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Bin There, Found That: Jazz vs. The Superhero Comic Book

A column article, Bin There Found That by: Chris Wunderlich

I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about superhero comics being dead. One look at DC Comics’s recent output and it’s not a hard concept to grasp. If this is indeed true and we’re on the cusp of losing a once treasured genre in its purest form, what comes next?

To start on a high note, Mark Waid’s Daredevil gets quite the praise these days. One might say it’s the most highly regarded superhero title on the shelves. I may not agree with the overabundance of acclaim, but I can certainly understand it. If all the doom and gloom about the superhero genre is true, I think Daredevil may be “Hello, Dolly”.

For those that can’t already see where I’m going with this, allow me to provide a little background on jazz music (or at least how I see it as a jazz musician). Jazz as a musical genre isn’t entirely dead—I don’t think any music genre can ever die— but it’s certainly out of the public eye. If you can give me the name of a jazz superstar younger than Wynton Marsalis, I’d like to hear it.

If one is a fan of jazz, chances are the majority of music they admire was created before 1970. Some of the great performers/composers of that era still live, and are essentially the only ones who can still play large venue, sold-out shows. Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Cecil Taylor are all still alive and even if you’ve never heard their names, they can draw a die-hard audience. Besides the greats, jazz is limited to older players playing for older audiences, novelty acts and university students with something to prove. It is something of a sad state, but new jazz is still being composed, performed and loved—albeit on a comparatively small scale.

Cecil Taylor is still kickin’ it!

Looking at jazz gets me hopeful for superhero comics. They have both seen their hey-days, becoming staples of American culture and major influential art forms. They both have their grandmasters and their mavericks--their young-gun hotshots who burned out too quickly and their revolutionary leaders turned hermits. Let me offer a rundown of some (admittedly) all too quick and easy comparisons:

Louis Armstrong is probably the Jack Kirby of jazz. He was there near the beginning, raised the genre to its peak and is still considered a king. His influence cannot be overstated and his talent cannot be denied. Not relegated strictly to the world of jazz, Armstrong is an American icon. You should all know that.

Miles Davis is our Alan Moore. As a young trumpet player, he was content in the mainstream playing big band arrangements at the height of their popularity. His raw creative passion forced him to lead one musical revolution after the next, constantly challenging the state of jazz and fighting the listener’s preconceptions. Never satisfied with maintaining a status quo, Davis perpetually gave the musical world new ways of seeing, hearing and playing jazz.

John Coltrane is easily Grant Morrison. Unceasingly inspired by the saxophone masters before him, Coltrane would look to his heroes and strive to do more. He needed to play faster—his virtuosic solos needed to be more complex. Challenging wasn’t good enough; his mind-boggling compositions made their way into the avant garde. Drugs aside, his music was an act of existential, spiritual worship.

Duke Ellington is hard to pigeon hole, but an argument can be made that he’s something of a Stan Lee-Archie Goodwin-Julius Schwartz-Will Eisner combination. Even that doesn’t really do him justice. Let’s just say he’s Superman. Ellington formed his band in 1923 and began writing some of the most beloved compositions in American music. In fact, he kept on writing them until his death in the early 70s. When I think of jazz, Ellington is probably the first musician to pop into my mind. I encourage you to research his work—there’s simply no way I could do it justice.

Of course, jazz also had its Todd McFarlanes, Rob Liefelds and Greg Lands. Surely there were Harvey Kurtzmans, Wally Woods and Jack Davis’s too. I’m sure if I spent enough time I could find the Frank Miller of jazz, but that’s not exactly my point.

Ornette Coleman – Possibly the Frank Miller of Jazz

In 1964 Louis Armstrong recorded a song titled “Hello, Dolly!”(from the musical of the same name). This is widely considered the last popular jazz song. Of course, jazz wasn’t dead; it was transforming. Miles Davis would enter the 1970s with some strange arrangements in the form of Bitches Brew and rock & roll would tackle its own brand of jazz and call it “fusion.” Traditional big-band swing had lost its reputation as America’s popular music.

Miles Davis in “fusion” mode

Now looking ahead, we know hip-hop came along somewhere in the 1980s and it looked like the kids might listen to their jazz again. DJs spun record after record of classic jazz recordings against urban break-beats and one would think, if hip-hop is big surely their jazz influences will see resurgence?

  

Ron Carter, legendary jazz bassist, also recorded with MC Solaar and A Tribe Called Quest

To me, this is the state of superhero comic books. Surely with these million-dollar blockbuster superhero movies, their comic book counterparts will see resurgence? And comics are selling too, but nowhere near the numbers one would think with the nerd culture craze going on these days. Jazz provided creative kindling to an entire generation of hip-hop, funk and R&B musicians (even if most have forgotten it by now) and as we witness the decline of the superhero comic book, one can already see the fires burning.

The influence of a specific genre within its broader medium is always interesting to track. When jazz crept into modern orchestral works, we got Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. When superhero influences find their way into “serious” comics we get things like Jeff Lemire’s Essex County. For every Frank Zappa song that quotes a smooth jazz lick, Chris Ware draws a cape. Jaime Hernandez puts his women in masks; Kenny G plays his sax with Foster the People. It’s a strange world where influences never die; they just get rearranged.

So will the superhero comic book ever meet its hip-hop—a genre that will manipulate its influences into a new form completely? Will it go the way of jazz and be a medium of old, dying masters and hotshot students who look up to them?

Either way, both jazz music and the superhero are signatures of American culture. The past cannot be rewritten, and you can find amazing works in either art form. Don’t let the future of a genre affect the catalogue of amazing material available right now. New superhero comics suck? Go read some back issues. Don’t care for any of today’s jazz? You’ve got a century’s worth of material already. Enjoy it.

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