REVIEWS

Total Jazz

Writing about music is tricky enough -- blah blah dancing about architecture, yammer yammer -- but think about what goes into drawing about it. If you're illustrating an actual musical performance, or even just the experience of listening to it, a representation can run the gamut from literal depiction to wild abstraction and still miss exactly what the music actually does even more than a rock critic's cliches about "angular" guitars or whatever. Usually the best an artist can do is some amusing juxtaposition, maybe drawing from a reader's pre-existing knowledge of popular music to create some recognizable visual shorthand about how a pop star is like an alien or a superhero. The image and the personality get their due, but without that prior knowledge, the music that pop star creates could damn near be anything.

Total Jazz is a tonally wide-ranging if relatively slim volume collecting French cartoonist Blutch's strips and illustrations for the now-defunct '90s-'00s magazine Jazzman, which he drew between 2000 and 2004. Creating work for a jazz magazine that was founded when jazz's mainstream commercial impact was largely relegated to the record crates of hip-hop producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier relies on the likelihood that the audience you're creating this work for is well familiar with the subject already, and wants to see something more reflected in that subject than just a simple joke or an easy reference. And Blutch's work here is dedicated to finding the answer to what makes not just listening to jazz but finding yourself in it, dedicating yourself to it, obsessing over it, actually worthwhile -- and finally getting lost in that connection between the music and the people who play it.

In the biographical sense, the subject's usually simple enough: one of the most obvious and yet most charming strips is an eight-panel gag depicting the avant-cosmic genius Sun Ra playing and conducting his music in a number of his outlandish costumes, surrounded by squiggly, lively backdrops of stylized stars, only to see the man surreptitiously change into a business suit afterwards to undergo a "secret life" as an ordinary square riding the subway. And often enough, it's that rare visual examination of how music itself actually sounds that provides both slapstick comedy and critical insight. Sun Ra appears in another strip playing the piano with impossible noodly Picasso hands, a representation of his style that's compared to sly visual shorthand of several other pianists' styles: Mingus with dramatically thick-lined fingers, or Jaki Byard's impossible blur of scribbled hands. And maybe the best example of that visual criticism is a look at Sonny Sharrock's playing on The Herbie Mann Group's 1969 version of "Hold On, I'm Comin'": Mann's flute notes are depicted as wispy clouds, Larry Coryell's guitar as perfectly round bubbles, the keyboards of Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood as wispy bursts of steam -- and then in comes Sonny's raucous, joyfully abrasive guitar solo as a blast of fat brushstroke squiggles that look like the kind of spontaneous marks an inker makes when they're just reveling in the immediacy of laying down lines.

For the most part, however, regardless of how well Blutch expresses a borderline pen-and-ink synesthesia with his evocatively sketchy, wildly-hatched style, a lot of Total Jazz tonally runs somewhere between amusing cynicism and absolute bleakness. The former mode is nice and mordant when it's got a lighter touch -- it's not enough that an acknowledgement is made, for instance, to the way Lee Morgan was shot by his lover; it's a setup to riff off that with a concluding gag where another jazz musician reads the headline about Morgan's death and promptly decides right then and there to give his sour-looking significant other an unexpected kiss. But there are little vignettes used to place jazz at the center of some ugly behavior (and worse) that men inflict on women. In one strip, "The Scene," a musician brutally beats a woman at home, only to reduce a crowd filled with women to tears of joy at his music. In another, "The Audition," a schlubby bizzer is relentlessly let down by a succession of aspiring saxophonists until he's enraptured by the music he hears from another room -- only to get back to fuming when he finds out it's a woman playing the tones he's been searching for. A woman's best revenge, it seems, is to be a muse to four different musicians in four different decades, then outliving them with a smile on her face. Next to those, a simple yet vividly scene-setting narrative of a trumpet player going through a hellish multi-stage commute, only to reach the club and open his case to find it empty, is a lighthearted relief rather than a clunker of a punchline.

And the sense of comedy, dark or otherwise, is often matched by a distinct melancholy. One page depicts Chet Baker, whose stardom receded with the severity of his heroin addiction, literally transforming and dissolving into a ghost mid-"How Deep Is The Ocean", while another strikingly depicts the last hours of Duke Ellington as a brief but stark montage of his younger self, accompanied by a dramatically shadowed starlet depicting music itself, accompanying him to his passing. Blutch's observations on jazz and race can also be arresting even at their most obvious, thematic simplicity illustrated with vivid and expressive lines that give further life to stories and notions that might already seem familiar. One piece features a small ligne claire Josephine Baker on the stage with a visual cacophony of stern-faced or inexpressive white men looming outsized in the audience, while the 1950-set vignette "My Parisian Life" notes that even a black pianist's day filled with life-affirming good times can end on a down note thanks to the disapproving looks of two old white French ladies. The gaze of the almost comedic, vividly detailed grotesques in the former is unsettling; the shift from false smiles to disapproving scowls on the ladies' simply-rendered faces is heartsinking.

But in the end, Blutch's work might not mean as much as it does without the self-examination of the jazz obsessives who'd read these comics in the first place, the awkward outsiderdom of the European fascinated with a quintessentially American art form that America (and, increasingly, elsewhere) has long since relegated to a niche interest. The jazzbo as beseiged, unhappy loser is all over Total Jazz, his favored music reduced to ridicule in beloved canonical bande desinee like Tintin and Asterix ("Study on the Prejudice of Classic Comics Toward Jazz") while its record store shelf space shrinks drastically over a decade ("Diary of a Consumer"). It's there in the semi-autobiographical "Jazz in the Middle Ages," where a young boy's entire family -- even the cat -- complains about his attempts to listen to A Love Supreme, and the man who inherits his deceased beatnik father's jazz albums in "Inheritance", only to leave them in the garage after discovering that Ornette Coleman's bracing Something Else!!!! isn't the casual lean-back listening he expected.

Fandom, it seems, is the kind of blessing that inspires works like this and the sort of curse that makes those works feel like they're taking a toll on the fan's appreciation. That's clearest in two of the collection's multi-page pieces -- the preface where Blutch, in cartoon Native American garb, gripes to his Chief about his dissatisfaction with his jazz comics turning an enthusiasm into a solipsistic obsession, and the self-effacing story of a "jazz detective" who gets called a "loser" and a "cynic" by the Christlike ghost of Miles Davis before being roughed up as a man who knew too much (about Django Reinhardt sessions). The postscript interview by Michael Patin hints at further details: Blutch states that he wanted to use his comics as a strange cross-media alchemy, to "translate the untranslatable, to move the abstract and ineffable side of music into the concrete form of drawing." In doing so, he turned music from something he could reflect upon in a break from work to the subject of work itself -- simplifying it until it was "sealed in a bottle, pinned like butterflies, and they lose their liberty and mystery." But nearly fifteen years after his final jazz comic, seeing them gathered like this -- even considering the toll they took on his recreational enthusiasm for just listening to music, which he has since regained -- reveals just how vividly he portrayed all the joys and shames, the contradictions and wide-open truths, the personalities and the creations, that draw people into the music in the first place. If nothing else, the man drew a mean solo.

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One Response to Total Jazz

  1. Robert Cook says:

    The Sonny Sharrock piece is particularly funny if you’ve heard him.

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