The Lives of John Coltrane & Billie Holiday Are Now Told in Two Graphic Novels

How do you tell the sto­ries of larg­er-than-life cul­tur­al figures—of peo­ple whose his­to­ries inter­sect with piv­otal moments in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, whose careers set new stan­dards for excellence—without over­sim­pli­fy­ing and risk­ing car­i­ca­ture? With com­ic art, of course. Graph­ic nov­els have long proven them­selves wor­thy vehi­cles for biog­ra­phy. Some­thing about the bold strokes of the illus­tra­tions, the dia­logue in word bub­ble form, and the pan­el style of sto­ry­telling makes for a par­tic­u­lar­ly vivid encounter with his­to­ry.

Artist Pao­lo Parisi has cap­i­tal­ized on this kismet of form and con­tent in three bio­graph­i­cal graph­ic nov­els now, one of which—the sto­ry of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s rise to fame and for­tune—we high­light­ed just a cou­ple days ago.

Parisi’s ear­li­er efforts took on no less icon­ic fig­ures than John Coltrane and Bil­lie Hol­i­day in Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Sto­ry of Bil­lie Hol­i­day. The Ital­ian artist has demon­strat­ed a pas­sion for Amer­i­can music, espe­cial­ly jazz, in his career as an illus­tra­tor. As a writer, he also dis­plays a tal­ent for restraint, large­ly let­ting the images tell the sto­ry.

As in Basquiat, these images are both drawn from famous pho­tographs and from imag­i­na­tive recon­struc­tions of what it might have been like, sit­ting in on record­ing ses­sions, in the clubs, and in the heat­ed con­ver­sa­tions. Parisi may inevitably view his sub­jects through an out­sider’s lens—he may roman­ti­cize them at times and may elide impor­tant, but hard to visu­al­ize, details, as is the nature of the form.

But he excels at mak­ing these two musi­cal giants approach­able, telling their sto­ries in broad strokes so that those who haven’t read the dense, heav­i­ly-foot­not­ed tomes about them can devel­op appre­ci­a­tion and empa­thy for their art and too-short lives. It is a sad irony that those who burn bright and die young leave behind the most com­pelling mate­r­i­al for those who tell their sto­ries.

Parisi seems drawn to such trag­ic fig­ures, or per­haps the form itself requires high-con­trast highs and lows. “How could a graph­ic treat­ment pro­vide any­thing oth­er than the sketchi­est of details?” asks Coltrane review­er William Rycroft Tring. “Per­haps by choos­ing the right sub­ject.” In Coltrane and Hol­i­day, Parisi has two sub­jects whose lives were inher­ent­ly dra­mat­ic, full of major tri­umphs and tragedies.

Above all is the music. Graph­ic nov­els may not be sub­sti­tutes for a “prop­er biog­ra­phy,” as Tring writes, but they are excel­lent sup­ple­ments for get­ting to know the artists as you lis­ten to Lady Sings the Blues or A Love Supreme, whether for the first time or the mil­lionth.

You can pick up copies of Coltrane and Blues for Lady Day: The Sto­ry of Bil­lie Hol­i­day online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graph­ic Nov­el

An Ani­mat­ed John Coltrane Explains His True Rea­son for Being: “I Want to Be a Force for Real Good”

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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