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8 bars with Dave Chisholm
Our guest is cartoonist, trumpeter, graphic novelist and educator Dave Chisholm.
8 bars with, is a series on Educated Guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
Dave Chisholm is an Alaska-born, Rochester, New York-based graphic novelist, cartoonist and educator. He’s published three jazz-themed graphic novels: Enter the Blue, Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California and his forthcoming book on one of his heroes, Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound. Chisholm earned his doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in 2013. He currently teaches two classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology: Comics & Music and Visual Storytelling for the Graphic Novel.
1. Miles Davis as an inspiration and subject
Miles Davis' music has been a powerful presence through my entire life--the earliest music I remember hearing is "Sketches of Spain," my dad spinning it on the stereo at home! As an artist, his courage and commitment to change is like a North Star to me. As a subject for a book like this, I mean, Miles as a person was this incredible bundle of contradictions--a true Gemini. He's a trumpet player who grew to be one of the most popular artists in the world but his playing itself doesn't fall into the typical "higher faster louder" trumpet player trap. It's heart-wrenchingly sensitive, pure emotion. He's listening and responding to the musicians around him in real-time with an astounding awareness and a pure, unflinching sound. And yet, parallel to this amazing musical sensitivity, in his non-musical life he was seemingly obsessed with projecting this kind of toughness, arguably to the point of toxicity, to the point of leaving a lot of damage in his wake. It's all there in his autobiography. This man contained multitudes! So on one hand, his music is a singular, lifelong obsession of mine, but on the other hand, he was this very difficult person. I'm honored as hell to have been given the opportunity and responsibility to explore his life and music in this graphic novel.
2. Working with the Miles Davis estate
I worked primarily with Erin, Miles' youngest son, and a little bit with Vincent Wilburn, who is his nephew. They were great to work with and provided super helpful feedback throughout. I really wanted to give a complete, warts-and-all portrait of Davis, and they also were 100% behind me. It'd be dishonest to give a greatest-hits-hero-edit in this book--and I'm relieved they supported that choice. Erin also wrote the foreword for the book--what an absolute honor.
3. Who were your other jazz influences?
Besides Miles, growing up my other huge influence was Mingus--his entire oeuvre. To me, this white dude growing up in Salt Lake City (from 8th grade onward), jazz music was this incredible vehicle for expressing anything, and I wanted to express those big emotions like Mingus was prone to in his music. As a trumpet player, I also dug into a lot of Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Wynton, Nicholas Payton, and newer players like Ambrose Akinmusire, Ingrid Jensen, and Dave Douglas (IDK if those players are even considered "new" anymore!). I also just adore Gil Evans' music and the music of Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, and Bob Brookmeyer.
4. Who were your visual influences?
Whew--I mean...I love to play around with shifting styles to help tell the story so the list is wayyyyy long. Otomo, Pope, Kirby, Cassaday, JH Williams III, Mazzucchelli, Mignola, Toth, Quitely, Moebius--on and on and on. Those are just comic artist too--I mean, it's honestly probably a bigger list than my musical influences?!
5. Are you influenced by cinema?
FOR SURE. Kubrick to me is just the most incredible filmmaker--but also the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Spielberg--all the usual people! Visual storytelling, composition, pacing--it's VERY instructive.
6. Does music influence your visual art or vice versa?
Definitely they influence each other--in a sense, they are two sides of the same coin for me. For a book like the Miles Davis graphic novel, with each chapter I'm shifting the style and storytelling to match the vibe and specific aspects of the music during the era depicted. The Kind of Blue chapter is stark and simple while the Sketches of Spain chapter has a lot more finicky detail to match Gil's arrangements. The chapter about the second quintet is full of extra bits of information, little inset panels that interact with the bigger panels, to try to capture the intricacies of the real-time interaction between the musicians in that band's live performances. The electric era chapters get more and more psychedelic in both inking/coloring but also in the panel shape and layouts.
7. The difference between graphic novels and comic books
Haha man, not much! One has a square spine, one is saddle-stitched? One is intended to be a story told in a square-bound number of pages? I don't worry about these things too much!
8. How do you represent music improvisation in graphic novels?
I can tell you that improvisation shows up most frequently at the inking stage. My pencils are pretty loose and inks go on and sometimes strategies shift based on what might seem like a mistake--it's a lot like improvising in jazz music! As far as how it shows up in the Miles book, in the narrative, in the visual art...you'll have to read it to find out! haha.
The influence of fatherhood on your art
My baby is 9 weeks old! I'm tired ALL THE TIME! But I'm sure it'll have a huge impact beyond that as I grow into being a father. I'm just figuring it all out right now and will probably be in that process forever, right?!