Culture / Media

Miles Davis and the French Comic Book

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The late great Mike Zwerin tells us about Miles Davis and the French comic book:

“The French love American art forms that America has ignored — jazz and comic books of the 1950s and 1960s, for example. Robert Crumb and Miles Davis were stars in France long before America.

The French record company Nocturne has been publishing a series of hard-cover comic books drawn by artists such as Louis Joos and Jacques Ferrandez on just about every significant jazzman since Louis Armstrong, each with two CDs inserted in the covers.

“Miles Davis, Volume 2” and “Charles Mingus” are the most recent.

Davis got slugged on the head by a policeman for no other reason than that he was black and uppity and occupying the Broadway sidewalk in front of Birdland. Mingus could no longer tolerate rich white people not paying taxes, and he did not hesitate to speak his mind.

White Americans have long been shocked when they discover what black people really think of them. Mingus was evicted from his Manhattan apartment. This sort of Americana has long outraged the French.

It was something of an over-simplification to begin with, however, and since France began to be home to so many African immigrants, many have changed their point of view, but that’s another story.

The drawings for the Davis are in color and realistic. The Mingus, as is somehow fitting, is impressionistic and in black and white.

These two comic books are about two creative African Americans who were mistreated by the system, and how one of them was surprised to find more sympathetic white people in France. It’s the story of the movie “Round Midnight.” The French just adore that story.

Picasso, Sartre

Davis came to France in the 1950s to get away from American racism, and was surprised to meet white people he liked. The comic book illustrates such people as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the existentialist pop singer Juliette Greco. Davis and Greco fell in love.

He checked into the famed hipster Hotel Louisiane in Saint Germain des Pres, along with such buddies as James Moody and Kenny Clarke. They were all marveling at how they were appreciated as artists in France. You can see the St Germain- des-Pres church in the background.

CD 1 in the Davis back cover is with Charlie Parker in the late 1940s, before Davis was a star. He was replacing Dizzy Gillespie, a hard act to follow. Still in his early 20s at the time, Davis was mostly potential — he was too timid, forgot to empty the spit from his horn, or played out of tune.

Seeds of Genius

Put into perspective now, however, it’s easy to hear the seeds of the genius. And it’s refreshing to hear Davis with Bird again. By the late-1950s, leading his classic quintet with John Coltrane (the second CD in the back cover), the genius was already all there.

The book recalls the anecdote, which doesn’t work as well in French, of how Coltrane used to play half-hour solos, and Davis asked him to play shorter. Trane said that he had all these ideas in his head and it was hard for him to find an ending. Davis said: “Why don’t you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?”

Such Mingus originals as “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” and the lesser known “New York Sketchbook” sound as ahead of their time as they did in the 1950s. And you can hear better than ever how the trombonist Jimmy Knepper was Mingus’s franchise sound, much like the bassist Paul Chambers was Davis’s.

Unfortunately, the comic books are written in French. Who reads French any more?

Look at it this way. They are worth buying for the CD collections alone. And with not much text, and the help of nice drawings and the wonderful music, reading comic books about American jazz musicians is a painless way to begin to learn the French language.”

Thanks, Mike. And rest in peace….


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