By Stefano Marzorati
WHEN ASKED ABOUT HIS MUSICAL PHILOSOPHY, DUKE ELLINGTON USED TO ANSWER: "I LIKE GOOD OLD-FASHIONED BIG TEARS", and Sergio Bonelli was of the same opinion. He loved ballads, and sentimental songs. Someone said that being sentimental is a cheap emotion, but this isn’t true in jazz music.
Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster on the cover of
"The Warm Moods" album.
In jazz, you have to earn emotions, and pay your dues for them, because it’s hard to play saxophone tenderly, while still keeping rhythm and at the same time wrench tears from the heart of your listeners. These are emotions that you pay in full: those who know about the history of music understand it.
If we listen to Ben Webster playing a blues or In a Sentimental Mood, we realize that the “idea” of sentiment doesn’t have a place in it. He was never corny, because even when he was playing softly, there was always a roar lurking around the corner. And when he was writing Mister No’s stories, Sergio Bonelli/Guido Nolitta often managed to be "sentimental", and convey the same kind of feeling you experience when you listen to one of the old, timeless jazz standards, like Body and Soul.
JAZZ HAD ALWAYS BEEN ONE OF SERGIO’S OLDEST PASSIONS, AS HE TOLD IN AN INTERVIEW WITH GIANNI CAMERONI: "When I was in my early twenties, I was already a huge jazz fan, and I frequently snuck into one of the clubs in Milan – Arethusa, Shanghai, Arenella, Cà Bianca, Santa Tecla or the legendary Taverna Messicana – where extraordinary Italian jazz players were jamming. At that time, you had an audience split in two. From 21 to 1 a.m it was normal people, couples, music lovers, professionals and onlookers."After 2 a.m., the ‘descent of the hoodlums’ began: petty thieves, dropouts, shady night-wanderers. The only ones who couldn’t get in (the criminals themselves wouldn’t allow) were the pimps and the drug dealers, according to the moral code of the underworld at the time. Of course, I was always there, because I was curious about that world of misfits, and I transported it into the plots of some of the comic stories I wrote with the pen-name of Guido Nolitta”.
Sergio loved to talk about his past as a "jazzhead''. I remember several nights in his company, at the Blue Note in Milan, when, in front of a cocktail, we waited for the show to begin and amiably chatted about albums and musicians. Above all, Sergio liked to remember his meeting with the legendary singer Billie Holiday, that happened by chance a night, after her performance at Milan’s Teatro Lirico, at the above-mentioned Taverna Messicana.
BONELLI/NOLITTA WAS ABLE TO SMOOTHLY CARRY THIS PASSION OF HIS INTO THE STORIES OF HIS FAVORITE CHARACTER, MISTER NO. In one of his columns he wrote: "The reason why I chose these songs as the soundtrack for Mister No’s stories is simple. A comics’ character needs depth, humanity, in order to appear as a real person and not as a puppet. And real people have their own taste. Since in the 1950s Elvis and rock’n’roll were still to come, which kind of music could the reckless Jerry Drake love? Jazz, of course".
"This way, I also put another part of me in Mister No, since I am a big fan of Billie Holiday and classic jazz myself. For Mister No’s ‘theme’, the song he often hums at the end of an adventure, I chose a lively spiritual like “When the Saints Go Marchin' in”, the song Louis Armstrong used as the final number of all his shows”.
Armstrong’s famous tune is only the first of a long string of musical “quotations”. Another song that evokes a bout of nostalgia in Mister No, when he hear it sung on the Rio Negro (in n.14 of the regular series, Ombre nella notte) is Basin Street Blues. This New Orleans’ anthem (New Orleans, The Land of Dreams, as the song goes) was the mainstay of the fabulous trombone-player/singer Jack Teagarden, a.k.a. "Big T". As for the other music that Sergio considered as the ideal soundtrack for Mister No, the mainstays were Ella Fitzgerald‘s romantic blues, the “hot” jazz of Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum‘s piano and Lester Young’s saxophone.
Jerry Drake sings his ideal "signature tune",
in a panel by Roberto Diso.
SERGIO LOVED THE JAZZ STANDARDS BECAUSE HE KNEW HOW TO APPRECIATE THE BEAUTY, BUT ALSO THE WISDOM THAT THOSE SONGS CONVEYED. All together, those songs were like a book, a dream-like guide for the heart, for himself and for his comics’ alter ego: Every Time We Say Goodbye, The Way You Look Tonight, You Go to My Head, There Will Never Be Another You. There was everything in there, and all the novels in the world couldn’t manage to say anything more, or better, about men and women, about some moments that ignite and sparkle like stars between them.
