How Accurate is the Depiction of Jazz in “Whiplash”?


Whiplash (2014) has been heavily criticized for its portrayal of jazz performance, with most of the critiques centering around the film’s repeated use of a famous anecdote about two legendary jazz players, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and drummer Jo Jones. In real life, Parker (then sixteen years old) was playing onstage with a band that included Jones. According to bassist Gene Ramey (as told to Stanley Crouch in his biography of Parker, Kansas City Lightning), “When they got to the end of the thirty-two-bar chorus, [Parker] was in the second bar on that next chorus. Somehow or other, he got ahead of himself or something. He had the right meter. He was with the groove all right, but he was probably anxious to make it.” Parker was pretty green then, and he basically flubbed the execution of his double-time improvisation. This prompted Jones to toss a cymbal at Parker’s feet, replicating the comic “gong” sound that would signal for a performer to get off the stage in vaudeville. It was a joke, a humiliating dig at Parker’s mistake.

While the real incident was a relatively light-hearted incident, the film exaggerates the story, claiming that Jones threw the cymbal right at Parker’s head. The story and its meaning have been distorted, making it seem as if Jones’ harmless joke was actually violent, abusive punishment.

More importantly, the film alleges that the incident motivated Parker to practice endlessly, emerging a year later as the greatest jazz artist in history. This idea has been universally dismissed as ludicrous and dubious given the documented and anecdotal evidence of how Parker developed his innovations. For example, not only did Parker have a strong interest in music theory, he also studied alongside his peers and drew inspiration directly from listening to other artists, particularly tenor saxophonist Lester Young. These were self-motivated intellectual achievements, not the result of extreme physical effort inspired by the rage of an older musician.

In Whiplash, on the other hand, there are very few (if any) examples of the film’s jazz musicians discussing their ideas or collectively enjoying their performances together in private. In the movie, jazz is never shown as a joyful, artistically fulfilling form of expression, but an ambition-fuelled competition. The film and its characters exhibit little appreciation for the actual music itself. Jonathan Rosenbaum went as far as to call it, “a competitive sports film, not a jazz film at all, where the meaning and art of jazz - including risks, mistakes, and free spirits - are either absent or downgraded.”

Whiplash is not a film that is committed to accurately depicting the experience of playing jazz, but a story of ambition and abuse that uses jazz a narrative tool.