An elegy of sorts, made all the more poignant by the frantic, imperfect, varied line styles.
Since the 1980s, comics veteran Blutch (a.k.a. Christian Hincker) has penned enough drawings to fill nearly two dozen books. In 2009, the French cartoonist was awarded the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême, France’s most prestigious comic book prize. The following year, he served as the president of the festival. His work has been published in The New Yorker, the French journal Libération and Les Inrockuptibles.
Blutch’s latest, Total Jazz, collects nearly a hundred pages of strips centering on the genre’s idiosyncrasies. On the cover, a pensive Miles Davis stares into oblivion, past the reader’s gaze. The absence of any backdrop heightens the trumpeter’s sense of alienation. It’s an appropriate image for the book’s overall tone, reminiscent of a photograph from Davis’ last concert (and last year alive) shot by Herman Leonard. In both examples, though in his element onstage, Davis seems lost in thought, shouldering some bleak and solitary realization—perhaps the decline of the genre he helped revolutionize.
The totality of jazz must reveal its joy as well as its sadness. Blutch’s sketches show a clear love for the style and its biggest luminaries, but there are darker elements behind many of the jokes. Esteemed jazz musicians are reduced to mere urban straphangers; others peer despondently at gravestones of jazz icons; another is consigned to play behind a curtain or in a theater employee’s uniform during segregation; an inheritance of jazz records becomes relegated to a dusty garage. Visual tributes to Chet, Duke and Davis feel like visual obituaries. Artists are shoved aside for the next big fad, musicians play to empty venues or abuse lovers, record stores display shrinking jazz collections. It may not be pretty, but no one could accuse Blutch of inauthenticity either. Surely his source material has been collected from years of observing the scene from inside the smokiest jazz clubs.
The book’s biggest surprise and success arrives at the end, in the form of the Jazz Detective, a private investigator by way of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade who happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history. Part of his grind involves fielding questions about who played the drums on a specific session of an obscure recording. Just like Spade, the Jazz Detective is an anachronism pointing to a bygone era when movies were monochrome and people knew the difference between bebop and hard bop. Possessing a skill that makes him overly erudite is charmingly quaint, but impractical in the modern world, and this stands in for the discipline of jazz itself.
Jazz in the 20th century can be summarized as a racial struggle, but it was a struggle of style as well. The form steadily declined in popularity after genres like rock usurped it. In 2014, jazz was the genre America listened to the least. This makes Blutch’s collection an elegy of sorts, made all the more poignant by the frantic, imperfect, varied line styles. These visual flourishes suit jazz’s improvisatory nature, pointing to the multitude of the genre’s approaches. It lends accessibility to subject matter that is both somber but also celebratory.