enlarge ARTWORK PROVIDED
One-by-one, they recount their respective relationships with Bird and their interactions with him before his sudden disappearance through a series of vignettes that Chisholm calls “choruses” rather than chapters.

With each successive perspective, Chisholm’s visual style adapts to reflect the personality and mindset of the narrator, and offers insight into the nature of his or her connection with Parker.

The story couldn’t be told without the contribution of Rochester-based illustrator and oil painter Dustyn Payette, who did the flatting for both “Canopus” and “Chasin’ the Bird.”

Flatting — the process of applying the initial, sometimes temporary, color scheme to the page and separating those colors — is a notoriously thankless job in the world of comic books and graphic novels.

“It’s definitely grunt work, and there’s no glory in it,” Payette says.

But it is critical work that, in this case, brings out details in Chisholm’s art by differentiating colors so the images aren’t monochromatic or diluted. With much of the legwork done, the colorist Markowski swoops in and executes the final color palette.

Payette says Chisholm’s musical background, coupled with his distinctive artwork, gives his books a song-like quality.

“He’s telling a story through pictures now, instead of maybe notes,” Payette says.
While Chisholm used multiple books about Parker as resources, he points to one in particular: “Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker,” a collection of first-hand accounts of friends, relatives, fellow performers, and others who were touched by Parker’s legend. The book featured people who grew up with Parker, wives and girlfriends, and even the coroner at his death.

“It’s a really fascinating picture of a man,” Chisholm says. “I would say there’s probably a lot of legend in this book. I wanted to lean into that, so that book was really helpful for me.”

Chisholm is keenly aware of his limitations as a storyteller in this case.

“I wanted to get it right," he says. "I wanted to make sure I was really aware of my blind spots as a white guy in America, telling a story about an important Black figure,.

He contacted several musicians — including Danielle Ponder’s music director Avis Reese, Salt Lake City pianist Isaiah Smith, and trumpeter Kris Johnson, the director of Jazz Studies at the University of Utah — for perspective, clarification, and advice.

Chisholm recalls how an extended conversation with Smith enabled him to more fully realize Parker as a restless figure, a pre-Civil Rights-era Black man who was never afforded the opportunity to let down his guard. Parker struggled with impulse control, and had few outlets through which to escape. His compulsive personality steered him toward music but also contributed to his drug habit.

Empathizing with Parker to the extent Chisholm could, he says, was essential to making Bird soar.

“Sometimes that involves getting out of your own head and trying to get inside someone else’s head,” he says. “And I suppose it’s easy for me to say that as the most boring, straight, white guy in the world.

“But to me, my job isn’t to just explore my straight whiteness, but it’s to empathize with other people, and try to understand other people, too.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at
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