It could be said that the history of jazz has followed the same course as the history of the American cinema. Born around the same time in the late 19th century – one in the Deep South, the other in France – and progressing to become the popular American art forms of choice in the period 1920-1945, before expanding into more complex constructions in the fifties and further experimentation throughout the sixties and early seventies. If the traditional jazz of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller et al. was on a similar plane to the conservative output of Hollywood in its early years, then surely, by virtue of this comparison, we could say that Orson Welles was the Charlie Parker of the American cinema.
If the work of Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Douglas Sirk took American cinema in the direction of increased thematic complexity and psychological realism, then Parker’s followers – Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk etc. – also equalled this feat with the emergence of bebop.
While the abstraction and experimentation of European art cinema in the sixties is a better point of comparison with the work of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock et al. into free jazz, jazz fusion and beyond, the underground cinematic sensations of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger and Michael Snow also read as working to create a new type of American cinema, one entwined with the practices of high art.
We can see that the best works of cinema and jazz from the 1960s emerged from the traditions of the counterculture, however, as customary their innovations soon became absorbed into the mainstream. Here we have the development of New American cinema, the popularisation of jazz fusion, the emergence of ‘smooth jazz’ and the subsequent postmodernisation of each form.
While many commentators have suggested that jazz lost its way in the 1980s, few have said this about the cinema. Jazz is currently undergoing an identity crisis (is it a genre relegated to the concert hall, to its history, or should it evolve, search for a new language to express itself and develop alongside newer art forms such as hip hop and contemporary R&B?) while the cinema is still alive, barely affected by the emergence of quality US television.*
Not only did jazz and cinema develop alongside each other, but jazz itself became involved in film history. Biopics were made about some of the greats, The Glenn Miller Story (Anthony Mann, 1954), Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986), Bird (Clint Eastwood, 1988), Straight No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988) etc. through to the upcoming Miles Ahead (Don Cheadle, TBC); jazz scored some of history’s most memorable films, from the traditional jazz of Hollywood musicals through to A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959) and Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Louis Malle, 1957), Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) and Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997) to name merely a few.
Like Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee, 1990) and The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984), Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) takes jazz at its subject. But unlike the majority of contemporary films about jazz, the focus is not on modern jazz, the development of the art form or the history of its greatest innovators. Whiplash’s knowledge of jazz innovation ends with Parker and allows only the figure of Buddy Rich as inspiration to its central character, Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller), the highly ambitious student of New York’s fictitious Shaffer Conservatory who is dedicated and determined to be one of the jazz greats. While the focus on a traditional jazz orchestral sound, its avoidance of the wider history of jazz drumming and jazz culture do not annoy me quite as much as it has Richard Brody:
In “Whiplash,” the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as Parker did) with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell. In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else. The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images. There are ways of filming music that are themselves musical, that conjure a musical feeling above and beyond what’s on the soundtrack, but Chazelle’s images are nothing of the kind.
…Whiplash does seems to be operating within a culture ignorant of the development of its form, where the ideas and practices of the sadistic and demagogic Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) do not really make sense in relation to achievements of a Charlie Parker he so often conjures. I can see how to aficionados of jazz, Whiplash could appear offensive. The jazz world is represented like the field of classical music, where there are right and wrong ways of doing things and each musician must perfect his technique. In a way this is a reflection of jazz’s current identity crisis: in Whiplash, jazz is relegated to the concert hall, where musical performances are judged and bands win awards for their ability to conform to an unalterable idea about successful playing. This is surely not the correct way to represent jazz. Or at least this is how the standard interpretation continues. However, can we not say that Whiplash is brave in its dedication to the representation of a world cut off from all jazz reality? Is this ignorance the fault of its director or the failure of jazz education in the 21st century? Could we not argue that Whiplash is an attempt to show the contemporary jazz scene with realism?
On exiting the cinema these were my immediate thoughts:
While the whole film seems to be about teasing originality, creativity and brilliance out of Niemann, its music is stuck in a postmodern [or post-traditional?] loop. The traditional jazz of the soundtrack does not look for new ideas, new forms of expression like Charlie Parker did in the 1940s. Neimann wants to be great in a heavily structured and organised field, where there is an objective system of values to measure oneself to and deviation from the norm is not allowed. Whether Niemann breaks through this cycle at the film’s end is a question worth developing.
Yes Niemann rebels and manages to break through the cycle of immaculately rehearsed hits Fletcher has them memorise, but instead of creativity by the film’s finale, Niemann has acquired technique. The success of Niemann is therefore not the triumph of originality but his achievement in relation to technical playing. Through all the pain, humiliation and brutality suffered at the hands of Fletcher, Niemann has come out the other side with the technical ability to be one of the jazz greats. He must now rebel against the conservative system of Shaffer Conservatory and explore the hitherto unrealised possibilities of traditional and modern jazz.
But if we decide to take the interpretation offered above – that Whiplash is a reflection of the contemporary field of jazz education – then my complaints become less relevant. Jazz has become a staple of music courses and as the University/Music School demands methods of objective evaluation, it is no wonder that jazz teaching does not have the vitality and exuberance of 20th century New York jazz culture. Like students in Universities studying more conventional subjects, they are trying to succeed in the only way the rigid structure of the school allows them: to obtain grades or in the case of Shaffer win a competition. As there is no sense of culture, it is not surprising that ’Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement’ . This is because everyone is pushed to try and be better than one another. Friendships cannot exist in Shaffer.
As a film about the teacher/student relationship, as an extreme example of the great lengths young men and women strive to obtain an unforeseeable ideal in the world of art, Whiplash is rewarding. J.K. Simmons’ performance as a psychotic bully searching for success as teacher and conductor rather than for his students is frightening in its absurdity and brutality, while Miles Teller is terrific at portraying his character’s outright arrogance, his desperation to succeed and utter humiliation at the hands of Simmons. Chazelle’s use of montage in order to capture the minutiae of Shaffer Conservatory – saxophones are assembled, drums are tuned, spit is excreted from valves in the instruments, cases are opened, sheet music is flapped, all in close-up – is also a really nice touch. Whiplash is not only a provocative interpretation of the state of jazz education in the 21st century, it is thoroughly entertaining and had me beating its infectious tempo out on to my body throughout the credits and journey home. If jazz is in crisis in Whiplash, cinema is alive.
*Rereading this post in 2017, I’m not sure I would say this today.