Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Hank Levy and Don Ellis

Don Ellis (left) and Hank Levy, circa 1971
Don Ellis (left) and Hank Levy, circa 1971

It is possible to know too much. A wine aficionado has no taste for a $14.00 bottle of Pinot. A modern dance devotee would not deign to attend a square dance. A cocktail shaker enthusiast won’t look twice at a mass-marketed chrome shaker from the 1930s.

This sort of knowledge-based snobbery applies particularly to movies and TV shows. I know from personal experience that a physician cannot watch a doctor/hospital show without constantly (and derisively) pointing out its endless flaws. I imagine the same is true when a policeperson watches a crime show or movie; when an attorney watches a courtroom drama; or when an extra-terrestrial takes in a science fiction movie.

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953); along with This is Spinal Tap (1984), perhaps the best movie about music ever made!

Given my particular knowledge base, I find I tolerate movies and TV shows about music poorly. Amadeus was entertaining, but the scene in which the dying Mozart presumably dictates a portion of his Requiem to Salieri is pure poppycock. And don’t get me started on any of the Beethoven movies out there; or when the 6’ tall Robert Walker portrayed the 5’ tall Johannes Brahms in the 1947 movie Song of Love (“good for a guffaw” wrote Bosley Crowther in his review in The New York Times); or when the thickly muscled, über machismo Cornel Wilde played the shallow-chested, pencil-necked Frédéric Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945); or the truly cringe-worthy Mozart in the Jungle (“Mozart in the City?” “Sex in the Jungle”? I get them all confused). Then there’s Mr. Holland’s Opus; I wasn’t able to keep anything down for a week after having been forced to sit through that one. Along with This is Spinal Tap the only music movie I can unequivocally recommend is the 1953 classic, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, “about a boy who dreams himself into a fantasy world ruled by a diabolical piano teacher enslaving children to practice piano forever,” written by Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Good stuff. Very good stuff.

Whiplash: left, Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman; right, J. K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher
Whiplash: left, Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman; right, J. K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher

Then there’s the movie Whiplash, which came out in 2014, about a student drummer at a prestigious (but fictional) New York conservatory and his abusive teacher/bandleader. The movie won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for J. K. Simmons in the role of the sadistic bandleader, Terence Fletcher. The movie was written and directed by Damien Chazelle (born 1985), presumably drawing on his own experiences in the jazz band at Princeton (N.J.) High School. According to Chazelle, he based the character of the bandleader – Terrence Fletcher – on his high school bandleader although, according to Chazelle’s own admission, he “pushed it further”, meaning he created a fictional character that did not, and very likely could not, actually exist.

We all throw up our hands and say, “well that’s HOLLYWOOD!”, where people and situations are exaggerated and twisted by orders of magnitude – even turned into cartoons – in order to tell a “story.”

But here’s the rub, and this is what pisses me off (pardon). For folks who don’t know any better, the merciless Terrence Fletcher is a real person, and his vicious “teaching methods” – if not common – are not uncommon in the world of music education.

We are all familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, abusive, boot camp drill sergeant, heaping invective on his 18 and 19-year-old charges. For better or for worse, it is a stereotype rooted in reality. But to assume that there’s inevitably such a thing as a “musical drill instructor” is just wrong. It’s one thing to scream at a raw Marine recruit, “RUN FASTER, PEABRAIN!!” The “peabrain” will, indeed, run faster or drop. But it’s an entirely different thing to shriek at a young musician, “PLAY FASTER, MAGGOT!!” So abused, the excessively fine motor skills, necessary relaxation, and emotional balance required to make music will, in 99.99% of the cases (give or take), simply shut down. You might as well smack a player across the forehead with a croquet mallet. Abuse works poorly on adult musicians, and for kids – with their still incomplete personalities and excessively delicate egos – it works not at all.

The title of the movie – Whiplash – would seem to have been chosen for the way it describes the action of the movie; there’s no doubt that first-year student “Andrew Neiman” has suffered under the whipping pedagogic lash of Terrence Fletcher. Be that as it may, the title of the movie is actually drawn from a composition for jazz band entitled Whiplash by the drop-dead fabulous jazz band composer Hank Levy. Levy’s Whiplash (composed in 1971 for the trumpet player Don Ellis and his band) is heard throughout the movie’s soundtrack.… continue reading, only on Patreon!

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