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back 40-odd years to the time when I and a colleague at the Melody Maker, both of us drummers, although in my case no longer active, maintained a state of polite hostility over — to put it crudely — his preference for Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker and mine for Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.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.