The trouble with Whiplash
I have very mixed feelings, to say the least, about Whiplash. As a former drummer and a jazz fan, I’m delighted by the existence of a feature film about jazz drumming, particularly one that attracts Academy Award nominations. But I hated reading the newspaper and magazine features that rehearsed all the tired old jokes and generalisations about drummers before going on to describe the film. And there’s a much more profound and serious reservation.
Perhaps I can explain it by going back 40-odd years to the time when I and a colleague at the Melody Maker, both of us drummers, although in my case no longer active, maintained a state of polite hostility over — to put it crudely — his preference for Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker and mine for Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. I’d grown up believing that jazz was music originated by African Americans and that Baby Dodds was a better drummer, and more significant to the history of jazz, than Gene Krupa, although much less celebrated, just as Duke Ellington was more important than Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie was more important than Harry James. Ditto Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. Although my colleague certainly wasn’t a racist — anything but, in fact — we found ourselves on opposite sides of a divide.
I think it was after I’d interviewed Elvin Jones for the paper in 1971 that the great man — and his wife, Keiko — read a dismissive remark Ginger Baker had made about him and issued a challenge to an old-fashioned drum battle, via the front page of the MM. It took place at the Lyceum, as part of a gig featuring Baker’s Air Force, but I didn’t go. I could understand Elvin’s motive — quite properly, he felt he deserved to be at least as famous as Baker — but I thought it was somehow demeaning for the man who played on “Chasin’ the Trane” to invite public measurement against the author of “Toad”.
Anyway, Whiplash reminded me of this because it is about the education of a young jazz drummer. And my problem is that the student drummer in question — like his brutally demanding teacher, the part for which J.K. Simmons is up for a best-supporting Oscar — is white, and idolises Buddy Rich. He is also being taught to play a cold, unfeeling kind of music that has nothing to do with jazz as I understand it — and reminds me very much of the sort of stuff the members of Rich’s own big band were trained to play.
The college band in which the young drummer tries to establish himself contains plenty of black musicians — trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists, a guitarist and a bassist. But it seems very strange to me that the four young men competing for the drum stool, the struggle around which the film revolves, are all white. (Just as strange is the fact that there are no women in the band — probably out of dramatic necessity, since otherwise the writer could not have given such foul-mouthed homophobic rantings to Simmons’s character.**)
Of course white drummers can play jazz with feeling and originality. I’ve always loved the work of Stan Levey, Shelly Manne, Phil Seamen, Paul Motian, Han Bennink and John Stevens, and that wholehearted admiration continues to be extended to the likes of Matt Wilson, Joey Baron, Steve Noble, Jeff Williams, Tom Skinner and others. They’re as far away from the template of Buddy Rich, a boorish show-off to whom technique was everything, as you could get.
It’s nice to think of today’s jazz world as being colour-blind. But I always felt that my inquiries had taught me where this music originated, and the answer was in the African diaspora, most particularly and obviously — although not at all exclusively — in the area of rhythm. So Elvin Jones and Tony Williams symbolised the kind of drumming I most admired, along with Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Frank Butler, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Pete La Roca and Sunny Murray. There was a principle involved, and an issue of authenticity.
We could argue about this, politely or rancorously, for a very long time. But to present jazz drumming to a cinema audience in the way Whiplash does seems to me implicitly regressive. It’s an affront to a continuing tradition embodied today by such brilliant African American players as Clarence Penn, Tyshawn Sorey, Marcus Gilmore, Brian Blade, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Harland and Jonathan Barber.
Damien Chazelle, the 29-year-old writer and director of Whiplash, studied drumming at a music college in an earlier phase of his life. Miles Teller, who plays the student, is a drummer. J.K. Simmons is also a musician, as we see in the film’s only musically satisfying sequence, when he plays piano with a rhythm section in a small club (making this viewer think: “Ah — some real jazz at last!”). So it gets most of the stuff right on a technical and atmospheric level. But Chazelle inserts so many absurd melodramatic twists into his plot — which, as others have said, closely resembles a jazz version of An Officer and a Gentleman and Rocky — that I couldn’t begin to take it seriously as a story. I could, however, take it seriously in the way it presents jazz to a general cinema audience.
