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Dave Chisholm brings new sights to MILES DAVIS AND THE SEARCH FOR SOUND

Updated: May 5

Interviews Editor, Andrew Irvin, turns to an intoxicating blend of music and art with Dave Chisholm's grandiose presentation of the life of Miles Davis, supported by the Davis estate and released through Z2 Comics.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Dave, it’s a joy to have you sit down with me today, and it was an absolutely pleasure reading Miles Davis and the Search for Sound. I’ve tried to do as much background reading and build upon prior interviews, since you’ve been asked plenty of insightful questions about The Search for Sound, and I don’t want to tread on well-worn territory. In having to truncate both his early childhood and final years, what would you like to add to this conversation to help further contextualize the life of Miles Davis for readers newly exposed to his legacy?

 


DAVE CHISHOLM: With these music-related books that I’ve done for Z2, in addition to making as excellent a graphic novel as I can, telling a compelling story with compelling imagery, my goals are to; 1. inspire comics people to check out the music of whichever artist I’m portraying–obviously Miles and his various collaborators here–and, 2. to inspire music fans to take a dip into the world of comics and graphic novels. So the narrow path is to make something that’s open enough for people who know nothing about Miles while also satisfying the wants of lifelong Miles obsessives–and to do so in a way that’s honest to who he was. SO, with that stuff in mind, when it comes to adding stuff to the conversation…the real room I have to editorialize or add to the conversation lies in two areas: 1. Choosing which parts of his life to highlight and 2. In the joy of using the comics medium to depict the music with enough specificity to really capture it for readers in a somewhat reliable way. For the first one, the “trunk of the tree” as it were, the prime directive for which scenes to keep and which to cut, was literally THE SEARCH FOR THE SOUND. So every scene had to, in some way, deal with Miles’ obsessive search. In focusing his narrative this way, it took this complicated, messy life–any life viewed in total is messy, by the way–and gave it the narrative thrust to make it a (hopefully) compelling graphic novel. For the second one…I mean, every bit of the visual decision making was inspired by the music from the era I was depicting at any given moment. It was a total joy to make. Is that adding something “new” to the story? I mean, probably not…but in focusing the story on his search and presenting it in the wonderful medium of comics…it hopefully gives Miles’ well-known story a fresh narrative focus and a real visual flourish!

 

 

CBY: It's definitely engaged me in a new way with Davis's work, so I'd say bringing others to a better understanding of his creative contributions is of added value to his legacy. Let’s discuss the depiction of sound on the page - you’ve got a cross-disciplinary background, with deep proficiency in both your illustration career and your doctorate in jazz trumpet, and you teach a course at RIT called "Comics and Music." You’ve described this graphic novel as “a mosaic of little sound bites by Miles Davis that could be recombined.” There are some gorgeous splash pages and full 2-page spreads in this book of the musical creation process. You mention Davis’s synesthesia and the anthropomorphic personification of his sound in your depictions. What sort of stylistic and technical approach do you take in depicting sound? What tools do you use, and how do you use them to achieve your intended imagery and convey certain feelings across media, particularly as the style shifts over the course of the book?

 

 

DC: Oh gosh. It all starts with the music, and looking for ways to translate specific elements of the music to the page. How can the rhythms of bebop, the orchestrations of Gil Evans, the complex interactions of his second quintet, the rhythmic power of his early 70s music, the fragmented nature of On the Corner, etc. be translated to specific bits of the comics language? I considered every element of the comics page, from inking tools to color to lettering to character depiction to storytelling panel-to-panel kind of stuff–all in the name of capturing with specificity some meaningful element of Miles’ music from any given era.

In terms of media, I work both traditionally and digitally, although my traditional media has expanded beyond the standard India ink on Bristol board. I am always hungry for more texture and especially novel, textured ways to achieve mid-tones, so in this book throughout I use colored pencil and colored ink washes. Using color rather than b&w allows me to quickly and easily separate the line art from the tones and manipulate each as needed. For inking, I have a wide array of brushes and nibs that I use–some of them are pretty gnarly. My desk is a mess, haha!

