Enter the Blue
Written, Drawn, Colored, & Lettered: Dave Chisholm
Color Flats: Dustyn Payette
For jazz fans, the imprimatur of the Blue Note Records label means that the auditory experience one is about to enter into is going to be of the highest caliber. For over eighty years, Blue Note has released records from some of the most legendary names in jazz. You name it: Coltrane, Blakey, Dolphy, Hancock, Adderley, Shorter, even Monk and Davis; it’s like the Justice League of Jazz. But even more so than simply being a record label, the Blue Note ethos is one of radical experimentation and the demarcation of cool, setting the standards (so to speak) of what America’s classical music can and will be.
If there is any medium beyond music that is jazz-ish in its construction, it’s comics. Like jazz, comics are the other American invention that stretched boundaries: of taste, of literature, and of popular culture. Throughout the generations, both jazz and comics have been considered dangerous, uncouth, and destabilizing as art forms and vehicles for social change. In the contemporary imagination, however, both of these mediums have been recognized for their enriching augmentations to social life, elevating the mundane to transcendent levels of free expression.
And when put together, the results can be nothing short of breathtaking.
Cue in Enter The Blue, the new Z2 Comics graphic novel written and drawn by Dave Chisholm. Chisholm, a jazz musician himself, a professor of music, and the writer/artist behind 2020’s Charlie Parker graphic novel Chasin’ the Bird, stands uniquely qualified to undertake a project as expansive and exquisite as Enter the Blue. A loving graphic epistle to both comics and jazz, Enter The Blue is a maximalist expression of what both forms can be when they intertwine. The resulting story is both a moving metaphor of what inspires an artist to continue despite the many incredible tribulations of pursuing such a life as well as a fantastical journey into the heart of jazz.
At the center of Enter the Blue is Jessie Choi, a trumpet player who has left the scene due to a phobia of being on the stage and internal feelings of inadequacy. She lacks confidence in her playing and compares herself to other musicians (including a fellow student at her conservatory who secured a record deal). Though comforted by Jimmy and Margot Hightower, her conservator mentors and both jazz-masters themselves, Jess cannot tolerate the stresses of being a professional musician and retreats to become a teacher instead. In the ensuing years, Margot passes, and Jess remains committed to never picking up her trumpet again.
But then, while performing, Jimmy collapses and slips into a coma. While at his bedside, Jessie remembers the conversations the two had about “The Blue,” a nebulous space where musicians go when truly focused; a refuge from the ordinary. Along with her friend, a drummer named Erin, Jess yearns to seek out “The Blue” and get Jimmy out of his coma. Not knowing where to go, Jess and Erin end up in conversation with a jazz fan named Sherm. And it’s Sherm who provides the characters – and the reader – with an ahistorical, but extremely fascinating, interpretation of the “The Blue.” Not to give too much away (as that would spoil the fun), in a truly spellbinding/conspiratorial sequence, Sherm ties the founders of Blue Note Records with kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, laying out his (preposterous?) theory that the label’s recorded output – and the musicians who created these timeless works of art – provides a map to “The Blue,” and, perhaps, a higher spiritual consciousness. Somehow, it was the musicians, rather than the scholars, who found refuge in musical nirvana. It’s a fun, whacked-out sequence that is the heart of the book.
Rendered by Chisholm, it’s a truly gorgeous sequence adorned by Blue Note’s classic album covers. Through his characters, Chisholm asks his readers a vital question, one that goes beyond jazz: is the purpose of art purely to attain some sort of professional admiration, or to reach for something greater? Does one have to be the best at what they do to be an effective conveyer of transcendent meaning?
As a craftsman, Chisholm is one of the most exciting comic auteurs working in comics today. He makes the extremely difficult task of conveying music through the silent medium of comics look easy. His pages are filled with movement, with notes gliding in and out of panels and into the reader’s psyche. Beyond the page construction, Chisholm’s coloring work is phenomenal. The palette choices are carefully thought-out, heightening the feelings of the characters and guiding the reader – sometimes subtly and sometimes bluntly – toward a certain emotive response. In a word, it’s stunning.
Even for those readers who may not be fans of jazz, or don’t know a single element of Blue Note, Enter the Blue is a triumph. (But don’t worry! For the hardcore followers of jazz history, there are plenty of Easter eggs to catch and enjoy.) What Chisholm has accomplished in these pages is to provide an accessible and alluring tale that combines the best of jazz with the best in comics storytelling.
I found myself totally engaged with this book. While it might help that I’m a huge jazzhead, the themes of the book will resonate with anyone who has doubted themselves in their professional or personal capacities (which, unless you are a narcissist, should be about… everyone). Readers will be able to close the book with a greater appreciation for what jazz contributes to the social fabric.
But even going beyond music, Enter the Blue reminds us of what happens when we let go of the trappings of perfection and reach for the possibilities of inner peace. When we compare ourselves to others in the great rat race of life, we lose perspective of what makes us the whole. We don’t have to be concerned with white noise that distracts and keeps us down. Instead, we should seek “The Blue” – the empyrean isle – which provides us the necessary opportunity to re-center the soul towards self-acceptance and self-love. Enter the Blue and the Blue Note catalog are perfect guideposts for that essential journey.