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written by Ron Harlow
I saw Whiplash a few weeks after the 2014 film’s nationwide release. It’s an astoundingly good movie. It stirs the viewer’s emotions, poses larger themes for debate, and truly earned the Oscar for best sound mixing. But on my way home from the Davis Theater, I could not stop thinking about one thing – did Jo Jones actually throw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head?
Whiplash’s protagonist, Andrew, is a young jazz drummer beginning his first year as a student at a prestigious conservatory in New York. Fletcher is a teacher at the conservatory who notices Andrew early and takes interest in cultivating Andrew’s talent. Andrew is drawn to Fletcher’s tutelage because Fletcher is reputed to be the best teacher at the conservatory. Sadly, Andrew quickly learns that being Fletcher’s protégé means tolerating a heap of physical and psychological abuse.
Andrew endures Fletcher’s cruelty because he is so driven to become the best drummer at the conservatory. When Fletcher tells Andrew his mercilessness is only meant to push Andrew to excellence, Andrew believes him. To explain his teaching methods, Fletcher tells Andrew a story about how Charlie Parker “became” Charlie Parker because Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at Parker’s head.
I never heard of this story, and I was skeptical as I watched it being told on the big screen. Andrew takes it at face value, but he’s just a kid. What does he know? Fletcher is a monster, but he has proven he can develop young musicians into great ones. Andrew wants to believe that the ends justify the means. He wants to believe that Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head makes it okay for Fletcher to hurl a chair at his. But did Jo Jones really throw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head?
Biographers have documented that a 16-year-old Parker did play on stage with Jones. It’s true Parker played terribly. It’s true Jones threw a cymbal at him. It’s true Parker was laughed off stage, humiliated, and thereafter dedicated himself to better practice habits that improved his skills drastically over the next year of his life.
It’s false that Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s head and “nearly decapitated him.”
The cymbal landed at Parker’s feet. It startled him more than it threatened any bodily harm. Witnesses described it as more of a playful gesture than a malicious one; a way of telling Parker that Jones disapproved of his performance and it was time to stop.
So the myth is half-true. Jones did throw a cymbal at Parker, but not at his head.
A major theme of Whiplash is: how far is it acceptable to push kids to do their best? Fletcher is fine with the idea of slinging projectiles at a teenager’s head, so long as the ends justify the means. Fletcher considers a world in which Bird’s music was never made to be a tragedy. But Bird succumbed to addiction at age 34; is that not also a tragedy?
I’m so hung up on this Charlie Parker story because I think it’s evidence that Fletcher is really just a sadist who uses his skill as a music teacher to allow for his atrocities to go unchallenged. Now that I know the true story, Fletcher’s version sounds like an abuser saying whatever he has to say to the victim so that the abuse can continue. If the ends always justify the means, then the means of Fletcher being a sadist depend on the ends of his pupils becoming great musicians. And if Fletcher must lie to a pupil to convince him it’s okay to throw a chair at his head, so be it.
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