Inspired by Whiplash, which I saw for the first time last night (because I don’t get to the movies enough), this week’s Music Monday is dedicated to jazz–specifically one of the tracks featured prominently in the movie. I’ve never played Whiplash, but Caravan still gets my fingers twitching (Note: I played tenor sax in jazz groups from high school through college.)
The thing about jazz that the movie doesn’t highlight is that creativity–not merely precision–is the center of gravity. Caravan is a standard, but it has been performed in countless variations, rearranged and flipped, sped up to fever pace and slowed to a gentle swing. Every rendition is powered by a piece of the performers’ soul–they all sound a little different.
- My favorite version of Caravan is Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ 1963 recording.
- The original was first performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1936, at a decidedly gentler tempo with a more exotic feel.
- Akira Tana’s Navarac, literally caravan played backwards, is a 2002 loungy variation.
- Whiplash uses a John Wasson arrangement (link opens with Spotify) that really races, matching the movie’s manic (and maniac) theme.
My roommate says that Whiplash is the best horror movie about jazz he has ever seen. He’s not entirely wrong. My review (with spoilers) below the break.
The film keeps you suspended in discomfort, bothered by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)’s insane teaching style and Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller)’s utter lack of humanity (or humility). At an early point in the movie, Nieman asks Nicole, the popcorn girl at the movie theater, on a date. It’s painful and adorable to watch, and in that moment you think you know exactly where the movie is headed. Jazz-obsessed boy meets girl, they hit it off, but then in his quest to be the best, he starts to push her away, she starts to resent him and the music, it ends in disaster only to be recovered for a classic happy ending.
Cut to the scene of Nieman actually explaining this progression in detail. He tells Nicole how his obsession will tear them apart. So he breaks up with her, fast forwarding to the disaster and speeding past any sort of happy ending. You never see her again, but you do hear her voice months later over the phone. Nieman is calling to invite her to see him perform. She says her boyfriend isn’t really into jazz.
Not only does Nieman not seem quite human, he doesn’t act like any musician I’ve ever known. He has no friends, no routine outside of practice, performance and occasional movies with his father. At a family dinner, he makes it clear that his only desire is to have a legacy like Charlie Parker.
I struggled to describe Nieman after the film. My roommate easily simplified my stuttering attempts: “He’s a psychopath.”
Whiplash is a film about two psychopaths disguised as jazz musicians. Except that neither really seems like a jazz musician. To a degree, the obsession with perfection is true to form, but Fletcher and Nieman lack any evidence of creativity. Creativity, not matching an essentially arbitrary tempo, defines jazz.
In the end, Whiplash is unsatisfying. The psychopaths ride off into the bright lights together. If you’re looking for resolution, a lesson to be learned, don’t. I’ll be wrestling with thoughts on perfection and practice, insanity and jazz for weeks. I suppose that was the point.