We start with a familiar allegory: A number of blind and deaf men are led into a room with an elephant. Each tries to describe what’s in the room based on the one area of the elephant they touch, missing the whole. It’s an apt metaphor for those of us who live now, 100 years after Charlie Parker—“Bird”—first hatched; anyone trying to understand everything he was as a musician and human will lack that complete wisdom. Chasin’ the Bird gets close, however, in realizing a full portrait of Parker: the legend, the myth and, most important, the man.
The allegory carries over into this 136-page graphic novel written, drawn, and lettered by Dave Chisholm and colored by Peter Markowski, through its six narrators: Dizzy Gillespie, Armenian-American artist Jirayr Zorthian, photographer William Claxton, sculptor Julie MacDonald, a wet-behind-the-ears John Coltrane, and Dial Records founder Ross Russell. Each narrator traps a different part of Bird, each story adding more fabric to the patchwork knowledge of his legendary flight to Los Angeles in the late 1940s. MacDonald describes a weeks-long love affair with Parker; Russell details getting him clean. The narrators leave nothing of the tale’s dark side out, but they also emphasize his humanity.
Chisholm and Markowski make Bird’s life vivid, changing both illustration style and color scheme with each swing in perspective. Dizzy describes their arrival in L.A. with neon Blade Runner hues of blacks and greens and blues, and the music erupting from Bird’s horn is an unthinkable scheme of searing hot pink. Claxton, still a teenager at the time, hosts Parker at his suburban house in scenes that cross Golden Age and Archie Comics styles; Russell falls into a solid white, black, and blue classic noir (which also makes for hilarious comparisons with the ways in which Batman was historically drawn).
At times the myth seems to take over, as when Coltrane claims to hear his whole future, from “Giant Steps” to A Love Supreme and beyond, when Bird plays in front of him. However, these are rare. Chisholm and Markowski offer one of the most balanced, human, and colorful depictions so far of a great musical enigma and genius.