If you haven’t seen Whiplash yet, we strongly urge you to do so, if only to furnish yourself with an opinion to add to the already heated discussion that the movie has provoked amid fans and practitioners of jazz-and-related-music. We’ll avoid any spoilers by saying merely that it’s a fictional account of the endeavours of a young jazz drummer to achieve greatness through his art, and his relationship with the domineering college tutor who perceives his potential and attempts to force it to fruition. The movie has been very well received by critics and the more indie-minded public alike, but it’s also already attracted criticism, not least from actual jazz drummers. No less a figure than fusion-to-swing supremo Peter Erskine was one of the first to become widely quoted when he noted “Teller is a good actor… he’s a so-so drummer…. Now I know how professional photographers must feel when they see an actor portraying a scene like a photo shoot where the photographer never bothers to focus any of the shots he or she is taking.” (You can read the rest here: http://www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/drummer-peter-erskine-on-whiplash-film.html). Of course, this is a perennial weakness of musical biopics, and the screen arts in general. Movies, even documentaries, trade primarily in stories, and the faithful representation of reality will always be a secondary consideration. Lead Miles Teller apparently studied drumming from scratch, in the way that some actors seem to do with every human skill from dancing to sword fighting when a part requires it, and does a decent enough job, but any actual jazz drummers will be required to suspend their disbelief at points throughout. What’s proven more controversial and divisive is the portrayal of the tutor’s educational practice, and the implied perception of what jazz music is really all about.
Those of our readers gifted with a fuller complement of life experience may recall Frank Sinatra in another hit movie about a jazz drummer, The Man With The Golden Arm. It’s a great film full of the rather brutal style and panache of the era, when jazz musicians could still attain major showbiz status, but it also propagated the corrosive cliche that great musicians tended to be drug-addled outsiders, only ever a step away from falling foul of the forces of social convention, or at least the taxman. In Whiplash, the harshest treatment our young hopeful has to endure comes from his tutor, whose educational practice could be described as ‘boot-camp’, ‘uncompromising’ or just ‘bullying’. He heaps insult and ignominy on his protege to spur him to ever greater endeavours, because he believes that only an iron will, coupled to endless hours of solitary practice reminiscent of monastic self-mortification, can rescue the jazz musician from mediocrity. It’s this aggressively competitive approach, and the implications for the practice of jazz in general, that has raised some hackles in return.
The idea of music as a competitive activity has a long history that can be traced back to the Bardic traditions common to many cultures, and somewhat more tenuously to Darwinian displays of competitive mating calls. It is customary for musicians to deplore this tendency when called upon to comment, but few are immune to its uncomfortable appeal. Jazz music is sometimes portrayed as an expression of collective resistance, but it was forged in the white heat of capitalist America, in a society that glorified the concept of the heroic individual. This was epitomised in an earlier time by the frontiersman (think Davey Crockett) and later by the sporting champion. In fact, jazz and organised baseball originated at a similar period in history, and share some cultural aspects – Whiplash follows the narrative arc of the typical sports movie, with the tough mentor guiding the young hopeful through a series of gruelling personal challenges culminating in the defeat of the opposition by his heroic endeavour. Eighties nostalgics may remember the movie Crossroads, in which the Karate Kid defeats Steve Vai in a supernatural blues guitar duel. Blues is a relatively simple form, and since rock ’n' roll took over as the medium of popular direct self-expression, jazz’s relative complexity has been central to its appeal. It’s actually meant to be hard to play, and only the really dedicated will master it; some believe that a harsh, critical attitude towards aspiring tyros helps to weed out the unworthy. The archetypical jazz story is the musical duel or ‘cutting contest’, and one of its central myths (featured in the movie) concerns the ride cymbal that ‘Papa’ Jo Jones is supposed to have thrown at Charlie Parker in disgust at his shonky performance, and the smarting humiliation that spurred the latter on to subsequent greatness. All this has resulted in jazz music being seen by some as difficult, exclusive, forbidding, and generally no fun. Critics of Whiplash have accused it of promoting exactly this tendency, focussing on the competition, to the exclusion of self-expression.
An honest appraisal of jazz culture must acknowledge its competitive aspects, but also recognise how this tendency can be self-defeating. Director Damien Chazelle was apparently once a drum student himself, and cites Buddy Rich as an inspiration. Rich was famous as a drummer for his incredible technique, and as a bandleader for being utterly horrible to his musicians, as you can hear in this clip (www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCF9wgMU7es) – a piece of candid behind-the-scenes showbiz dirt as notorious as Martin Taylor’s answerphone message to Eddie Gomez (or Reg Presley’s attack on his fellow Troggs, for that matter). What he’s not especially remembered for is any of his music, comprising as it did endless big-band showboating much of which now sounds equally contrived and dated, and despite his huge showbiz profile none of his records ever make it onto anyone’s ‘best ever’ lists. It’s great that a successful movie has been made about young people playing jazz at a time when the form sometimes struggles to assert its relevance. It’s perhaps a shame that it’s focussed on some of the less attractive aspects of the music, but then that’s where the story was – there’s no drama around the nice guys.
Let’s finish with Buddy Rich. The day after he passed away, his manager received a call from one of his band, asking ‘Is Buddy there?”. “I’m sorry” came the reply, “Buddy passed away yesterday”. The next day, at the same time, the phone rang again – “Is Buddy there?” “No, he’s passed away. I’m sorry” . The next day, the phone rang again “Look, what’s up with you guys?” roared the manager. “Buddy’s dead! He’s dead! Don’t you understand?”. “Oh, we know that” came the reply “We just love to hear you say it”.