Backlash: Why This Jazz Drummer Won’t Watch Whiplash

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…

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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…

 

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Hank Levy – Odd Meters, Erasers and a Time Revolution leader

Every time I look at one of those small black marker board erasers, I think of the late jazz musician and composer Hank Levy. Hank was the Director of Jazz Studies at Towson University (Towson, Maryland) from 1972 – 1989, and he was a musical force to be reckoned with. He also had a pretty good throwing arm.

When Hank would lead his ensemble practices, he would sometimes reach his limit and send a black eraser across the room at a player who needed waking up. I played drums in two of his three bands and used to get a good laugh out of his trajectory. It kept me on my toes, and that was what he wanted most from his players.

Hank was a trail blazer when it came to his passionate love affair with odd time signatures. Like Don Ellis, for whom he wrote several pieces, Hank believed that the Western jazz world needed a wake-up call and a boot in the ass when it came to the exploration of rhythm. And wake it up he did.

Hank had played baritone sax for the Stan Kenton Orchestra before landing at Towson, where he founded the Jazz studies program. He wrote most of the program’s music because, as he told me once, the Music Department wouldn’t generously give him funds and really didn’t want to be known as a jazz school. However, after Hank’s ensemble took top honors all over the country for just about every competition they could find, the argument that Towson was now known for its jazz became a moot point.

Hank came to my high school in the early 1970’s on a government grant to spread his odd meter word, and I took to it like a fish to water. It was the most exciting music I had ever played, and it was backed up by the emergence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I cannot tell you how intense it was to be present at the birth of this transition. Don Ellis had been exploring big band odd meter jazz, as had Stan Kenton, and Hank was fueling both of these orchestras… and to the extent possible WE got to play those same charts, as teenagers!

Hank had a gruff but honest way about him, and he gave me guidance that I desperately needed with my drumming and overall focus. I took first chair my senior year in the Delaware All State Jazz Band, and Hank came up to direct it. It was an extraordinary experience to be led by the man who was ushering a huge change in the jazz world, but it was not met with open arms by all.

Hank told us in our high school class one time that he sent a chart over to Buddy Rich, who after trying to play through one piece became very frustrated and tore the charts up! And many of the big name players in jazz were not following the time revolution that Hank believed needed to happen, preferring instead to stay the safe tonal exploration course.

But when you listen to the music of today, odd meters have become vastly more common, and are no longer so odd. Both Hank and Don Ellis observed early on that rock music seemed to be more interested in odd meters than many jazz players, and the power behind rock makes the shifting contours of 5’s, 7’s, 11’s and beyond a perfect breeding ground for the next stages of music exploration.

Hank passed away in 2001, but the Hank Levy Legacy Band is alive and well, preserving Hank’s musical vision (and they do have a Facebook page) and have recorded a CD of his music

http://www.sonorityrecords.com/Hank_Levy_Legacy_Band.htm

Sierra Music Publications (www.sierramusicstore.com), owned by Kenton alumnus and arranger Bob Curnow, still carries Hank’s charts and music. And hopefully after reading this post, you will want to learn more about Hank by doing a bit of research on your own…

When I was 20, I had the opportunity to audition for Frank Zappa, in his North Hollywood rehearsal studios. I went in having little idea of what to expect, and Frank described what he wanted me to play, an odd meter rock groove in 13/8 with a 12/8 bridge. I asked him if I could write out the subdivisions, just like Hank had taught me to do five years before, and he said, “Sure.”

Arthur Barrow was playing bass, and I was sitting behind a replica of Bozzio’s double bass kit at the time. The song began, and I hung in there pretty well. When Frank asked me if I could play reggae in 13, I hit a wall with no idea of what to do. He kindly shook my hand, thanked me for coming in, and as I left, a drummer who had been watching the auditions stopped me.

“Where did you learn how to do that? Guys have been dropping like flies all day?”

I replied, “Hank Levy taught me how to play odd meters.”

“Who’s he?” the drummer asked.

“Well, he’s this guy who came up to our high school…”

… and in my mind, he never left.

Odd Meters, Polyrhythms and Some Exploratory Guts

When I was 15, jazz composer Hank Levy came to my high school in Delaware and introduced our jazz ensemble for odd meter music. It was the core of what Don Ellis and Stan Kenton were exploring in their respective big bands in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, and it was the rhythmic essence of music that Frank Zappa, Yes, King Crimson and other rock musicians were creating as well.

Was it commercial? Of course not. Stravinsky was writing music using odd meters and polyrhythms that blew peoples minds in the very early part of the 20th century, and it never made it to the Am radio top 40 play lists. But composers like Stravinsky and Edgar Varese didn’t care about popularity; they cared about exploring and taking things to the next and undiscovered level.

THAT’s what music is about for me. I lost touch with that ideal for a long time, but it’s been coming back lately. Last night, I got real good reminder of why one should follow that “see what’s out there” bliss. I met a woman who was going to audition for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, for their principle (first chair) flute position. She showed me some of the music, and it was incredibly brutal from a rhythmic standpoint, but for her, it was just another day at the office.

Somewhere in her training, music teachers valued imparting the highest level of development and exploration. If drummers are going to evolve and take things to the next level, we’ll need such teachers to make it happen. We’ll also need the music and the environment in which to play it… which isn’t going to happen commercially, at least not in the immediate future.

What this means is that we, as drummers, have to make that music happen. We have to value it, want to see what’s out there, and not wait around for anyone else to do it for us. I am not a deeply educated musician by any means, but I do compose and created basic songs and grooves that explore meters because that’s the stuff I love to play.

I am working more and more with revisiting polyrhythms and figuring out how to incorporate them into the improvisational world. Guys like David Garibaldi are constantly exploring how funk can be turned on its head, and we as a group, as drummers, should find inspiration in these ventures.

Vinnie Coliauta blew the door off polyrhythm performance with the classic “Joe’s Garage,” and he set the bar that we need to rise to and push a little higher. If we do not, no one will… and if we wait, it will be a long wait.

The next time you want to make a difference in music, do something different, something bold, something scary… something that challenges you well beyond what you thought you could handle. The future of rhythmic exploration is in all our hands, and as it always has been and will continue to be…