Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the greatest jazz trumpeters and composers of all time. But his turbulent life was almost as interesting as his music.
Now that life is being shared, and in grand visual style, courtesy of Dave Chisholm’s new graphic novel biography Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound (hardcover). In the following email interview, Chisholm discusses what went into this book, including how his own skills on the trumpet made it that much better.
I want to start with the text. Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound is obviously a biography, but does it encompass his entire life, just his career, a segment of his life and career…?
The story does encompass just about his whole career. It’s framed by his recovery from a stroke he suffered in the early ’80s, so the stuff after that is pretty compressed. In his recovery from the stroke, his right hand was paralyzed, so he couldn’t play. So, in the framing story, he’s searching for his sound quite literally. His doctor gave him a pencil and told him to just scribble with it, which is one of the catalyzing events for Miles making visual art in that last decade of his life. When he sits down and scribbles, the memories start to come back — all focused on his relentless, obsessive pursuit of “the sound,” which might be his actual trumpet sound, but also is an ever evolving musical frame for his trumpet sound.
Biographies can take different approaches. Some are scholarly, while some are written more like stories. What approach did you take with Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound, and why was this the correct one for this bio?
While there was definitely some scholarship in the research for this book, the last thing I wanted to do was to make a dry documentary-style book. This one is subjective, emotional, all told from Miles’s point of view, with narration all in his own words, collected and adapted from a variety of interviews, essays, and his autobiography. Sometimes the narration fights against the imagery. I like to think that it resulted in a kaleidoscopic, poetic portrait of the many sides of the man.
Miles had times in his life that some might call “problematic.” Did you include those moments in Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound?
I didn’t think it would be honest nor appropriate to try to hide the less-than-savory sides of Miles. After all, he didn’t feel the need to hide. It’s definitely not a celebration of those things, but rather a portrait of this incredibly complicated, at times contradictory person. How could such a, well, let’s just say it: Miles in so many ways projected this classic toxic masculinity. The need to intimidate, often through threats of violence or violence itself. So, how could this toxic presence also be such a sensitive musician, both emotionally vulnerable and sensitive to the needs of the musicians around him in the given moment. To me, this Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect, this Gemini thing, is one of his most compelling and confounding aspects, and certainly worth exploring, hopefully without exploiting the bad stuff.
Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound is not your first graphic novel. It’s not even your first graphic novel biography of a horn-playing jazz musician; that would be Chasin’ The Bird: Charlie Parker In California, which you wrote and co-drew with Peter Markowiski. What books, graphic or otherwise, do you think had the biggest influence on how you wrote Search, and were any of these books that didn’t influence your earlier ones, and especially not Bird?
I mean, the biggest influence on this book was the music of Miles Davis himself. The visual style of the book shifts throughout to match Davis’s famous penchant for changing the direction of his music.
In terms of other comic artists, I doubt there are any revelatory influences I could name, to be honest.
In general, I dislike most music biographies, in comics or in film. Sorry to be negative, but it’s true. Because they are almost never about the music itself, never about the process. I mean, how many times, in a music documentary or biopic, when the band starts to play, that’s when the dialogue starts up?! It’s so silly and foils the subject. Let the music be the star, let it permeate everything. But, you know, that’s silly in this case, right? At first glance? Comics are silent. So how can music be the star; how can it take center stage?
This is where, as a creator, it’s my responsibility to know the music completely, so I can take structural elements from the music and allow them to inform my storytelling, page construction, color choice, and so on. It allows the comic page to become, at least partly, a visual map of Miles’s music throughout his career. It’s a huge challenge, but man…I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Like Miles, you are also a trumpet player. Do you think this may have influenced how you wrote Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound? Like, do you think it would’ve been different if you didn’t play jazz? Or a horn? Or any instrument at all?
Yes, absolutely. My musical background and knowledge was integral. Really, my involvement in making these music-related books only makes sense because I have this background and I have the curiosity to exercise that background in an abstract way on the comics page. Otherwise, to be honest, it’d be hard for me to justify my involvement with these projects. I’m grateful for my polymath background.
Moving on to the art, Miles lived through a time when visual art was changing rapidly, and in wild ways. Does Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound reflect this, or did you use a consistent style?
Yeah, the visual style…elements of it reflect the times, particularly the psychedelic influence that shows up in the chapters that take place in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and maybe a touch of noir in some of the late ’50s scenes. I have that big Taschen Kubrick book out all the time and I’m always thumbing through it for compositional inspiration. But yeah, it was always about finding the right way to reflect multiple aspects of Davis’s music during the era I was depicting. That was the agenda.
So, who and what do you consider to be the biggest influences on how you drew Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound?
Oh, gosh. Each chapter is drawn in a different style, so it’s hard to say. I appreciate the courage of artists who can shift styles: J.H. Williams III, Bill Sienkiewicz, Stuart Immonen. But I also adore and admire artists who have carved out an absolutely iconic style, totally singular in vision, like Mignola, Kirby, Moebius (though he does have a few evolutions in his career, doesn’t he?!). I’m a student of this medium and I honestly am always learning and analyzing and examining.
Some of the people who’ll consider reading Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound will have already read his autobiography, 1989’s Miles. What do you think someone will get out of Search that they won’t have already gotten from Miles? Or do you think they work more like companions?
I definitely adapt a few chunks from Miles. I mean, I’ve read that book so many times. The first time I read it was in high school, and it scared the shit out of me. It’s an amazing, unnerving read, no doubt. So I can’t say that my book somehow improves on it.
Due to the space constraints of the graphic-novel format, however, I do think that my book had to be more focused. If Miles’s life is a tree, Miles could show just about the whole tree. Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound required some pruning, some more editing–with the trunk of the tree being what’s in the title: Miles’s search for “the sound.” Anything that didn’t directly lead to or get affected by his search ended up hitting the cutting room floor. My initial script was 80 pages longer than it ended up. Editing it was a bummer but…to be honest I think the result reads better as a work of drama.
So, what albums should I listening to while reading Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound? I’m leaning towards Bitches Brew, but then, I often do.
I’ve been meaning to make a playlist. I need to make a playlist.
But the albums highlighted are, after his sideman stuff with Bird:
some of the live stuff with the second quintet, maybe Live In Europe?
And then probably Tutu for the ’80s.
Finally, if someone enjoys Miles Davis And The Search For The Sound, which of your other graphic novels would you suggest they check out next?
Chasin’ The Bird: Charlie Parker In California. In a lot of ways, it’s a prequel to the Miles book, with a similar visual conceit.