It might be America’s most indigenous art form, but jazz has been dying on the vine for many years, accounting for just a miniscule fraction of music sales in the marketplace, and lacking the kind of star power that Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock brought to the form in their heyday.
But the year in movies seems to have resurrected the form. Sundance sensation “Whiplash,” perhaps the most acclaimed indie release of the year, is not only about an aspiring jazz drummer, but its inspiration is decidedly old school: drummer Buddy Rich and the big band jazz tradition.
Other talked about indies include “Low Down,” a real-life tale inspired by jazz pianist Joe Albany and his struggles with heroin addiction, and the documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On,” which, like “Whiplash,” is about the relationship between a mentor, jazz trumpeter and educator Clark Terry, and acolyte, blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin, who composed the film’s jazz score.
Then there’s “Birdman,” driven by the percussive rhythms of acclaimed jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez, known for his work with Pat Metheny. “Birdman” is not about jazz, per se, but its anarchic sensibility is very much in the jazz spirit.
When Sanchez was approached by fellow Mexican, music lover and “Birdman” director Alejandro G. Inarritu last year to create a percussive score for the movie, he had very little to draw upon, nor had he ever scored a movie. “I was petrified in a way because I had no idea of how to go about it,” Sanchez recalls, “and there were no other movies that I could reference for something like that. And I looked, believe me.”
Upon receiving the script, about a fading action movie star trying to resurrect his career on Broadway, Sanchez’s first instinct was to create rhythmic themes for each character. But when he sent Inarritu demos, the director said they were the opposite of what he had in mind.
“He was looking for something very spontaneous, very spur-of-the-moment, very improvised that would basically fit with the nature of the movie,” recalls Sanchez.
While shooting the film in New York, Inarritu would more or less conduct Sanchez’s playing based on scenarios the director would describe, since there was nothing yet for the drummer to look at. “He would give me very broad instructions like, ‘I want something that starts very soft and ends very loud,’ because the intensity of the scene is going to be growing.”
These passages were attached to the movie’s rough cut, and provided the blueprint for Sanchez’s final takes in the studio, where he played to image. “And that’s mainly what you hear in the film,” he says.
For “Whiplash,” writer-director Damien Chazelle drew on his own experiences as a big band jazz drummer in high school.
And the film’s music — some drawn from the classic songbook (Duke Ellington’s “Cherokee,” Hank Levy’s title tune) and most of it composed by Chazelle’s go-to musical collaborator Justin Hurwitz — is refreshingly anachronistic, allowing the viewer to revel in the rhythmic punch and swing of big band jazz at its most dynamic.
“(Bebop drummer) Max Roach was actually the first drummer I fell in love with,” Chazelle says. “But when it came to actually lead a big band as a drummer, it was this different style that I was learning. And I became obsessed with it. I put Buddy Rich photos on my walls; I listened non-stop to old swing; I tilted my snare drum down and got old Slingerland heads that looked like Gene Krupa’s kit; I used traditional grip. So I lived musically in this world that was my parents’ and my grandparents’.”
But the result is exhilarating and of-the-moment, and places the viewer as close to the act of creation as they are likely to get in the movies.
“The one thing that bothered me about a lot of (music biopics) is that there wasn’t enough music,” says Chazelle. “The actual process of music-making is not that documented. When it came to the actual work of writing a song or figuring out a solo — of just becoming that musician and getting to that level (they fell short). So I thought, ‘we’ve seen movies about all that other stuff, I want to focus purely on process.’”
For his part, Sanchez feels jazz and movies essentially come from the same place. “There are so many similarities of what we do as jazz musicians and what filmmakers and actors do,” he says, “that I’m actually amazed that (jazz-influenced movies) haven’t happened more often, and sooner.”