Nowadays we look back at Hollywood’s earlier attempt to make a film about a jazz drummer, when Sal Mineo played the lead in The Gene Krupa Story in 1959, and think what crime it was that Max Roach and Art Blakey stood no chance of such recognition. It seems to me that with Whiplash, more than half a century later, we’re doing no better.
** Correction: Since I posted this blog, it’s been pointed out to me that a female musician does make a brief appearance in the college band.
Totally agree – not seen it yet (and don’t plan too) but I could just tell by the trailer and the actual drumming and sound that is was going to be as you’ve described – nice one Richard – I wish more people really got it
Interesting read. I share the scepticism of Whiplash – it presents drumming as a glorified gymn workout. I hadn’t thought of this deeper angle however.
One point to note – I thought there was a shot at one point of a female saxophonist in the band. I might be mistaken though.
Very interesting post Mr Williams!
I came to the film with only a very basic level of jazz-knowledge. I had a revelation during the film that the drumming Simmons’s character is pushing for is all about macho technique and nothing to do with actually good jazz. But I think that was part of the film’s ideology. Drumming athletics rather than jazz feeling! In many ways I think it wasn’t really a film about jazz at all…
I’ve not seen the film, but had similar reservations from the reviews: what’s technique apparently for technique’s sake got to do with jazz, or music in general? But, apropos Jones and Rich, I was recently reading Simon Garfield’s Just My Type: A Book about Fonts (2010), which contains this passage:
‘[Font designer Matthew] Carter says he learned something valuable some years ago on a visit to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. He went to see the drummer Elvin Jones, who was once with John Coltrane. “He was part of the sainthood,” Carter says, “and that night, he walked out before his set and announced that Buddy Rich had died that day. Here’s me, thinking I know about music, and I would have said, ‘Buddy Rich was a wunderkind, vaudeville, clownish, white, big band, and a show-off – how could Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones ever have anything in common?’ But Jones came out and said some very moving things. It taught me a lesson. Two drummers have things in common.”’
A jazz guitarist pointed out to me that Whiplash is actually a true portrait of Buddy Rich – his two sides: aggression and self-doubt played out by two characters as a mini-drama of drumming.
Richard, I haven’t seen the film (and by the trailer, the hype and all accounts probably won’t bother – likely to put me in a bad mood!), but you’re certainly not alone.
Not only in the other Comments so far here, but have you for example seen the “view from inside the trade” by the fine practitioner of the instrument, Peter Erskine?
https://www.facebook.com/peter.erskine/posts/10102775388630765 (Note: Slightly confusing formatting, the second paragraph (not clearly enough set apart) is the “author’s added note”, which might have gone first, and perhaps in italics.)
Main body of the interview also published on the KCET site: http://www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/drummer-peter-erskine-on-whiplash-film.html
I was particularly glad he dealt with ‘the Jo Jones Incident’ more fairly – and with more scruple. Did he mention Papa Jo was also one of the greatest drummers in the history of the music? 😀
Re: drummers, drummers, drummers. Well, like goalkeepers, fast bowlers and wicketkeepers, they are notoriously crackers. You have to be pretty forthright and courageous (again, to be fairer than the myth) voluntarily to take up that position (school doesn’t count), … and work at it until you are good at it.
A couple of other inputs FWIW. Please stop reading here if this is too long.
1. In my experience, drumming is perhaps THE instrument where jazz is often step ahead of rock. Not more suave or sophisticated, and not flashier or furiouser (precisely Whiplash-style, it seems) – though of course, bad jazz drummers veer to one or other of those, or merely to the excruciating – but characteristically with a fuller, finer sense of time and rhythm. Only the very good rock drummers have that well-calibrated ears, and also nerve systems and musculatures quite as responsive to the rest of the music.
2. I take your point about (perhaps I am reducing too much, apols if so) the greater dues and the greater merits (and nit least, greater finesse) of much African-American drumming, over an ethnic majority tradition in the USA. Sousa rejoins the military.
But I’m sad if the divide seems accentuated too much (again). I know you very clearly emphasise that don’t do this absolutely. But still.
