Adam Theisen: We need to hear the next Miles Davis

By Adam Theisen, Daily Music Editor
Published November 24, 2014

The first truly shocking scene in the movie “Whiplash,” Damien Chazelle’s recent film about a young drummer and his abusive conductor, comes when Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) gets his shot with the studio band, the top performance group at the conservatory where he studies music. As Andrew sits behind the drumkit, he gives the song his best, but is quickly cut off. Fletcher, the conductor (J.K. Simmons) initially reassures Andrew when he messes up. “Not quite my tempo, no worries,” he says. Then he makes him do another take (“You’re rushing”). Then another (“Dragging just a hair”). Again (“Rushing”). And again (“Dragging”). Finally, Andrew seems to have it. Fletcher lets him keep playing, nodding his head as he walks away from the kit. He calmly puts his hand on a folding chair and WHOOSH, lobs it at Andrew’s head.

Fletcher takes a deep breath. “Why do you suppose I just threw a chair at your head, Neiman?” he asks, way too calmly. “The tempo?” Andrew offers. “Were you rushing or were you dragging?” Fletcher fumes. “I don’t know,” Andrew admits. Suddenly, Fletcher advances on Andrew, orders him to start counting time and slaps him in the face on every fourth beat until Andrew gets the point.

I sometimes feel like Andrew does by the end of that scene when I don’t show the proper respect for True Jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy listening to jazz, but I (like most of the audience, I presume), had no fucking clue if Andrew was rushing, dragging, or if Fletcher was just abusing him for kicks. I played trumpet in middle-school jazz band, but that's all I have in terms of formal experience.

I also mostly enjoyed film’s music, but I realized my unfortunate ignorance when I read The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who dismissed “Whiplash” ’s music as “mediocre,” and “A grotesque and ludicrous caricature” of jazz. And while I agree that the movie is more about competition than musicality, and yes, the characters are ultra-serious and probably distort the mythos of Charlie Parker, what really got me was Brody’s thoughts on Andrew’s inspiration, Buddy Rich. Not only does he call Rich “a loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration” (insults that sound more like they could come out of Fletcher’s mouth than I think he realizes), he does so in no more than a parenthetical.

Imagine I’m writing a column on guitarists, and when I bring up Jimi Hendrix, I say “He was a flashy showman, but he was overrated, never a real guitarist,” and then totally leave it at that. Brody is making an admirable larger point by stating that Andrew is portrayed as working hard at the physical aspects of drumming but never appreciates the music itself, but in a phrase that could easily be skipped over by accident, he dismisses a drummer who many (including myself) consider to be one of the greatest of all time. Buddy Rich is just a “minor celebrity?” Buddy fucking Rich? Watch a Buddy Rich drum solo. Yes, he’s playing to the crowd, and yes, he’s loud, but that his style. Maybe he’s not being sensitive in the way that other drum solos can be, but the playing is still breathtaking — the speed, the precision, the stamina are all practically unparalleled in music. He’s certainly not quiet, but the quickness and sheer jaw-dropping virtuosity make up for any lack of delicacy. Transcendent talent isn’t always subtle.

Brody’s snobbery, for lack of a better word, is indicative of a larger problem in modern jazz. It’s too bad that the gates to Jazz Appreciation are seemingly padlocked multiple times over, because it’s stifled the genre. The biggest household name that jazz has produced since Miles Davis is Kenny G, an artist who’s probably lampooned more than he’s respected. I’m not sure people even realize how influenced by jazz some of our most popular modern artists are — Norah Jones, Adele and Radiohead, to name a few — because many jazz fans of today seem focused so much on old “true and pure” jazz instead of recognizing that genres can evolve and improve.

The success of musicals like “Chicago” prove that people still like jazz, even if they don’t listen to it regularly. If the Jazz Establishment could somehow latch onto these artists and productions as gateways to full-on jazz music, instead of just looking back and focusing on the former legends, we could have a full-scale jazz revival. Instead, it feels like too many fans of jazz approach the music with the humorlessness and obstinacy of the characters in “Whiplash.” Later in the film, a driven, arrogant Andrew is asked at a dinner table how the music competitions work, since “isn’t music subjective?” “No,” is his flat, harsh reply. The message he and the jazz gatekeepers are sending is clear: if you don’t sound like one of the old greats, get out. In the same way, Brody denigrates anyone who thinks Buddy Rich might be worth imitating, as if there’s only one specific style of jazz one can enjoy.

I know how easy it can be to dismiss seemingly “lesser” music. After watching videos of Buddy Rich and other jazz drummers, I snorted when I saw someone online call Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham the greatest drummer of all time. “The big lunk just pounds away. He doesn’t have the technique that you need for jazz,” I thought, before realizing I was just echoing Brody’s dismissal of Buddy Rich. All that accomplishes is keeping people away from exploring jazz. Even if it’s not an ideal representation of the genre, if “Whiplash” brings more young people to jazz, it’s unequivocally a good thing.

It can be fun to feel superior, especially after being turned on to new music, but so much of the beauty of music comes when it’s shared. Sure, I’ve put on Kind of Blue on solo drives home late at night and felt like a supercool secret agent, but jazz is also amazing when it’s social and fun. In “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle’s previous film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” we see young people connecting through jazz, drinking beer and tap dancing and playing for each other’s enjoyment. Doesn’t that seem fun? For that to happen in real life, though, jazz needs to become more accessible. People who like OK Computer should be steered toward Bitches Brew, and Norah Jones and Adele fans should discover Billie Holiday. But more importantly than that, we need to discover the current jazz musicians, the future household names who are producing incredible art and make sure that they’re playing for more than a small, curmudgeonly few.

Theisen is still too young to get into Cliff Bell’s. To recommend awesome young jazz musicians, email ajtheis@umich.edu