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…