Bear with me, this one is kinda long and maybe a bit of a ramble/rant. But it needs to be, to convey the message. Please adjust your seat for comfort accordingly…
When I first heard about a new drumming movie featuring not just a jazz drummer but a song written by my musical mentor (Hank Levy), I was curious, interested and a little excited. That’s mostly because my love of odd meters since I was 15 was fueled almost entirely by Hank having come up to our high school on a government arts grant to spread the jazz word.
Hank was writing for Don Ellis and Stan Kenton at the time, big band explorers of the highest caliber, and Hank shared his knowledge and enthusiasm in a way that ignited our young minds and made some of us want a great deal more. My high school bandleader pushed us like that as well. He held us to high performance standards, but it rarely involved yelling unless we were simply acting like fools or were utterly lazy.
Hank was the same way, and not once during his visits did he ever snap or exhibit anything even close to serious anger or beratement. When I landed the top slot in the All-State Jazz band my senior year, Hank was the guest director. Again, he demanded a lot, but he was never a berater. Ever. Not once.
When I graduated high school, I followed him to what was then called Towson State College. He led the three jazz ensembles there, and I started off in the third and worked my way up to the second. Here I got to see Hank on his much more demanding level, and he had no tolerance for laziness of lack of attention.
Either of these actions, if not corrected after fair warning, would earn you a dry marker board eraser thrown your way, and given the times and Hank’s honest but fair gruff nature, I certainly respected his message: pay the hell attention and stop screwing up the music for everyone else.
So, what does all of this have to do with Whiplash and why I won’t go see it?
Because I absolutely loathe the idea of competition. And I loathe it because it prevented me from becoming a truer artist and musician for years.
All through high school I had pushed myself very hard, with no whip cracking required from anyone. I was simply driven to be the best, and I went after it like a demon. I was actually driven by demons of a sort, ones that wanted out of my body that was consumed by an undiagnosed case of Tourette Syndrome. I expressed the never-ending blast furnace through rock drumming, and then I developed four-limb coordination to control it through jazz drumming.
When kids first applauded my playing, I finally found acceptance to some degree. This fired me up to want to get more of it and to get more of it than anyone else. I wanted to obliterate my competition, and I had the chops to do it. My body and neural pathways are wired for drumming, and I went after everyone in my way. I was young and immature, uninformed and unguided. I was an idiotic gunslinger who was learning everything about how to make my body unleash and virtually nothing about how to interact with fellow musicians and make music.
In my senior year, I took every first chair there was in the state of Delaware. All State Band, Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble, and a tri-state honors band that went to Europe that summer. I owned every bit of it, or at least I thought I did. It was somewhat innocent, because I truly didn’t know any better, even though my band director constantly reminded us that competition didn’t mean anything unless you truly improved as an artist.
I had two primary drum teachers at the time, and one was into supporting my desire to blow away the competition. The other was a disciple of Jim Chapin, who brought Jim down to the drum store once a month from New York to offer lessons. Guess who taught me more about the right path?
Now I believed to some degree that I HAD to be competitive, because there were so many other drummers out there in so many genres. Hank reminded us more than once that there was always someone better out there, and that we had to strive to do our best for ourselves.
But I remember one time, I was going to have a drum solo in a song at a festival, and I was sitting in a corner with a watch, timing how fast I could get my hands going. When it came solo time, all I did was explode and go insane… zero musicality. A couple of years later, I ran into a fellow drummer from another high school, and do you know what he remembered? My sitting in a corner with a watch. Certainly not my alleged performance that had been hell bent on showing everyone else up at the festival.
I’m probably beating a dead horse at this point.
By the way, let me add that having written several screenplays and unsold pilot TV shows, and also being involved with some small degree of film production projects on the side, I do have a reasonably informed perspective on what it takes to get a movie made and do respect the hoops that Whiplash had to jump through. You can’t even begin to imagine how insanely impossible it is get anything done in this town…
That said, it was a question asked on a Facebook drumming group that really inspired today’s blog, so I’ll close with it: “Do you think Whiplash will inspire a new interest in jazz drumming by young drummers?”
My hope for those who chose to watch it is that the answer be yes. But, for those who do chose to watch it, know that the title of the movie comes from a song written by a man who was heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction. As a life-long disciple of Hank Levy and his spirit of fearless jazz exploration, I’d be betraying my admiration for this man to go see Whiplash, and if this position comes back to bite my professional ass, so be it. I’d rather speak the truth loudly any day than choose to silently support something that is diametrically opposed to what I now know to be the true and correct path for a musician.
I chose instead to watch endless hours of YouTube videos and instructional DVDs created by new and old masters, and support their production if they convey the stuff that matters. I chose to find drummers who are killing their hands and offer suggestions of how to treat themselves better so they can better express their message.
I chose to promote drumming as storytelling so the energy of magic weaving can take you over. I chose to write blogs like this, laying bear my soul for younger drummers to hopefully learn from and recognize in themselves, and then move forward to re-direct their minds and souls.
But if you must follow the competitive path, do it to master yourself and make it one hundred times bigger than it presently is. Give to the music, push out, tell a tale with Tony Williams intensity and musicality. Channel Max Roach, play with the snap and flare of Gene Krupa. Read about allllllllll the drummers who came before you and drink them in rabidly to make them a part of you.
