Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Barney's Blues

Leave it to the French... and the Belgians and Dutch, and the Germans, and the Italians and, well, most other mainland Europe nationals--all of whom revere not only American Jazz, but also the notion of comic books (another American creation, dating from the late Twenties). But these countries also publish comics for adults, full-length stories drawn in chunks and published serially in monthly magazines and hardback comics anthologies.

The French call them bandes dessinees, and in the Eighties U.S. publishers finally took notice of this huge phenomenon. (Hence the still ever-burgeoning spate of vapid, superhero-dominated graphic novels from American comics companies.) Yet around the world, and in the U.S. as well, there are a few worthy efforts published each year too; the problem is wading through the dreck to find the diamonds.

These not-so-comic thoughts came to me as I watched an embedded video created by Steve Cerra over at the JazzProfiles blog. He does these splendid historical tributes to various musicians, assembling photos and album jacket art to encapsulate entire careers; and a recent one was devoted to Barney Wilen.

"Who?"--I can hear many readers and even knowledgeable Jazz fans ask. Tenor saxist Barney Wilen (1937-1996) was essentially the Stan Getz of French jazz, a hardbopper and ballads man good enough to play regularly in clubs and on discs and movie soundtracks with distinguished visitors Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Kennys Clarke and Dorham, both Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk, John Lewis and the MJQ, and others, plus great European jazzmen and little-known locals alike, from the Fifties until his death in the Nineties.

And Wilen has the peculiar distinction of having been (I believe) the only living jazzman to "suffer" a graphic-novel, fictional retelling of his life. Now, many European artists (and a few American ones, from R. Crumb to William Stout) have drawn semi-documentary sequential stories about bluesmen and sax players and famous rock musicians; but matters of factual accuracy and lawsuit-avoidance usually dictate subject and tone and incidents depicted. The standard trick is to draw someone deceased. Yet Wilen somehow became the unwitting subject of a fictional strip published in 1985-86, 70 pages divided into six chapters running in consecutive issues of the excellent, now no-longer-extant, bandes dessinees magazine titled "(A Suivre)"--parentheses included--meaning approximately "to be continued."

Barney et la Note Bleue is a moody classic of modern comics--lots of Existential angst and ennui--written by Philippe Paringaux and drawn sketchily and unforgettably by Jacques Loustal. The fictional Barney is a first-rate tenor man but an aimless kid who'd rather shoot up or screw with no commitment; and when the sax-and-sex life catches up with him, he dies from an overdose (in 1962). The real Wilen, in contrast, was a half-French, half-American expatriate hipster who looked like a mix of Buddy Holly and the young Bill Evans--a somewhat forgotten musician who survived the vicissitudes of a career in Jazz by sometimes playing offshoots (jazz-rock, African pygmy music, even punk), before returning to bop for his last decade. (That brief punk connection helped generate the interest in Wilen among comics artists.)

But the unexpected attention accorded Barney led to some ironic developments. First, Wilen reacted a bit testily to the early chapters' apparent misrepresentation of his life in the late Fifties--until Loustal and Paringaux convinced him that this was a fictional "Barney" only vaguely related to him at all. Then the complete serialized story garnered such acclaim that Wilen was quickly booked into a recording studio to cut a ...la Note Bleue album, a sort of soundtrack to accompany the comics novel (due to appear in book form some months later), and to capitalize on the welcome resurgence of interest in the living Barney. And the success of that record helped persuade the tenor to re-focus his playing on hard bop once more.

I happened to be travelling in Europe during the months the story segments were appearing. I was a bandes dessinees fan, routinely buying each issue of (A Suivre), and the quietly compelling story of some sad jazzman named Barney just seemed an unlikely bonus at the time. I knew of the real Wilen, his Fifties career that is, but I assumed he had died and then been chosen by the artists as some sort of representative figure of the era. My rudimentary French missed the story's subtleties, but I could follow along with the somewhat controversial behind-the-scenes stuff that developed in the comics press. Clearly Loustal and Paringaux had created a graphics meta-fiction that shook things up in the comics world and beyond.

I don't know if other real, still-living people have been depicted in graphic novels since then (that is, other than the typical brief parodies of politicians everywhere), but seeing a couple of samples of Loustal's art reprinted in the Wilen tribute video was a happy reminder of an interesting half-year in France and of a fine jazzman deserving wider recognition.

And by an excellent coincidence, I discovered that Barney is due to be reissued by Casterman (Paris) at the end of September, if anyone is curious to see more. (The related CD seems not to be available except perhaps as a download.)

Barney's blue notes are still resounding.

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