It was Sergio’s love for jazz that urged him to create the Dana Winter character, the Black piano player, whose first appearance in the Mister No series is in the episode Rio Negro
Dana and Jerry Drake first meet in a night club in Manaus, the “Alvorada”, on the notes of My Funny Valentine. Later, the genial pianist will have the chance to appear in other episodes of the saga, chiefly in Belve umane, where he his the co-protagonist of a tense adventure. Mister No usually asks him to play an “evergreen”, I Only Have Eyes for You (one of Sergio’s favorite tunes), but Dana is also the man who embodies Jerry Drake’s blues spirit, the sweet and nostalgic part of his soul.
FOR SERGIO, MUSIC WAS, IN HIS OWN WORDS, ONE OF HIS “EMOTIONAL POINTS OF REFERENCE”. And, beside jazz, he loved also other genres of music. A particular passion of his came from his unabashed love for Brazil and its culture. Samba and bossa nova and, in general, all the songs of the main “Carioca” singer-songwriters were among his favorites. Often, you could hear from his studio in the editorial building the melancholic notes of Chega de saudade by João Gilberto. Along with it, other classic tunes like Garota de Ipanema, Sem Você, Insensatez, A felicidade, Só em teus braços, O que tinha de ser and Desafinado had a place in his heart as a listener. Antonio Carlos Jobim and "the poet”, Vinicius De Moraes, were some of his favorite authors.
Jerry Drake makes his first acquaintance with Dana Winter’s
singing ability (art by R. Diso, from Mister No N.13).
Once he wrote: "I never ceased giving to my stories for Mister No a soundtrack that only I could hear. This, either in the scenes where our romantic Jerry was clearly dancing, singing or going into a place where somebody was playing guitar; and in the most spectacular and exciting pictures, where the pens of our artists showed the landscape of the great river, seemingly flowing away towards the infinite, the golden beaches kissed by the waves, the chaotic vitality of a market place... Just to try and convey an atmosphere that could best describe ‘my’ Brazil, I took the habit of listening to a lot of music, from a heap of vinyl records, cassettes and CD, where no-one of my favorite artists was missing".
An album where João Gilberto revisits
Tom Jobim’s masterpieces.
I BELIEVE SERGIO KNEW WELL THE FEELING THE BRAZILIANS CALL SAUDADE, A WORD THAT DESCRIBES a certain form of melancholy, something possibly akin to nostalgia. An inexplicable longing, an enigmatic and nameless desire from the soul. Saudade lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, it’s the desire of being transported from darkness to light, of being touched by the hand of something that doesn’t belong to this world.
All of Mister No’s story, the tale of the “gringo” who leaves the civilized world to take refuge in the Amazon forest and build a new life, is infused with moments of "saudade": from the beginning to the end, when our anti-hero finally appears to find a new chance in a remote corner of Bolivia. And the whole Mister No saga sounds like a very, very long “standard”, a well-orchestrated musical score of the soul, a love song that cannot simply be happy, but must resound with the whispers and the moans of anguish, and the echoes of pain.
The cover of the single "Orange Blossom Special" by
the "king” of the American Country music, Johnny Cash.
JAZZ, BRAZILIAN MUSIC, BUT ALSO THE SONGS OF THE FRENCH “CHANSONNIERS”, Johnny Cash’s country music, the Western film soundtracks, rock'n'roll from the 1950s, and the Italian Beat music were the soundscape that our publisher loved the most. Sergio was a very curious listener, always ready to surprise you with a quotation from some song or the other, or with a request to listen to something new, when he happened to read a particularly interesting review about a song. Sometimes, when he was in a really good mood, he enjoyed humming some of his favorite tunes.
He had a good voice and sometimes I think that, in one of his possible lives, he really could have been a musician, maybe a “crooner” or a sax player à la Art Pepper. Music always paced the rhythm of his days in our editorial office: late in the morning, the small hi-fi system of his studio played the warm sound of a saxophone or Jobim’s "cantar baixinho" (mellow singing).
IN THE LATE AFTERNOON, SERGIO BONELLI TURNED ON ONE OF THE TWO WONDERFUL, HUGE WURLITZER JUKE-BOX THAT MADE A FINE SHOW IN THE CORRIDORS OF THE OFFICE. Watching the tonearm of the record player glide on the vinyl’s grooves, staring at the decoration and the ornaments on the front and the sides while they lightened and changed colors was a memorable ritual. Sergio’s eyes were full of happiness, like a child playing with one of his favorite toys. I stood there, watching him, enjoying the scene. And then... I let that magic envelop me, I let the music flow inside of me, enjoing that complicity that came from sharing the same, identical passion.