Jazz’s Year of Complaint, Citing ‘Whiplash’ and The New Yorker
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In the opening scene of “Whiplash,” the breakout second film by Damien Chazelle, the rat-a-tat of a snare drum echoes in darkness, each stroke landing quicker than the last. It’s a rudimentary warm-up made to feel sinister — “like gunfire,” the screenplay suggests — and it sets up a mounting tension that the movie strives to maintain.
I’ve been reminded of that setup recently, whenever my thoughts turned to the past year in jazz. Not just because “Whiplash” achieved the rare feat of putting “jazz drummer” and “Oscar buzz” into the same speculative orbit. (Another such film is “Birdman,” though its original drum score, by Antonio Sanchez, was shortsightedly ruled ineligible for the Academy Awards.)
Jazz in 2014 — or more accurately, the discourse around jazz in 2014 — often resembled a crescendo of gibes and gripes, with each new affront calling forth a fresh wave of umbrage. In the end it wasn’t any single skirmish that led to my air of weary resignation, but rather a brisk accumulation of them, quickening into a blur. And what surprised me was the exasperation I felt not only with jazz’s cynical assailants, but also with its gallant defenders, some of whom could seem as starchy and reflexively scandalized as Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers flick.
Jazz’s Year of Complaint (as I’ve taken to calling it) actually began with that single-stroke drumroll back in January, when “Whiplash” opened the Sundance Film Festival and won both its grand jury and audience awards. It wasn’t the only jazz-related movie presented in competition this year — in “Low Down,” John Hawkes portrays the bebop pianist Joe Albany — but the advance word was especially promising.
It was only months later, when Mr. Chazelle’s film reached theaters, that jazz partisans began to express their ire. Missing from some of the grumbling was that “Whiplash” is a student-teacher psychodrama, no more a movie about jazz than “Titanic” was a movie about iceberg avoidance.
At issue was a problem of representation — and the tendency, on the part of many jazz fans, to regard every turn in the spotlight as a chance for outreach. (By this light, “Low Down” had its own faults: It’s a tale of heroin addiction, based on a memoir by Mr. Albany’s daughter.)
Misrepresentation took on a more literal form in late summer, when The New Yorker magazine’s Shouts & Murmurs blog posted a humor piece, “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” If you follow jazz, you probably have opinions about this bit of satire, by Django Gold, whose work usually appears in The Onion.
Mr. Rollins, the tenor saxophonist who at 84 is upheld as one of jazz’s greatest improvisers and a living embodiment of its ideals, comes across as rueful and cowed in the piece. “If I could do it all over again,” he says, “I’d probably be an accountant or a process server.” Absurd on its face, the piece was taken seriously by many in the jazz realm, prompting The New Yorker to tag on an editor’s note describing it as satire — and goading Mr. Rollins into a response, streamed live on the web.
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
Speaking from a book-lined study at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., he noted that his initial response to Mr. Gold’s piece had been wry amusement; he took it to be a stunt worthy of Mad magazine (to which, he said, he subscribed). Then he realized that the farce was being misconstrued as fact. “Jazz has been mocked, minimized and marginalized throughout its whole history,” he said. Given that legacy, he added, what’s the point of kicking jazz around?
There are fair answers to that rhetorical question — among them, that jazz has clawed its way into the precincts of high culture and presents an easy target — but they were mostly drowned out by surface noise. An opinion piece in The Washington Post, “All That Jazz Isn’t All That Great,” actually made the claim that Mr. Gold’s satire was “funny because it was true.” Then came the counterarguments, including more than one in The Post itself.
Maybe it’s true that the media has succumbed to a surge in “jazz bashing,” to use the term floated by the critic Ted Gioia in The Daily Beast. But it seems equally plausible that jazz was just like every other corner of culture in 2014. Two weeks ago Slate posted an impressive package, “The Outrage Project,” that cast outrage as the lingua franca of our social media age. Responding to the barbs, by this light, is simply rising to the bait.
There’s evidence for this mind-set even within jazz’s ranks, judging by the response to an album released this fall by Mostly Other People Do the Killing. The recording, “Blue” (Hot Cup), is a note-for-note reconstruction of Miles Davis’s 1959 album “Kind of Blue,” with an influential essay by Jorge Luis Borges reprinted in the liner notes. A puckish act of appropriation, “Blue” met with every sort of disapproval: Some in the jazz fold cried sacrilege, others attacked the concept, and still others nitpicked the execution. (In other words, the stunt paid amazing dividends.)
The closest thing to a consensus jazz album this year, according to the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, was “Offering: Live at Temple University” (Resonance), which John Coltrane made in 1966, deep into his late avant-garde period. Yet this album too was divisive: “Catastrophic Coltrane,”proclaimed the headline of an essay by Geoff Dyer in The New York Review of Books.
What’s worth remembering, against this backdrop, is that jazz still has its common truths. To that end, the movie I hope to be rooting for this Oscar season is “Keep On Keepin’ On,” a documentary about the great trumpeter Clark Terry, now in his mid-90s, and his mentorship of Justin Kauflin, a talented blind pianist in his late 20s.
Directed by Alan Hicks, it’s a stirring portrait of perseverance, positivity and service. And in Mr. Terry, who maintains his dignity and genial sense of humor in the most trying circumstances, there’s a durable jazz ideal, at once in the mix and above the fray.
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