Thursday, December 25, 2014

Whiplash

My father was a jazz aficionado. Big band jazz. He knew all the songs, all the players. Put on a track, he'd call it out within a bar or two, say who was playing on the track, and give details. While not being a player himself, he had spent hours upon hours upon hours listening to the music, studying it, breathing it, learning every detail. His favorite stories were of his time in the Army: the 19 times he saw Benny Goodman play, and of the one time at Fort Ord when he was the only person in a dining hall where Lester Young was practicing. When dad was 80, an old record would make him 20 again. That was the power of the best music.

Today, my 17- year old son is becoming a player. Not yet breathing it, really, not yet really studying it, but passionate enough. Big band jazz has long faded from being this country's pop music, it's still fairly standard for kids learning to play in high school combos. Aaron plays drums and double bass. His bass teacher recently had a recommendation: Check out the new movie Whiplash.

Yesterday, we saw the movie. It has a 96% rating over at rotten-tomatoes. JK Simmons will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the sadistic teacher Terence Fletcher, and Miles Teller is wonderful as the young conservatory drumming student Andrew Neiman, even though at age 27 he doesn't quite pass for 19. There are certainly many things to like in this movie: Its intensity; its colorful -- maybe too colorful -- use of language; that it doesn't tie up every loose end or give a clear sense of what's next for any of the characters, that its focus seems clearly on the making of music. To the extent that technology seems almost forcefully kept out: Sure, there are cell phones and headsets, but there's no electronic music, and a near-total absence of computers. When young Andrew listens to Buddy Rich, it's from a CD. On a boombox.

Whiplash also required a few suspensions of disbelief: Plot twists that made no sense at all, including the seemingly obligatory crash scene (didn't I see that in Not Fade Away?); an absurdly passive-aggressive sequence in the closing scene; a romance that never even gets to first base before the inevitable teary break-up.

I've read that writer / director Damien Chazelle based the story at least in part on his own experiences in high school. And it's great as story telling, fantastic as psychological drama.

But then I start thinking about the music and how it gets presented. I wonder why, in a music form historically dominated by African-Americans, this story is of a titanic struggle among white guys. (Yes, many of the musicians are black, but not the two principals, nor any of the drummers.) This is hardly anything new, of course; wasn't the big climax of The Cotton Club a scene in which Richard Gere committed a crime against Louis Armstrong's solo for Big Butter and Egg Manonly to have it presented as some kind of "triumph"? I wonder about what it means to be a young musician, today: is the goal really to make an astounding version of Caravan, a standard from the 1930's? I wonder about defining jazz: My father's jazz, I don't think was about playing faster or harder or "at my tempo." It was more about feel, it was about swinging the beat.

I watched the performances in the movie, admittedly with first-rate players throughout and a must-see version of Caravan to close. Then I came home and watched a youtube of a 1952 performance of Caravan by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, featuring the song's composer Juan Tizol on valve trombone. About midway through the song, the video shows Ellington at the piano, clearly enjoying himself during the performance (joy being noticeably absent from the musical performances in Whiplash). Then the camera pans over the the incomparable Louie Bellson on drums. Bellson was just 27 at the time -- the same age as Teller now. He seems barely to move. No blood on the skins, no sweat flying from his brow. Not that Bellson couldn't pound the living hell out of the drums, there are plenty of youtubes of that, too. But, mu does this 62-year old video swing like nothing at all in Whiplash.

I'm interested to know what my friends from college band think, especially those who went beyond the concert band (my personal limit) to play in various stage bands or competition outfits. Aaron's teacher said he'd had teachers somewhat like the movie's Terence Fletcher, if not quite so exaggerated. He's not going for a conservatory, he's not at that level. But still best to be prepared?

One time, maybe 30 years ago, I gave my dad a Glenn Miller record. Miller had served during WWII like my dad, and while stationed at Yale he had played on the same stages where I'd played. My dad turned up his nose. "I never liked Glenn Miller," he told me. When I asked him why, his answer was simple: "They never missed a note."

If they never made a mistake, it was too easy, my dad explained. But there was more to it than that: The best performances weren't about technical perfection or athletic prowess. When Louis Armstrong sang, just before his famous Big Butter and Egg Man solo, "and if you say it's necessary, baby, why I'll even hit high C," he laughed; it was play, played for the music and also played for love and for joy. The solo that follows is pure genius, but I suspect that no amount of pushing from a loveless taskmaster could have created it. The movie repeats the story of Jo Jones throwing the cymbal at Charlie Parker's head, but in the end my feeling is that cymbal had little to do with Parker's musical achievements.
I liked this movie, more than not. I even liked the closing sequence, for all of its passive-aggressive ambiguity (or maybe because of it) and despite the nagging sense that the ending is a Cotton Club style "triumph." For Aaron, it's an interesting study, an exaggeration of what could be if he becomes more serious. But I also wondered whether my dad the big band jazz aficionado would have liked it. My suspicion is that he might have liked that a movie presented "his" music at all, and then... rejecting the whole thing after the final performance.

After all, Whiplash didn't miss a beat.