Miles Davis and the Search for Sound, Dave Chisholm

Depicting the Artistic Quest in ‘Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound’

Dave Chisholm uses creative methods for his graphic non-fiction novel about Miles Davis including gorgeous artwork to illustrate the jazz icon’s artistic quest.

Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound
Dave Chisholm
Z2 Comics
November 2023

Z2 Comics has carved out a niche as the go-to producer of graphic novels that illustrate the biographies of famous bands and musicians, and they’ve got another winner with Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound. Not only one of the most acclaimed trumpet players in jazz history, Davis became one of the most influential players in the entire history of music with his cutting-edge explorations of ever-evolving sonic pathways. After conquering the jazz world in the ‘50s through to the mid-’60s, Davis practically wrote the book on jazz fusion in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as he blended jazz, funk, rock, and improvisation in innovative new ways.

As one of the leading musical pioneers of the 20th century, a graphic novel chronicling Miles Davis’ personal complexity and immense creative journey demands an innovative approach. Enter artist Dave Chisholm, a musician with a doctorate in Jazz Trumpet from the Eastman School of Music. Having previously tackled a graphic novel on saxman Charlie Parker (one of Davis’ biggest influences as readers learn), Chisholm is clearly the man for this job.

“Davis’ music has truly been a lifelong obsession of mine, inspiring me to pursue jazz trumpet in college and beyond,” Chisholm explains in a press release for the project. “Miles continually inspires me to pursue stylistic change as an artist, both visually and musically. This is the book I’ve always dreamt of creating; it’s the biggest honor of my professional life to be given this opportunity by the Davis family.”

Chisholm uses innovative approaches in the narrative and the artwork to honor and convey Miles Davis’ vast talent and incalculable influence on the music world. Instead of using a straight linear timeline, Chisholm frames the story around Davis’ recovery from a 1982 stroke that put him on the disabled list as a musician and caused him to reflect on his past. But there’s still a chronological depiction of Davis’ musical evolution through the decades, which is fascinating since he was never content with any creative triumph for long. Miles Davis was always seeking out the next milestone in his sound (though the chronology oddly leaves out the Milestones album from 1958 and what an influential song the title track was as a prototype for introducing modalism in jazz.)

Rather than try to craft a new biographical narrative, Chisholm uses Miles Davis’ own words from various biographies, interviews, and album liner notes. This imparts authenticity to the storyline and relates Davis’ views on his own musical philosophies and personal flaws. But what makes this graphic novel a triumph is the creative style Chisholm employs in his artwork to illustrate the jazz icon’s musical explorations and breakthroughs. Most of the scenes depicting Davis and his bandmates in action utilize a translucent watercolor technique to convey the multi-dimensional nature of the music, and it works like magic. 

It’s rewarding to dial up each album as it appears in the narrative and listen to a song from it while viewing the pages. Miles Davis relates how the recording of his Walkin’ album in 1954 turned his whole life and career around, and the sound is related in panels of green and yellow tones and shapes that melt together to convey the flow of the music. Reddish and purple tones are used to similar effect when Davis describes his next band, the Miles Davis Quintet, featuring rising saxophonist John Coltrane. 

There’s also some insightful dialogue from Miles Davis on his musical relationships with his bandmates that takes the narrative to a higher level to reveal the inner workings that made the music click: 

“I wanted Sonny Rollins but he disappeared. So Philly Joe suggested John Coltrane. We didn’t get along at first because he kept asking these motherfucking questions about what he should or shouldn’t play.”

“But Miles, you’re the leader–”

“Man, fuck that shit. I’ve always wanted whoever played with me to find their own place in the music. But after we started playing together for a little while, I knew that this guy was a bad motherfucker who was just the voice I needed on tenor saxophone to set off my voice.”

The next chapter finds the band jamming in the studio on what would become 1959’s landmark Kind of Blue album, naturally featuring gorgeous blue tones with a little purple to great effect. Davis provides deeper insight into his quest for the sound. When drummer Philly Joe Jones asks if there’s a chart, Davis says, “No.” When Jones asks, “What do you want me to do?” Davis relates that he wants the band members to take more risks and go beyond themselves by simply saying, “Just swing.”

There’s plenty of interesting material about the ups and downs of Miles Davis’ personal life, his often turbulent relationships, and his struggles with racism and drugs. But it’s the portrayals of the ever-ongoing search for the next sound in which Chisholm’s brilliance as a graphic artist continues to shine the brightest. The discovery of 17-year-old phenom drummer Tony Williams and the formation of Davis’ next great quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter features more of this luminescent artwork, as Chisholm uses colors and shapes to convey the band’s dazzling sonic landscapes.

The creative blend of vivid colors and unique shapes is also used to color in Miles Davis’ reflections on being influenced by guitar greats like Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix. A vivid two-page depiction of Davis and Hendrix jamming together at Jimi’s pad feels like a scene from Godzilla vs Kong, and the mind boggles at what might have been if Hendrix had stuck around on Earth for a few more years. But the rock revolution of the late ‘60s inspired Davis to bring ace British guitarist John McLaughlin into his next band, leading to the revolutionary sounds of albums like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Tribute to Jack Johnson (each receiving some dazzling depictions from Chisholm.)

The two pages depicting the jams from 1970’s Bitches Brew could be an art print of its own, conveying the monumental impact the double album had on the music world as Davis and his band forged the template for cosmic funk jazz rock fusion on songs like “Spanish Key”. There’s also a panel depicting the legendary night on the Bitches Brew tour when Davis opened for the Grateful Dead at The Fillmore in San Francisco. 

“That was an eye opening concert for me, because there were about five thousand people there – mostly young white hippies who hadn’t hardly heard of me, if they had heard of me at all,” Davis relates. Then there’s another great two-page image of Davis playing his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal, with Davis noting that he was using the wah-wah on his trumpet all the time to “get closer to the sound Jimi had on his guitar. I had always played trumpet like a guitar.”

Miles Davis continues pursuing a funky rhythm driven sound on 1972’s On the Corner album, only to be disappointed when his record label fails to market the album properly. “The music was meant to be heard by young black people. But they just treated it like any other jazz album. Columbia marketed it for them old time jazz people who couldn’t get into what I was doing at the time – they wanted to hear my old music that I wasn’t playing anymore. It wasn’t made for them. But I had to keep doing what I was doing if I was going to keep thinking of myself as a creative artist.”

This concept of being driven to keep pushing boundaries rather than playing it safe and coasting on past success separates the true greats from the pack. Miles Davis is arguably the all-time king of evolving his music from one decade to the next. “Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound” perfectly conveys that artistic quest for creative innovation.

RATING 9 / 10