Thursday, 22 January 2015

Jazz and Whiplash: Review

A couple of months ago a friend of mine told me about a movie he'd seen in which a young man drives himself crazy trying to play drums like Buddy Rich. I saw it last weekend. it was a well-made, beautifully-shot and dressed movie, nice editing, the script, the acting, all top-notch. But. They didn't push the envelope. On the level of content, it is entirely nonsensical, on an emotional level it works rather well.

What this film is really about is how Academia has wrecked jazz as a music form. Let’s get this more or less straight: jazz ended with On The Corner.

Miles was to jazz what Jean-Luc Godard was to movies: On The Corner was his fin du cinema moment from Weekend. Oh sure, plenty of people went on playing stuff they were playing back in the 1960’s, and Wynton Marsalis came along and re-cycled time-no-changes while Miles was in hiding during the 1970’s, but nobody did anything new. Miles, Trane and the avant-garde guys did it all in the 1960’s.

The point of jazz and blues is that it’s freedom within a genre: they played blues, ballads, hard bop, cool, swing, modal, time no changes, or free, and they did it in their own manner and with their own voice. That’s why even a newcomer can identify Miles, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Ron Carter, Wynton Kelly, Tony Williams and about fifty other players after just a few notes. Those musicians had voices as distinctive as any composer. They learned as much technique as they needed to make the music they wanted to make.

That’s not what happens now. Listen to Giant Steps.

It took Coltrane three months to figure out how to solo over those fast-changing chords. Let me say that another way: it took the one of the most creative jazz musicians that ever lived three months to figure out how to solo over those chords.Yet young saxophonists are expected to be able to play a Coltrane-like solo over those chords before they graduate. They have amazing techniques, which are entirely beside the point. If Giant Steps has to be used at all, and not treated as a musical dead-end, they should be expected to figure out their solo over those chords. Coltrane’s solo was a solution to a problem: how do you play a hard bop solo over so many chords? Solved. Next problem: how do you play a different solo over those chords? It may be the Koybayoshi Maru of music problems, but it’s better than learning to play a bunch of changes quickly.

And Giant Steps lead to the chord-scale system. It’s the reason all contemporary jazz sounds cold, identical, soul-less and un-musical. Because the musicians are so darn occupied trying to remember what scale they play over E maj 9-5 that they forget to play a tune and a feeling. A real musician can play one note and make you feel an emotion. With chord-scale, the musicians don’t get time to get to the emotions.

Chord-scale, and polished technique, is what gets taught in the colleges. So there’s an analogical, emotional truth in Whiplash: the tutors might not actually shout at the students - and they would lose their jobs if they talked as JK Simmons does - but what they teach crushes them into moulds just as surely.

The ending of Whiplash was yet another bully-and-victim reconciliation scene. Those don't happen in real life and everyone over the age of about 12 knows it. I wanted to believe it, even though I knew it was hokum.

The "good job” speech that Simmons character gets is utter twaddle, both as an author's message and from that character. Which brings me to what I really didn't like about the film. I lost count of the number of times the JK Simmons character told the Joe-Jones-threw-a-cymbal-at-the-young-Charlie-Parker story. (And as my friend said: he did it once, not eighteen times a day for a year.) The teacher's excuse was that he was trying to find, or make, the next Bird. And that's arrogant beyond all measure. It's not a teacher's job to produce another Charlie Parker, it's a teacher's job to teach the frickin' trade skills and knowledge at the speed required. It's the artist's job to become an artist. Teachers are there to set a pace, but not to push. If the student can’t keep up, you let them ring out. You don’t throw chairs at them.

Here's my idea. Talented young man who can ace the technical stuff but wants to play his own music. Get girls, has friends, but those are just entertainment. Fifty minutes of all the different kinds of music in New York. Some glimpses of how the various scenes (jazz, Latin, etc) work, what the economics are. He's trying to find what Miles called a "direction". His friends join orchestras to play other people's music, or bands to play genre music. His girlfriends do what they do - office jobs, whatever. And then he hears it. Five bars. Boom! And we're off. Because that's how creativity works: we build on what others do. And when he finds his musical direction, he finds The Girl as well, because that's the kind of happy ending the audiences like. Everybody behaves well, and nobody gets pregnant or shouts. The most we get is puzzlement: why would anyone want to miss out on jobs and careers just to find their own music? And that is what the story explains.

Just a thought. I mean, it's not within the realm of conventional cinema... but what if?

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