 


CBY: From Julliard to detoxing, Miles Davis repeatedly acknowledged the supportive role his father played in his life, giving him space without judgement. I didn’t know anything about his family before reading The Search for Sound. So while it’s noted and the story goes on, can you relate more about how much his relationship with his father seems to have enabled him to achieve a longevity and perspective Charlie Parker wasn’t able to enjoy? Having done graphic biographies of both these Jazz legends, can you help delineate for the uninitiated the different legacies they carry in the field?

 

 

DC: Oh gosh. Parker is foundational, but lived his whole life in a very destabilized environment due to socioeconomic factors beyond his control. He died tragically very young. Miles is unique in his era because he was the rare example–sad that it was rare–of a Black artist who came from a very affluent family. Miles always had a financial safety net which allowed him to follow his risk-taking instincts, to pursue his own tastes with little regard for the financial impact it might result in–and, of course, paradoxically, this pursuit of authenticity resulted in some pretty profound commercial success! He also was such a sponge, so open to being influenced by other musicians and other styles of music throughout his long career. In terms of his longevity…he had a number of close calls with substance abuse. A different twist of fate and he very well could have been another genius who died tragically young. I’m grateful he lived as long as he did–I wish he’d have lived longer!

 

 

CBY: It's always sad to see unique voices cease to sound out. Gil Evans is introduced with a proclivity for eating radishes, which was apparently something Davis brought up in previous interview responses. He’s one of many collaborators who pops in and out in The Search for Sound, and you mention your extensive citation and footnoting in organizing this story (which is something I do in my fiction work, too). What sort of idiosyncrasies did you identify for other important figures throughout Davis’s life and how did you work them into the story without unnaturally shoehorning things amongst the pages?

 

 

DC: Duke Ellington at his piano wearing only his boxers with a woman sitting on his lap–that’s a pretty random and weird one that showed up in Miles’s autobiography! I wasn’t too worried about being natural or unnatural in putting this stuff in there. Any specificity is good. Vagueness is bad. This goes for fiction or nonfiction. That’s my take, anyway!!!

 


CBY: I very much agree with getting into the details! On an introductory note, this book was dedicated in memory of Wayne Shorter, an instrumental member of Davis’s quintet and a luminary in the field in his own right, so let’s pause for a moment to discuss that memory for our readers who may not be acquainted with Shorter’s legacy in Jazz. How would you like to see him remembered?

 

 

DC: Wayne was a saxophonist who played with Miles in the late 60s and early 70s and is especially known as one of the greatest composers in the 20th century. His music is best known for its harmonic and emotional ambiguity and formal asymmetry. He was always pushing against paradigms. Wayne was also ONE OF US–he was a huge comic fan, having drawn some of his own as a teenager, and particularly loved sci-fi. One of his last albums, EMANON, came with an accompanying graphic novel. Definitely a true hero of mine!

 


CBY: Well, now alongside his albums, I'll have to dig up some of his old comics if I can find them! From the foreword by Miles Davis’s son, Erin, I learned much I didn’t know about his visual art practice - how much of his work have you been able to view? How has your exposure to his visual work influenced your style and approach to The Search for Sound? Do you have a single piece by Miles Davis from amongst both his art portfolio and his musical catalogue you’d like to reflect upon here?

 


DC: I was quite familiar with it. Its overall aesthetic tends towards Picasso or Basquiat in its expressive abstraction which is beautiful however doesn’t lend itself to clarity in narrative. The shape of THE SOUND in my book, however, is pulled directly from a Miles sketch. I also recently purchased an original Miles Davis sketch that I haven’t gotten to frame yet. It’s an amazing sketch of a trumpet player!



CBY: That's a nice bit of creative recursion! Within the genre, it’d be hard to commemorate more feted figures, so after Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, what’s next? Given your body of work, I can’t help but note that you’re setting a gold standard for what a “jazz comic” might be. Is there any further work with Z2 or the title you’re working on with Rick Quinn you’d like to discuss further? A John Coltrane follow-up? What are your interests in subsequent projects going forward?

 

 

DC: I think it’s hard for me to consider another jazz-related book at this point. Like…where do you go from Miles Davis? Where do you go from Blue Note Records? I LOVE Mingus, but NBM put out a lovely Mingus GN translated from Italian. If the right opportunity came up, I’d definitely follow it, but right now this Miles book feels like an exclamation mark at the end of this leg of my comics-making career–Instrumental, Chasin’ the Bird, Enter the Blue, Miles Davis & the Search for the Sound. These four books deal with jazz music and with obsession. They belong together and I’m not sure what I could add to it. I might have an idea tomorrow, though! Either way, my next book is a great turn in a new direction, and the next one will be even more different–and the next and the next and the next. I don’t want to get stagnant, gotta keep moving!!!