Even your prime exhibit, Buddy Rich, does not seem quite so brutal to me as he is often depicted. Certainly a strong character, and a hard guy. And it’s a bit unfortunate that he grew a bit into the JATP-type myth, where drum solos were turned into “battles”, where power and sheer velocity were overrated. But given a smaller combo, he could play and not just phenomenally thrash. Opinions differ on whether he ruined N Granz’s Bird dates. He was no Max or Roy, but I don’t think he was that bad. With Tatum, with Prez, even given a sextet and a date ominously called “The Driver” http://www.discogs.com/Buddy-Rich-The-Driver/master/357054 , for example, he could use brushes, play it nice, support the horns excellently.
Despite the multi-dimensional depredations of musical (and social) apartheid for decades in the States, I don’t think it quite works to draw up a Grand Canyon.
Admittedly, any decent hall of fame of jazz drumming would include large numbers of musicians of African-American origin. (Though obviously, ethnic background guarantees nothing – and there are plenty of flash-harry and/or insensitive bashers across the whoel of society. Naming no names, however famous.)
I’d add to your list of honour Dave Tough, Louie Bellson (when not lured into JATP heroics), Mel Lewis, Rune Carlsson, Jon Christensen, Jim Black, Susie Ibarra, Ingar Zach, … and Peter Erskine! Fine, at times ecstasy-inducing drummers all, each with something distinctively of their own to say. Even if they come from the wrong side of some views of the social tracks. Musically, I don’t hear any lack of rhythm, time, soul, blues, dues, sensitivity or meaning in any of them. (And socially, I’m unaware any of them is a “J**** B**** or his ilk”, to quote a controversial member of the UK’s shadow cabinet. 😉 )
3. This set of prejudices by me is now lopsided. To redress this: I liked your piece very much, and as far as I can can tell – having not seen the film – agree with the main tenor of your points on the music. Elegantly written as ever. 🙂
Yep, as usual RW gets it right, jazz music at its best is not just about technique and Buddy Rich and his big bands were little more than technique-fests. It isn’t just about black or white musicians, though of course the history of jazz is littered with innovations from black musicians being diluted and made successful by white musicians.
I hadn’t heard of the film before reading the blog and it does seem like it’s one to avoid, what a shame.
Very well said, Richard. Whiplash was preceded by waves of hyperbole reporting how brilliantly it captured the intensity of jazz, so I was taken aback by the film. There are elements to admire. The editing is brilliant, as is J K Simmons’ performance. But the charismatic intensity of the teacher swiftly degenerates into melodramatic levels of emotional, physical and verbal abuse which would not be tolerated in any top college in the 21st century. There’s something weirdly “discrepant” between what you rightly describe as the “cold, unfeeling kind of jazz” featured in this film, and the repeated invocations of the brilliance of Bird, turning Parker into some fetishistic icon of musical genius, while failing to convey anything of Parker’s radical, musical imagination.
The Buddy Rich “bus” tapes (You tube) where Herr Rich rages and balls out his youngish band, a possible source? Up there with the Troggs tape for general hilarity.
I have never forgiven Rich for that bloody awful bass drum “thump” on the Bird/Diz/Monk date…..still pains over fifty years after I first heard it.
If the ‘bomb dropping’ is so prominent, don’t (shouldn’t) the engineer and producer have something to do with that?
To move it slightly away from Rich (it’s perhaps a pity if this thread lurches towards a Buddy or Baker hate fest – again this is just a view), I’ve known not a few cases of very good drummers who sound like s***e on this or that date – in the cymbals or bass drum area in particular – mainly because of terrible mic set-ups, mixing (or lack of decent), technical reproduction. Though this has more often happened with live recordings – and naturally, private/amateur/fan/”bootleg”/chance recordings not originally intended for public release.
I can’t offer detailed or learned comments in the concept of the drummer in jazz, the fact that he was white, or whether or not it’s real jazz (my head has never knowingly been up my *rs*), but I can tell you I have seen Whiplash and it is a tremendously well acted, directed and edited movie.
A most interesting read Richard. I wonder if the colleague you refer to was dear Chris Welsh?
I too was a drummer many moons ago, and although not playing now I still get a pair of sticks out most days just for half an hour. And, I understand exactly where you are coming from when you make comparisons between Buddy and Elvin and Tony Williams. I met Elvin Jones and he frightened me to death 🙂 such a big guy, and truly a wonderful player. He was here to to do a clinic tour, and my good friend the late Gerry Evans was the Promotions Manager at that time and made sure we met up. I also met Art Blakey and had long chats with him over a drum kit I was Promotions Manager for at the time.