As long as you are breathing and upright, you can be a badass. Chose to be the right kind of badass, is all I’m saying, the kind that understands honoring the music and not the ego. Slay your SELF, because it’s always competing with the bigger picture to get out.
Then go play a story in a way never before told… cuz…
Just watched 30 minutes of Whiplash, I had to shut it off. It is beyond awful. It is also silly and so typically Hollywood’s idea of the way things are, that it has to be seen to be believed.
It is beyond my ability to describe it. The acting, several drummers hands being cut it and out, the ridiculous rehearsing, the dialog, puts this movie beyond my belief that anyone with any sense could have made this insult to budding musicians, hard working teachers and to movie makers themselves.
And he won an Oscar for the role of the***** teacher.
See it for yourself, you won’t believe it. I got thru 30 minutes of it, you couldn’t pay me to watch any more of it.
Still doing club dates after all these years….
Jerry, thank you for reaffirming the fail of this percussive travesty. I’ll never watch anything where a teacher hits a student, and no film has any business putting this forth.
You’ll never watch something where a teacher hits a student? Why? What is film to you? Shitty “the book was better” young adult adaptations, superhero schlockbusters and old spice commercials? Are we, as filmmakers, not allowed to show the full range of human emotion? Is that realm reserved for pre industrial ‘serious’ mediums? Would they have had business putting it forth as a novel? What about a play?
Film, as a medium, matured to the level of literature and music long ago. We’ve had our Joyces and Beethovens already. Try taking a serious film seriously.
Actually I do take film seriously, this one especially. And I don’t place one medium above another, by the way. They all have their valid points and are subject to individual commentary, such as the one I offered. As far as a “full range of human emotions,” I’ll accept that if it’s an honest portrayal and not one fabricated to comply with the obligatory western world film storylelling paradigm that Christopher Volger detailed in The Writers Journey. It is complete and utter bullshit to believe that for even one second there exists a music teacher who smacks their students, and interjecting this support the character of a character who wouldn’t last two seconds in the real world was simply done to make you hate the proverbial and obligatory bad guy.
Drumming is not something easily put forth in a novel, and in play form, you’d have a very hard time finding the talent to pull it off. I agree that film was the appropriate medium, but the story and the conflict was bullshit. If a teacher ever laid a hand on me, I’d send that sonuvabitch into the next plane of universal existence. I vehemently object to the depiction, and I certainly loath the entire competition aspect. I’ve met those guys, played with those guys, and at a time was one of those guys. I didn’t learn a damn thing about musicality. Not/one/thing. I learned how to obliterate my competition and fail to get the musical message.
However, the existence of such a film does do one thing positive: it gets people talking and thinking. if it furthers the jazz audience growth, I’d be pleasantly surprised. But I certainly hope that young drummers and other musicians don’t think THIS is the way things are. And believe me, I do remember that it’s a movie, a work of carefully orchestrated and deliberately placed and rehearsed moments, ones that are precisely lit, blocked, re-edited for sound, colorised, and marketed.
Which is everything real jazz is not.
I agree 100%, it was overrated, predictable and full of cliches but I guess that’s the state of movie criticism at this age of mainstream mentality, where nobody has the guts to shout “the king is naked”
Hey, just thought I’d drop in. I’m a fan of the odd bit of Jazz, among lots of other types of music, but it’s not the most important thing to me. Now, I have a lot of respect for people who really care about it, though.
What really gets me excited is film. I devour movies. I practically inhale them. I write 3000 word long film analyses. I shoot, edit and repeat. I’ll agree that competition should take a back seat to art, but if it had here, it would be an awfully boring film. Movies shouldn’t try to be exactly the same as real life, unless we’re talking about mumblecore or, like, Jarmusch or Linklater or someone, and even then…
Maybe the drumming in Whiplash is lacking. I honestly don’t care. Stop putting one artistic medium over the other. It’s actually an excellent movie. Simmon’s performance is brilliant. The cinematography & colour grade are really solid. The edit is like Capote (dwelling on the main character’s loneliest moments) mixed with more freneticism during drumming scenes etc. Excellent pacing. The whole thing wonderfully is gripping and raw.
I would urge you to watch it. Make sure to remember that it’s a movie, so treat it as such.
I am not a jazz ‘fan’ although I certainly like jazz music and know a bit about it. I also like to play chess and I am a teacher. My experience is that the most active fans of a thing will almost universely hate a movie about that thing. Searching for Bobby Fisher was an atrocious representation of the world of competitive chess. Stand and Deliver implies that a lecturing yelling teacher is most effective for students. Whiplash isnt really about jazz.
No it isnt and these kinds of films rarely are. They are about people and interactions and the nature of greatness. In pursuit of this they often misuse or warp their subject matter…chess movies always have a character yelling “check!” as if skill in chess is shown by how many checks you get.
True fans dont like these movies because they sacrifice accuracy for drama. Many of the things that make us truly great would be mindnumbingly boring to show on screen. Imagine if CSI only showed agents meticulously sorting through fiber samples.
If we accept that films like this are meant to be about people and that all the rest is props, the movie experience will be much more enjoyable and relevant.
This is way late haha
I’m a drummer, and I’ve played a decent amount of jazz. Yes, the drumming/teaching/learning are totally unrealistic, and yes, it is an amazing movie. And anyone who takes himself and the technical aspects so seriously as to disregard the film is doing himself a great disservice.