So the Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO), together with Flemish trumpeter Bert Joris, wrote a score to Paquet’s famous jazz stories. To return the favour, he drew a story about the renowned big band. The result is the live performance Graphicology: A Visual Jazz Score. Paquet, 38, lives in a neat apartment in the Berchem district of Antwerp. The distinctive mix of black and white with only an occasional blotch of colour that typifies his graphic novels is reflected in both his interior and his clothing style.
Black is the colour of jazz, his passion, and of the night. Paquet is not a 9 to 5 person. He likes a hint of darkness. And white is the colour each illustrator has to come to terms with, certainly when facing another empty page.
The illustrations for Graphicology, which will be projected to the live music of the BJO, are in sepia grey – ideal for shaping the mood of his favourite musical genre. “I started drawing jazz musicians because I liked everything around it,” Paquet tells me. “Not only the music – I’m a bassist myself – but also the bars and the smoke.”
Paquet hung out in those places from the time he was a teenager. “In those days, you could spot me in Antwerp music bars like De Muziekdoos and De Muze with a pipe; it fit the lifestyle,” he smiles. “And while reading the biographies of the biggest jazz names, plenty of images appeared in my head.”
Fragments of three of his graphic novels – the biographical Louis Armstrong (2001), the compilation Snapshots (2003) and Playin’/ Smilin’/Fightin’/Cookin’ (2010), which are all written in English – are all part of Graphicology. It was Toon Horsten from the graphic arts support organisation Strip Turnhout who connected Frank Vaganée, the artistic leader of BJO, with Paquet.
They decided to create two new stories, one in which BJO plays a major role. “They are chasing me the whole evening,” says Paquet, who didn’t want to portray them too realistically. “It stays a comic, and, for sure, there are a few ‘character heads’ in the band.”
Another new story takes place in New Orleans. “It’s about the legislative history of the blues. I try to evoke some magic realism: There are lot of references to voodoo, and we visit the crossroads.”
Paquet was astonished to see how few words the musicians needed to get Graphicology right and how much attention they paid to particular details. “While composing, Bert Joris even called me a few times for a background check on some characters in my story.”
Paquet has been drawing from the moment he could hold a pencil. Much to the annoyance of his teachers, it became a true obsession. “My dad wasn’t too fond of the idea, but my mother, who was not allowed to go to art school herself because my grandfather didn’t support her, gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. She was not amused when I gave up secondary school, but I was just fed up with it and wanted to earn a living with my pencil.”
At 16 he discovered the Mekanik comic book shop in Antwerp. Batman, above all, appealed to him. “It eventually occurred to me that all good comic artists had worked on Batman.” Contemporary American graphic novelist David Mazzucchelli, who created the graphic novel Asterios Polyp, “began his career drawing Batman,” says Paquet. “The same for Frank Miller. Next to Batman, I fancied the work of Franquin. Zwartkijken, his comic book from 1977, was an eye-opener: only black ink, dark and very cynical.
He had a go at a Batman story, too, but it never got published. But as a 23-year-old, he was – rather surprisingly – selected for an exhibition in New York. “I had sent in my first jazz comic Miles da cat as remembered by the Bird. They liked it, and I was part of a group exhibition in the Jazz Gallery in New York. “From that moment on, I knew what I was going to do.”
He took it as a sign and kept on drawing jazz comics. First there was Louis Armstrong, in which he portrayed Satchmo’s youth and early days as a musician. It earned him a small but worldwide cult following. He remembers meeting the Argentinian an comic artist José Muñoz, who had published a graphic novel on Billie Holiday. “He really is one of my heroes. And when we got introduced he said: ‘This guy brought Louis Armstrong to life! Your book made me dream, man!’ I was walking on clouds the rest of the day.”
In Playin’/Smilin’/Fightin’/ Cookin’ Paquet worked with three writers to tell four stories – two biographical and two fictional – about moments in jazz history. In Fightin’, for instance, Paquet imagines what the legendary Charlie Parker might have done during his infamous disappearances while he was performing with Charles Mingus and others at the mythical Massey Hall.
As a freelance editor, Paquet’s work is also often music related. He provided the artwork for the Blue Note label CD-boxset. Last year he drew illustration representing the Gent Jazz Festival and followed dEUS on tour for Knack Focus magazine. Later this year, he will be an artist-in-residence in Italy, where he will attend some concerts with pencil in hand and work on a new graphic novel, this time in Dutch. “It will be a mix of different styles and a story with a lot of suspense.” Right now, a gallery in Berchem is hosting a show of Paquet’s work.
Paquet also illustrates live with a “tagtool”, a device connected together with a drawing tablet, a projector and a laptop. Operated by an illustrator and an animator, it allows images that have just been drawn to move. Together with animator Gilliom, he livens up festivities with this new, extraordinary tool, most recently a Radio Modern retro party. “I like the variation of the work. I don’t want to sit at my drawing table all the time. And what’s better than being paid to be at a party?”
But his biggest project so far is definitely the one in the De Villegas Park. The city of Antwerp ordered a work of 150 square metres for the renovation of the park in Berchem. The result will be an illustrated wall in which the last century of the community and its most distinctive people will come to life. The wall should be ready by June, and Paquet has moved his workshop to a secret hideout provided by the city. “We had to look for a room with 50 metres of open space. It really gives me a New York loft feeling.”
But whether he’s drawing a new comic book or painting a wall, Paquet stays truthful to his mission. “I like to touch people with as few lines as possible, with a visual that recalls an emotion or an atmosphere. But it has to stay pleasant, meaning it should be presented with astonishment and an infantine enthusiasm.”