One of my best friends is Jon Hiseman, who for me is probably one of the most underrated drummers to come from Europe, and for me at least, certainly a much better drummer than the obnoxious Ginger Baker will ever be. John is an Elvin fan and I a Buddy fan, but that never ever stopped us discussing drums and music and technique with mutual respect etc.
I think one of the problems with your argument – if you will allow me – is we are talking about two different things here, two different types of music. I see Elvin, Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Tony Williams et al, all as respected and inventive Jazz Musicians. Whereas, Buddy, Gene Kruper, Louie Belson etc were Be-Bop drummers, which you will agree although referred to as Jazz was really modern big band pop music, which I love!
I was very fortunate in my time, I started taking drum lesson from Geoff Myers, (later played with Syd Lawrence) when I was about 13 (1953/4). He taught me the importance of the 26 snare drum rudiments and did his best to teach me as many of them as time would allow.
After a spell with Larry Parnes’ Rock boys and the Star Club Hamburg and then with a failed pop group in the Tito Burns stable, I ended up playing with Lonnie Donegan. This would have been from 1968. Like him or loath him Lonnie could swing, a good old fashioned Trad Jazz Banjo Player. And it was him who taught men to ‘play the song’ not drum rudiments on stage! During my time with him I got to play with some of the greatest players one could hope for. Like six weeks with the ATV house band under Jack Parnell – another great Be-Bop drummer from The Ted Heath Band. Other members at that time were, Stan Roderick, Kenny Baker, Don Lusher and a youngish Keith Watkins. I became close to the legendary Kenny Claire, who I feel would not have classed himself as a jazz musician but as a be-bop drummer, and someone who was respected by musicians across the world. I would often help with his setting up in the studio when I wasn’t working, and he would allow me to sit behind him and just watch and listen. He was so generous and would spend as much time as was possible to show me things.
Looking back I often feel that personally, my greatest problem was that I was a musical snob! This I think probably did me out of some work, but the work I would have lost would have been out and out pop/rock, the possibility of earning big bucks but having to play most unenjoyable music.
Since then, I decided to TRY to stop putting music into pigeon holes, not always successful but I try to keep an open mind.
Thanks for a great Blog
Interesting. Last week on BBC’s Film 2015 review, all three reviewers were ecstatic about the film. One even suggested it might be the best film in 20 years! I’m dying to see it and decide who’s right, for me. Shows we all have such different perceptions of the same thing.
We loathed it, I’m ashamed we didn’t walk out. It was racist, sexist, homophobic and anti everything we love about music. I kept thinking of the gig at Fairfield Halls Croydon which Philly Joe Jones, I think it was, played entirely on brushes because the sound for Bill Evans’s piano was so rubbish. How macho was that?
This is a philosophical and epistemological can-can of worms because maybe viewers are not actually seeing “the same thing”…. And thank you, Richard: you have helped me understand why I felt so dispirited yesterday listening to the Verve CD ‘ Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich Live at JAPT’. As for clips I’ve seen from ‘Whiplash’, it was more like ‘Full Metal Racket’. I might watch it when it gets a TV transmission. I don’t want to waste good money better spent on Elvin Jones et al.
This is a great discussion, even though I disagree with a lot of it. I studied jazz drumming at a North American university, and I have to say that while the film isn’t completely reflective of my own experience as a student, it is absolutely spot on in several ways.
First, demographics: North American university jazz big bands of the type portrayed in the film are, in my experience, about 90 per cent white and 95 per cent male. That has nothing to do with the roots of jazz (where clearly all the African-American drummers you mentioned played key roles) and plenty to do with the probability of which kids get (a) encouraged to study drumming at university and (b) can afford to do so. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be: more women should be encouraged to play drums and it’s a disgrace that African-Americans continue to grow up disproportionately in poorer financial situations due to institutional racism. What I’m saying is that in this respect the film is an accurate portrayal.
The music repertoire is also pretty accurate. Miles Teller may not be as good a drummer as what you’d expect at an elite jazz conservatoire, but he’s a terrific actor who played the drums himself in the film, so it seems churlish to complain. “Cold unfeeling kind of music” is unfortunately the bread and butter of big band jazz competitions in North America. As another commenter put it, it’s way more about macho displays of athleticism than it is about the historical roots of jazz. But again, the film nails this – it’s a totally accurate portrayal in this regard.
