Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

JT Editor Evan Haga Introduces the December 2014 Issue

Whiplashed

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the most thrilling jazz-related moments I experienced in the past month didn’t have to do with the music covered in this vocal-themed issue. And they weren’t connected to any of the terrific live performances I took in-not even Herbie Hancock’s reunited Mwandishi band at the Apollo, or when Mwandishi multireedist Bennie Maupin stayed onstage with Hancock to awaken the Headhunters on “Chameleon.” No, what really affected me was Whiplash, the recent film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer enrolled at a prestigious Manhattan music school and J.K. Simmons as his band director, a violent, unknowable man who could safely be called a sociopath.

Film scribes have mostly had very positive things to say about Whiplash, but jazz heads on the Internet have been far less kind, writing think pieces if they’re employed as journalists and griping on Facebook if they’re not. That’s a real shame, since so many jazz fans are also film buffs and Whiplash is a dynamite movie. Yes, the bandleader’s bloodthirsty tactics are so heinous they’re laughable, unless you accept them as necessary fictions in a psychodrama. And some of the dialogue has that canned quality that is a common pitfall when digging into subcultural details in a screenplay.

But Whiplash is also a deeply accurate portrayal of jazz education on a philosophical level, especially as it relates to the dreams, delusions and anxieties of the young men and women immersed in it. More than jazz, it’s a movie about adolescent notions-of greatness, of sacrifice, of what constitutes value in life-and how severely adults can guide those ideas. The most frightening aspect of Simmons’ character isn’t his chair-throwing or homophobia: It’s that his students take what he says to heart. Our formative drummer doesn’t understand how musical personality is more important than precision and virtuosity because God doesn’t seem to think that. As for those aforementioned anxieties, make no mistake: Jazz education is dripping with distress. Go to a state band audition and see how much fun everyone is having; to recast Sartre-hell is soloing over play-along tracks in front of clipboard-toting clinicians.

So, please, check out Whiplash and let me know what you think at [email protected] And one more thing, to respond to one jazz-loving film critic who writes for that famous magazine in New York City: A drummer starting college nowadays would absolutely still be obsessed with Buddy Rich, a jazz version of a sports hero if there ever was one.

Originally Published