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Whiplash Wins, Jazz Loses

02/23/2015 03:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

The indie movies were the big winners at the 2015 Oscars, but the biggest loser was jazz.

J.K. Simmons won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Terence Flethcer, an abusive "genius" director of a big band at some New Yorkish Jazz conservatory, pitted against Miles Teller's Andrew Neyman, an equally arrogant egotistical young drummer who sees himself as the second-coming of Buddy Rich.

In Hollywood lingo the Sony Pictures Classics film Whiplash was The Gene Krupa Story meets Silence of the Lambs.

As a piece of film, the high-adrenaline performances of Simmons and Miles Teller, with the editing and sound mixing that kept the intensity at a razor's edge, that have the film garnering a 95 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.

A major directorial achievement is that writer/director Damien Chazelle's characters are so compelling that you feel pretty abused yourself leaving the theater. For a film to make that strong of a psychological and emotional connection in Hollywoodland is HUGE.

There's only one slight problem. It's all bull.

Setting this Clash of the Psychos drama in a conservatory Jazz big band is a big fail that counterbalances the win of the taught drama in the script.

The suspense of disbelief is mission-critical in the movie biz. If you're doing Fast and Furious 93, you have a lot of latitude in what you can do because it's all largely fantasy. In career-oriented dramas, though, whether it's about fireman, doctors, lawyers, poets, scientists or social evangelists, the buck stops at the writer and director's door to ground the story well enough. To a point at least where people who do that job for a living would find some "reasonable" level of authenticity.

This is stated with the caveat that it is seldom that people in most lines of work covered in the movies find the portrayal of their careers and/or lifestyles fully accurate. Whiplash is not even close.

In Mr. Chazelle's zeal to wring every drop out of the adrenal glands of his audience, he failed miserably on the Truth-O-Meter about jazz and jazz musicians.

It's a genre of music that sits outside of the knowledge base of much of the general public. A province of mostly AARP card-toting hard core jazz fans, musicians, music educators, band students and the odd band parent or two.

Chazelle told Variety:

"When I started the script, I was just writing something in my mind about a drummer, though it could be any kind of artist, going as far as possible to be great, and the price of that. I was also trying to write about the physicality of music, trying to write a music movie as though it were "Raging Bull." And out of that came this character of the teacher, who was modeled somewhat on a teacher I had and somewhat on other bandleaders I'd heard about, like Buddy Rich, who were famous for tormenting their players."

No band director rises to this level of insanity. Certainly not in a high school, and not even at the world's most prestigious conservatories.

"If Wynton Marsalis, who's my boss here at Juilliard, did that," Mark Sherman, a Jazz professor at The Juilliard School told Vulture, "[C]alled kids "cocksuckers" and badgered kids like that -- he'd be thrown out."

The famous practice scene, where Nyland keeps drumming and drumming until he draws blood, is utter nonsense to anyone who plays music at that level.

"That's unrealistic," Sherman told Vulture. "People don't draw blood like that, playing music. It just doesn't happen, and if you do, you're holding the sticks wrong. You're screwed up technically if you're drawing blood."

Picture in Backdraft, Ron Howard's Oscar-winning movie about firefighters, newbie fireman Brian McCafferty grabbing the woman from the burning building, and jumping out of the second story window with her without any net or bag below.

The movie could not come out at a worse time for the music. Unlike fireman, jazz musicians are about as alien to the American general public as working mimes are to your office or factory floor.

One of the first truly original American music forms, there would be no Lady Gaga or Death Metal, Beatles or Ramones without the music that broke out of the regimented stultifying concert/orchestral reproduction of music for the elites and established one of the first "free" spaces in popular music to improvise.

Jazz is a music born in in the streets and bars and brothels of Southern port towns like New Orleans, carried by riverboat and then carloads of musicians like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to Chicago and then the world.

Its free improvisation was demonized by establishment White America as the sinful sounds of Prohibition-era gin-soaked Speakeasies where young white elites had their first tastes of the taboo.

It became the music of young rebellion during those Roaring 20s and the sound of American popular music by the Great Depression. Jazz overtook the white ballroom dance orchestra and the Big Band owned the sound of popular music and dance through WWII.

At the end of that era, music, thanks to improved recording techniques, exploded and went off in a wide number of different directions. Rhythm and Blues. Soul. Early rock n' roll. Country. Bluegrass, and then the next waves of rap, hip-hop, and alternative music.

At the end of WWII, the next generation of musicians, largely African-Americans, returned back to the small ensembles of the music's roots, channeled Jazz into a new era: Bebop. The Civil Rights Era was also Jazz' golden era of liberation: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and so many others.

It was an exploration of the frontiers of music, freedom, space and time, in sprees of excess both musically and in the hard-living lifestyles of its players.

Academia embraced jazz for its rich historical significance. Its new young stars became schooled at NEC and Juilliard and Eastman, not the School of Hard Knocks. Jazz moved into middle and high school music curriculum. Out went booze and broads and long drunks and drugs. In came secure teaching jobs and the propriety of pedagogy.

Jazz has existed to this day in the United States with the support of academia and its legions of "Greatest Generation" 3B fans: Big Band. Bop. Bossa. As they pass on, the modern day standard-bearers of the music are seeking new audiences.

"Whiplash" is an apt title because it has beaten up Jazz' rather fragile reputation with a popular music audience that knows little or nothing about it.

The first major American motion picture to be made about Jazz since the short late-80s flurry of films like Clint Eastwood's "Bird," "Round Midnight" and "Straight, No Chaser" it has made it look like the only people who play Jazz are some tribal lot of OCD fringers.

"I teach at a place like Juilliard," said Sherman "which is top-tier, and a lot of these kids are under a lot of pressure, yes. But not that kind of pressure. The pressure, ultimately, is the pressure you put on yourself, to survive and succeed in the industry."

How does jazz survive with a shrinking fan base, and J.K. Simmons' now infamous "Rushing or Dragging" scene being the only understanding of this music that the popular culture knows?

Like Miles Teller's character Andrew Neyman, Mr. Chazelle has had his revenge on his band director. Too bad he tried to take out the music and the musicians all over the world who are so passionate about its future as well.