In short, I think you’re imposing an unfair expectation on this film – you seem to expect it to say something the masses about jazz and all its complexity, history, and beauty writ large, when really the film is doing something else: it’s dramatizing what it’s like to study jazz drumming in a university today, for better or worse, and all the racial / gender / unmusical problems to be found in this kind of education. And on top of that it does what everyone is rightly praising the film for – telling a really compelling story about human ambition, human failing, and the relationship a student and his teacher. And it does this extremely well.
All that said, I really enjoyed your piece!
Very interesting, Matt. Coming from someone with experience of the actual setting (you)…perhaps many musicians should be complaining about the syndrome portrayed rather than comparing it to their own broad historical understanding of Jazz.
The abuser is able to exert their power because of the perception that true authority rests with them. If an institution acquires the prestige to at least pretend they can make or break people, then it becomes a source of abuse. I’ve seen a similar (not as extreme) example of this in my own music teaching career. The film is a portrait of an abuser, not a portrait of the joy of Jazz.
By the way, is it possible to discuss this without attacking Buddy Rich? Whatever his flaws, he was influential in drum technique in all sorts of ways. Setting up ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ influences is exactly the kind of thinking that fosters the authoritarian and overbearing tendencies that foster abuse. I can guarantee you that there ARE musicians out there suffering from the psychological brutality portrayed in the film, regardless of musical details.
A very interesting post. I would love to know how that Lyceum drum battle played out…
I seem to remember that the Baker / Jones drum battle was described the following week in Melody Maker, probably tactfully, as “a draw”. If my recollection is correct the subtlety and technique of Elvin Jones was praised along with Baker’s power.
That is tactful. Many thanks for remembering. I assume honours were ‘even’ the same way they were when Jools Holland insisted on duetting with Herbie Hancock on Later…
Jeez, I’m glad I missed that one. “Next week: Chas of Chas and Dave takes on Bill Evans”?
Don’t get me wrong – Chas is good at what he does.
For the ‘portrait of the prodigy via his aggressive mentor’ type artist / genius study I would go to the 1996 film ‘Shine’ – that captured a lot of the beauty of the music coupled with process of sacrifice and the hours / years of necessary technical acquirement to get close to any of the greats.
It may well have the classical version of Whiplash’s jazz in films stereotyping and wrong footing of mood and detail for all I know – I didn’t go to the Royal Academy – but it’s a beautiful film.
+ In regard to David’s comment above – when will people know that Ginger Baker is one of THE most overrated drummers of all time? Putting him and Elvin on a stage together makes my blood boil…
My sentiments too mr Howe, loved Shine, and no comparison between Elvin and Mr Baker indeedy! I’ve saved myself nearly £8 for a cinema seat thanks
Elvin on Baker… “Nothin’ happenin. Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass.”
Love it – not heard that quote before + the sooner the better! Also if anyone is in two minds about GB – best to see ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’… that’ll sort it
I don’t doubt that Mr Baker may have had his shortcomings as a human being – as we all do – but on the upside, he was in Cream
For those with a robust sense of humour there’s a Ginger Baker / Art Blakey ‘drum duo’ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qghrsBfSbgk
Yes he was in Cream, but lets not forget the hype that went into that band.
I think that Eric was still learning his craft, Bruce was great player but with some very personal problems.
Sorry never could see the how they got the prefix ‘Super’ added to the the Group! But that’s me.
My thoughts exactly Mark, couple of irritating songs and they’re out + Jack Bruce was the best musician in the band by a long shot
Richard, nice piece. I agree with all that. I saw the trailer and won’t be bothering with the film. In the same cinema I also saw the trailer for Foxcatcher, which at a quick look seems to be the same film, but this time about wrestling. They both involve intense American white teenagers being slapped across the face by their father figures/mentors, as if this is the only way they could fulfil their potential. When the teenage Yehudi Menuhin went to Romania hoping that the great violinist and composer George Enescu would take him on as a pupil, he was made to play through all Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin, even though he was exhausted. Then Enescu said: “Do it again.” (I hope I’ve got this story right; it’s from my memory of Menuhin’s autobiography.) Menuhin did it. But I don’t remember any slapping around the face from Enescu, whom Menuhin later described as the greatest musician and the most formative teacher he had ever encountered. Clearly Enescu wouldn’t have cut the mustard as a teacher in America, where you’re not a man until you’ve withstood a bit of gratuitous violence from your mentor.
