Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California

Chasin' the Bird Cover

“Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California” is a vignette-style, lyric look at Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist, and his life, loves and struggles during his time in Los Angeles. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Chasin' the Bird Cover
Cover by Dave Chisholm

Creator: Dave Chisholm
Colors: Peter Markowski

“Chasin’ the Bird” is simultaneously a celebration of Parker, his music and the comic medium. Chisholm worked closely with the Charlie Parker estate to make this book, and it shows – events from primary sources are woven thick throughout this graphic novel, and the moments when Chisholm fills in the narrative gaps feel seamless. Plot-wise, Chisholm chooses a single performance to tie the vignettes together, with each storyteller in attendance some time after their various encounters with “Bird.” The audience waits with bated breath for Parker to take the stage, and some wonder if he will at all …

No spoilers here, folks. If you want to see if Bird performs, you’ll have to read the book yourselves.

Chisholm experiments with a different art style for each vignette, and Markowski’s excellent and varied palette seals the deal for each short. Close attention to each chosen aesthetic gives the book a ton of visual interest and helps with the scrapbook/composite narrative feel. Dizzy Gillespie, Jirayr Zorthian, William Claxton, Julie MacDonald, John Coltrane and Ross Russell are the six central figures wordlessly depicted in the initial montage, and Chisholm picks a unique aesthetic for each of their stories that suits. Gillespie’s story features rounded features and smooth, blocky shading, where Zorthian’s short feels more weathered, with tons of careful facial and background texturing. Claxton’s youthful encounter with Bird elongates the human form slightly and incorporates some old school print comics overlays. MacDonald’s line is impressionistic and reminiscent of the ‘90s Vertigo aesthetic, while Coltrane’s splashy magentas, purples and inkblot-esque shading give us a jazzier, daytime look at Bird in passing. Russell’s vignette is my personal favorite, with its Golden Age comics and noir homages and Cooke-esque cartooning. 

A common visual thread through the entire work is Chisholm’s focus on Bird as an almost mythic figure. Each short features at least one full splash or complex layout in which Bird’s body takes up space. Sometimes his playing swirls through the scene, expertly accented and picked out by Markowski, and sometimes he’s caught in a memory or a moment of madness. Each instance is through the lens of another, and Chisholm adds all sorts of details to impress upon us that the writing is secondary – the man, the music and the sensory experience are what remain.

Chisholm also varies the lettering for each vignette. Some characters are more verbose than others, and Chisholm plays with font choices, size and placement depending on what each vignette needs. The lettering can be a touch small at times, and there’s so much to dig into one each page and in Chisholm’s more imaginative layouts that the text can occasionally feel superfluous. Still, there’s no one instance that’s jarring, and Chisholm encourages us to linger and experience each page at a slower pace than a quick jaunt through a 22-page issue.

Overall, “Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California” is an imaginative and deep dive into the legendary musician through the eyes of the people who spent time with him – and who might not have really known him at all. Chisholm and Markowski craft a unique and highly sophisticated visual experience that pays off in luminous ways.

The Verdict: 9/10 – “Chasin the Bird: Charlie Parker in California” blends top notch artistic skill with imaginative storytelling for an excellent graphic novel experience.

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