Ethan Iverson: The Drum Thing

Ethan Iverson, on Do The Math, has a response to the movie Whiplash, which comes down, broadly, to a long history of jazz drumming, and the importance of feel over flash.

A story about Mel Lewis: Mel hated giving lessons, but finally a kid talked him into letting him come by a record session and watch Mel at work. During a break Mel gestured for the kid to sit behind the kit, and said, “Play me a snare roll.”

The kid played a good, professional roll. Maybe not as good as the one that starts the movie Whiplash, but still, a good roll. Not easy to do.

Mel took his sticks back and said, “See, right there is your problem. You shouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t do that. You gotta quit that shit and start becoming a drummer.”

While I think it’s important to remember that Whiplash isn’t about jazz drumming,1 Iverson’s piece is fascinating and well argued.

  1. It’s about obsession, and an abusive relationship between a teacher and a student, but besides the last scene it could have just as easily told a story about boxing, or war, or even classical music. (Certainly the characters are far from unbelievable, in my experience of the classical music world.) The jazz in the film doesn’t have to be good for the film to be good; the story being told in this film is of a young man obsessed with becoming great. To an amateur listener, “greatness” is easiest to represent with speed—with “flash”. That way you don’t have to spend half the film describing what to listen for.