You’ve just made me wonder whether An Officer And A Gentleman STILL has a lot to answer for …
Well put Richard. I don’t like the look of this film one bit. It appears mean spirited and soulless and much too violent. I saw the trailer when I went to see Birdman, a much better film with a wonderful drumming soundtrack. And whilst we’re on the subject, did I once see you playing drums with Vinegar Joe?
Now THAT was a good band with the great Elkie on Vocals…..
As a film maker and former drummer (very amateur) myself, I’d like to say that although I agree that some white drummers are overrated compared to great black ones, but the statement “It’s nice to think of today’s jazz world as being color-blind” sounds quite dangerous to me… I can’t help but link this kind of thing to “black people have rhythm, they are great at sport… ” and other stereotypes which ultimately lead to racial prejudice (they can’t be good at everything, leave the brain stuff to white people). I personally think it’s a pile of crap. Yes there was (is?) a period in the US when Jazz players had a message to convey, link to the color of one’s skin, but linking it indefinitely to it is alienating. Japanese are no longer the sole recipients of their martial arts for instance, I believe that people are not predetermined by the color of their skin, but by their upbringing.
As for the choice of actors and plot, as a filmmaker, I’m sorry to say that a true depiction of Jazz never seemed to be in the cards and to me frankly isn’t the point at all. There is no obligation to pick a black man, a woman (what about the asian community? Shouldn’t they get a mention then?). It is indeed a very claustrophobic and cold environment with a cold music played clinically, Buddy Rich, the set, the cast seem perfectly chosen to depict that. The competition is better conveyed in a whole male environment without the problem of misinterpretation of the male/female relationship (sexual ambiguity) if other drummers were female, it allows the filmmaker to go straight to the point. These choices are perfectly motivated for narrative reasons, not in order to make a film that would put the world of Jazz to right. I believe you should make that film, because there is indeed still a void. To my mind Whiplash is a great film, but it’s a film which happens to take place in the world of Jazz, not about Jazz…
BTW: didn’t you get more annoyed by the poor synch on some of the sequences, where the music tracks are very clearly being replaced? It bothered me as a musician and film technician, but I went along with it because I was drown into the film…
Early sixties had drum lessons in windmill st with Frank King who idolized Buddy rich then a few lessons free from Phil Seaman….neither of them hit me!
Baker overrated,Jones great fav of Mitch Mitchell,what about Joe Morello brilliant!…..
Anyway a great film.true a bit shallow but most people I take to the Bulls head fall asleep after ten mins……zzzzzz
Thank you for crystallising my own deep unease with the film, Richard. In the end, despite the real-life qualifications of the protagonists I concluded that it wasn’t really ‘about’ jazz at all – it was really about familiar white American individualism and competition and the setting could just as well have been about athletics, football or even business. Hence the glaring disrespect for jazz history that you mention. As in hyper-competitive US business, there is nothing to admire in the Simmons character, not much more in Teller, and nothing at all in the music. What we love and admire about jazz is surely its quality as a refuge and bulwark against the machine. This was a music that, as you suggest, was part of the machine. As for the central premise, I found myself constantly thinking of the Ellington band. To the dismay of his business manager, Ellington constantly refused to act the disciplinarian, at which he was notoriously poor, asking why he should be beating others and himself up when he could be writing another hit song. The Ellington band harboured at least one genius in Hodges and a few others who weren’t far behind (alas, no drummers). Afterthought: I’ve just seen Birdman, another film about competitive white males trying to make it, this time on Broadway. One way of seeing it is as Whiplash with wit and invention as well as violence – a far quirkier, less corporate and better film.
You have voiced my dissatisfaction of the film. Which was disappointing because there aren’t that many films about jazz, and it turned out this wasn’t a film about jazz.
But then Jurassic Park was probably quite frustrating for paleontologists.
