Whiplash: what even is Jazz music anymore?

Whiplash is about the quest for greatness in any field. As all melodrama does, Whiplash takes this quest to extreme levels, to hammer home the question of whether greatness is worth any price. It is short and sharp enough to keep the audience captivated, even with some occasionally absurd developments, and the result is an exhilarating film.

Its chosen focus is the world of virtuosic Jazz. The film is saturated with references to Charlie Parker and Buddie Rich. These are the men whose greatness to which Whiplash’s student musicians inspire.

JK Simmons’ Terence Fletcher has resurrected Gunnery Sergeant Hartman for the 21st century. His performance is so ferocious, it goes beyond the clichés of the despotic sergeant or tyrannical teacher, and finds renewed originality in its sheer barbarism and energy.

His brutal treatment of Andrew Neiman, the single-minded 19 year old drummer, played by Miles Teller, in the name of achieving greatness and perfection has prompted many criticisms. The first is an ethical one, which I believe the film appropriately deals with, and allows the audience to fight it out amongst themselves after leaving the cinema.

The second criticism of Fletcher’s methods suggests that Whiplash is betraying the spirit of Jazz. That spirit is popularly believed to be one of happiness, improvisation, soul and feel; rather than pinpoint accuracy, 7/8 time-signatures, and the need to wow an audience with prodigious technical skill. When Fletcher refers to Louis Armstrong, the audience may howl with derision: the pressure cooker of Shaffer’s Studio Band is a world away from Armstrong’s emotion and radiant happiness. Jazz pianists such as Erroll Garner, who famously had only one formal lesson and couldn't read music, and grew to be the most successful Jazz pianist of his day, would certainly not thrive under Fletcher. His beaming smiles are definitely nowhere to be seen in Whiplash.

To many, what Whiplash portrays is not Jazz at all, but Jazz music played as if it were set in a Russian conservatoire. Neiman’s suffering is more likely to conjure up images of Tiger Mothers than Duke Ellington. But I think that Whiplash portrays a truth about modern Jazz, to which the film alludes, but doesn’t explicitly express.

Before the film’s final crescendo, Fletcher laments to Neiman that Jazz is dying (at the 40min mark here), and that in his years of teaching at Shaffer he never really did find the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich, whom he could coach into brilliance. To say that Jazz is dying isn’t necessarily wrong, but I think the reasons for are different than a lack of geniuses in the genre.

The 20th century saw Jazz suffer an identity crisis of sorts: riding high as pop music in the 1920s, it was exciting, exotic and energetic. It was a thrilling unifier of black and white, it was racy, and it ruffled feathers with sexualised dancing, drunkenness and drug use. No more so was this the case during American prohibition, as well as throughout the Second World War — it symbolised happiness in war-weary Europe, and outright rebellion in Nazi Germany. In 1938, I think things began to change: Benny Goodman’s mixed-race orchestra played the Carnegie Hall, the first jazz band to do so. Jazz had been invited into America’s most elite musical institution, and began to lose its exotic appeal. Following the war, this trend accelerated, as Jazz steadily lost its appeal as popular dance music. It was superseded by rock’n’roll, and each subsequent decade’s musical innovations. Instead, Jazz developed into a form of music to think about, rather than dance to. It was certainly still energetic and exciting, but it seems that Jazz steadily began to push boundaries to excite the mind, rather than the body, and to impress audiences with sheer virtuosity, rather than raise them to their feet with magnetic rhythms. It that respect, the pressure cooker atmosphere, reminiscent of the rigour classical music training, seen in Whiplash, is perhaps a realistic representation of contemporary Jazz’s identity crisis. Having lost popular resonance, it pursues its modern meaning through breaking new boundaries of style, skill, and rhythm. Whilst controversial, Baz Luhrmann’s decision to use modern pop and hip-hop for the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby is a case in point: to convey the raucousness of Gatsby’s Jazz-Age parties to a 21st century audience required modern dance music, the music which today serves the same purpose as Jazz in the 20s and 30s. Jazz simply doesn’t sound like rebellion and debauchery nowadays.

I don’t begrudge Jazz’s purpose today; it’s probably better than endless nostalgia for a mythical golden age, but it shows that innovation in established genres is always a difficult trick to pull off. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with Jazz being a cerebral musical genre, with many similarities to the classical world. The single-minded pursuit of greatness in Whiplash is an exciting, inspiring and painful story, which should chime with all of us who have taken risks, spent nights honing a skill until dawn, and have lost friendships in the pursuit of an unshakable ambition. But it also suggests that Jazz music itself is going through a similar struggle, going forth into realms unknown, but trying not to forget how it got there in the first place.

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