 

Right now I’m working on a sort of almost-satirical-sci-fi pitch that I have high hopes for, it’s very important to me. I can’t talk about the book with Rick yet–I think we’re eyeballing a June announcement for it but I could be wrong. It’s a phenomenal book. I just wrapped up drawing the last issue of it. I am so excited about it!

 

CBY: Well, whatever you come up with next, I'm looking forward to learning more after seeing what you've done thus far! Many times throughout The Search for Sound, the role of astrology pops up, not just as it pertains to the duality of Davis’s character he identifies with as a Gemini, but as it pertains to his interpersonal relationships. Spirituality is raised a number of times, and you convey an impression of Davis as haunted, both being chased by, and chasing a sensation that continues to evolve in its character. As a creative person, can you unpack your process towards achieving satisfaction in your work and allaying doubt and discontent?

 

 

DC: I’m lucky in that I don’t have impostor syndrome. I love this work, I love every aspect of it, and I make work that I enjoy. I stand behind it 100%. Maybe that’s delusional! Haha! I can love my work and still strive to always improve–there’s this misguided notion that you have to hate your shit to get better and it’s so silly to me. I can look back at Instrumental or Canopus and see what I’d do differently now, but I can still put myself into the memories of why I did what I did when I made it and I still believe completely in those books. So I’m just lucky that I get to indulge my obsessions at a high enough level that people will pay me to do it. When I’m in the process of making something, I’m ALL-IN and it’s pure joy for me. Don’t ask my about my cratering mental health when I’m in-between projects, though!

 

And, ya know, I’m a Gemini too–I think that duality lives in me, too. I can definitely relate to Miles’ inner conflicts on one level!

 

 

CBY: That's all very helpful, and hearing how your creative/productive drive and purpose, and project engagement correlate with your mood is certainly relatable. We’ve unpacked a lot of the source material, and usually I ask people to share some other unrelated media they’ve been enjoying. Today, I’d like to parse the question - for comic readers, since you’ve mentioned your favorite Davis records are Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Live-Evil, what records of his various bandmates over the years would you recommend they give a listen? Additionally, for Davis fans without a deep background in comics (who probably won’t be reading this interview very clearly being published on a comic book-centric website), what comics should they pick up after checking out The Search for Sound?

 

 

DC: Ah man, there are so so so many great albums by all of these people. From obvious ones like A Love Supreme by Coltrane to any of Wayne’s 1960s Blue Note albums, to Herbie’s many many ridiculously great albums, etc etc etc. It’s too many to list, really–and yet…there’s some crazy alchemy going on with Miles’s albums because, in my opinion, NO other albums have what his greatest albums have and it’s so so hard to pin down exactly what IT is. I think Miles’s albums almost always have this permeating mystery to them that you don’t get anywhere else. Listening to the same Wayne tune on a Miles album vs. the version on a Wayne album, and, SOMEHOW, the Miles version has a mystery to it, a searching quality that, to my ears, to my imagination, took a tremendous amount of courage to record, listen to, and say “yes, that’s it,” because it’s frequently very much “work-in-progress,” process-oriented stuff that other people might let happen in a rehearsal. Miles had the courage to let that stuff end up as the master takes–the ultimate “yes, and…” kind of anything-goes acceptance of magic and mystery. Ah, this kind of nebulous language around music always annoys me and here I am spouting it–but it’s true in this case! haha

 

 

CBY: Dave, this has been wonderfully enlightening, and thank you for joining us today! For those readers unfamiliar with the scope of Davis’s work, I hope this graphic novel sets them on a path of discovery. For existing Davis fans, hopefully this adds some additional context and appreciation when they next listen to his records. If you’ve got portfolio, publication, and social media links for our readers to check out, please let us know below!

 

DC: Thanks so much! So sorry for my massive delay in answering these questions. This year has been so so so extremely busy and, with an amazing 9 month-old baby, VERY sleep-challenged! haha!

 

 


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