Richard, loved your writing when I read the Melody Maker as a kid and love your blog too. Amazing I can read you for free these days (rather than 12p a week or whatever it was in 1971). I watched the Whiplash trailer on line a while back and was so embarrased after around 30 seconds in that I switched it off – definitely won’t be going to see that movie , will probably go to Expendables 3 instead (though I hear there’s less violence in that). Just wanted to put in a good word for Buddy Rich – I love his playing and if the boorish technical wizardry turns you off there’s always the album “This One’s for Basie” and his playing on the Ella and Louis duet albums – lovely lovely stuff.
Former amateur drummer and jazz fan here. A film about an aspiring jazz drummer. What`s not to like? However,I share the general misgivings about the film, which whilst enjoyable and technically excellent, could have been transposed over to ballet. Jazz as macho competition, all technique and no feeling, no JOY!! Some very interesting comments and insights earlier. Thank you for those, and thank you Richard for very good piece.
Great piece Richard. A course of Paul Motian would be the perfect cure for whiplash.
I met Paul Motian once, albeit in passing, and he seemed like a pretty scary character. But then we can all have a bad day.
Anyone else here think Terry Cox, from Pentangle, was a one-off low-volume maestro?
I think I’ll give Whiplash a miss…
There’s an amusing blog post about Paul Motian being (mostly) scary at http://www.vinniesperrazza.org/blog/2014/12/15/five-awkward-conversations-with-paul-motian
Regardless of the merits of the film I enjoyed the correction at the end of Mark Kermodes review of the film in the Guardian
“This article was amended on 17 January 2015. Because of an editing error, an earlier version referred to the drummer of Cream as Chet, rather than Ginger Baker.”
Totally agree, Richard. Saw the film last night and would have walked out had I not been with a mate who was really enjoying it. As a jazz drummer myself, I was pleased to see that it had got a wide release but that measured enthusiasm faded away approximately half an hour in.
A disturbingly regressive movie with rotten plotting that you can spot a mile off and a total lack of heart – we never see the joy in music-making. And, for a film about a jazz drummer directed by a jazz drummer, there are some duff music cues and many spots where the audio doesn’t match the visuals (and what’s with that paper ride cymbal?!).
Once again, Hollywood messes up the ‘jazz movie’. Am not holding out much hope for the Miles film…
I think that one big point many critics are missing is that Whiplash is not a movie about Jazz music or Jazz drumming. It’s just a backdrop like it could have been set within an oboe player integrating a chamber orchestra. Same could be said of “the man with a golden arm”.
Buddy Rich might have been a model for the young Chazelle and he would have based his script from that and that’s fine.
There are some oddities as in Fletcher’s piano playing (way too basic) and lack of direction of his own 4tet at the end of the piece. Likewise Teller seems to manage a single hand drum roll at some stage but it’s only details. The movie is a story of how a coach should behave in order to bring out talent so a student can make a career out of a hobby.
How a coach should NOT behave, you surely mean?
As a music teacher myself, I hope you were joking or misspoke.
It’s a long time since I saw a Hollywood movie! (I think it might have been “Gremlins”)
I am a little uncomfortable with drawing a racial line and placing the “quality” almost exclusively on one side. There may be a qualitative difference in terms of the nature of the playing but not necessarily in terms of its artistic value.
An interesting story with relevance to the topic is to be found in the story of the drummer Ronnie Free, documented in the PBS series “The Jazz Loft”. Pushed by an overambitious father he sat in with Krupa’s band as a child, joined Woody Herman on Oscar Pettiford’s recommendation at about 18, worked with Lena Horne, and then went on a downward spiral, turning up late for and missing the “Great Day in Harlem” photo (Gillespie photographed him with other latecomers – Mose Allison and Lester Young) and finally retreating to his hometown to escape his demons.
I’d second your choice of great white drummers, though I lament the absence of the Australian John Pochee, whose work in Bernie McGann’s trio prompted one Downbeat reviewer to compare McGann favourably with Rollins and to regret thar Rollins, at the same festival, had not had the benefit of McGann’s rhythm section (also including the Necks’ Lloyd Swanton).
Joe — I’m extremely uncomfortable with “drawing a racial line”, too, but it gets drawn all the time, in social dimensions much greater than the matter of jazz drumming, and almost invariably to the detriment of one “side”. To me it’s undeniable that, despite the existence and contribution of many great white jazz drummers, the evolution of the form has invariably been led by African Americans: Baby Dodds, Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams etc. In the last 50 years, since the linear development of jazz started to fragment and became harder to define, perhaps that has been more difficult to distinguish. But it’s still there, and still the heartbeat. Thanks to you, and to all others, for entering this difficult but interesting and, to me at least, valuable debate.
For anyone whose interest has been piqued re the Ginger Baker vs Elvin Jones drum battle, I will be staging a historical re-enactment of it on resonancefm.com/listen at 3.02pm this Thursday
I am always rather amazed by the controversy about films such as Whiplash. It’s not a documentary, it is not a music lesson, the film is art. The same is true for music. Depending on our innate talent, where we were raised, the time period in which we were born, we are bound to have different opinions. And about the mechanical technique. Yes, we want “feelings or emotions” in good music. Music is a language that requires expression. But music is also about precision, which is mathematical. The entire rhythm section of a musical group, most importantly the drummer, must be technically sound and keep a steady beat. The scene where Miles Taylor slows down and speeds up is an excellent example of good technique. If you have not seen the movie, try to get over the movie reviewer snobbery and enjoy the film as art and most of all the good music.
I think calling Whiplash ‘art’ is pushing it a bit.
Well I went to see this hype and all, I have to say its good film for histrionics and melodramatic crap but a bad film about music or drumming especially jazz as an art form. JK Simmons deliver some gut level emotions but apart from his crude ravings there’s little else. I can see its raw appeal to non jazz, non drumming film goers (ie 80 % of the public) but for all other knowledgeable fans of an art form this is a bit of a turkey.
White men can’t jump.
White men have no soul.
I won’t mention the black stereotypes.
I understand expectations, disappointment on outcome.
Makes us underappreciate the story, the movie.
It isn’t often jazz purists get to see a movie about their love.
And can truly see the flaws in story from a musical perspective.
As someone said above, Jurassic Park, must drive paleontologist nuts,
just like science fiction movies must drive physicists nuts about junk science in movies.
My point is, that experts or someone who feels they are an expert, will always miss
the essence of the fictional story.
This is what distinguishes a movie from a documentary.
Expecting scientific or factual accuracy in a movie, detracts from dramatic freedom,
to create a story.
I’ve seen the movie three times.
Never knew if Buddy Rich was black or white.
If fact was astounded he was white.
Again racial stereotypes.
It was the ending, the battle, that brought tears of joy and triumph.
The movie for me, was not about jazz music.
That was not the purpose of the movie.
I am a personal injury attorney, car accidents, oh my neck hurts, give me $$$.
I heard of a movie entitled, WHIPLASH.
Went to the movie, and felt betrayed.
Bravo and well said. I would strongly advise the author of this article as well as the snobs on his band wagon to pull their heads out of their asses. It’s a fictional movie…not a documentary. Also to the writer– I find your comments of jazz musicians both in history and in good jazz drummers being predominantly black as well as your distaste for the film casting white actors to play jazz drummers, to be a mute point. Your blogg/rant/article/verbal diarrhea is riddled with pretencioisnes, sterotypes, and racism. I would go as far as to say that you are in fact, speaking out of your “bass drum,” sir…but please continue to spew out the bible of knowledge you seem to have received from jazz drumming for dummies and Wikipedia.
Donald Fagen has the last word (as so often)
It’s not a choice of preference but of recognition of skill and mastery. Buddy Rich stands out, regardless of predilection for cool jazz, hot jazz, east vs west coast jazz, black jazz or white jazz.
He’s not the only jazz drummer of note but in him there existed an unmatched blending of speed, power, rock steady rhythm and touch.
When I watch him play I see the sticks as an extension of his arms and he’s completely at one with his drum set.
I love other drummers who happen to be Black because of their sound, style, mixing of patterns and the music of the groups they played in.
But when I want to be floored I watch Buddy Rich.
It’s almost like comparing Monk to Bud Powell. You have to love them both but admire the technical ability of one more.
Comparing Rich to Bellson, another white drummer of comparable technical ability might be more fair. It’s easy to state categorically that Rich was more musical with greater depth and ideas.
Also Rich was self taught which was probably to his advantage.