Drummer Peter Erskine on Jazz Flick 'Whiplash'

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Drummer Peter Erskine began his professional career as a teenager, putting in three years with the famed California jazz bandleader Stan Kenton before making the generational leap to Weather Report, the fusion supergroup that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius. He was with that band for four years and five albums before moving on to more than 600 recordings ranging from Barbra Streisand to Kate Bush. Last October, Erskine released "No Beethoven: An Autobiography & Chronicle of Weather Report" detailing his illustrious career on the stage.

For the last 10 years, Erskine has served as the director of drumset studies at USC's Thornton School of Music. This varied experience behind the kit and in front of the classroom has made him the perfect candidate to discuss the new film "Whiplash," the Sundance stunner about a young drummer (Miles Teller) under the inescapable and abusive lure of his band director (J.K. Simmons). Erskine recently participated in filming bonus features for the film's DVD release but his opinion of the film was not solicited until now.

Peter Erskine
Peter Erskine.

Have you ever encountered an educator like JK Simmons's band director character before?

I've played under the baton of stern and demanding conductors, as well as the critical ears of some pretty tough bandleaders. I've always experienced equal amounts of praise and criticism from the toughest of them. A conductor or bandleader will only get good results if he or she shows as much love or enthusiasm as the discipline or toughness they dole out. Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals -- such bands will never win (the judges will see to that).

What impression of jazz studies do you think the general public will come away with from watching the film?

I'm disappointed that any viewer of the film will not see the joy of music-making that's almost always a part of large-ensemble rehearsals and performances. Musicians make music because they LOVE music. None of that is really apparent in the film, in my opinion.

Also, the misrepresentation of the Jo Jones throwing the cymbal at Charlie Parker's feet anecdote may well lead people to thinking that Jo Jones did indeed, as JK Simmons' character avers, try to decapitate Charlie Parker at that epochal jam session in Kansas City where a very real Charlie Parker attempted to play some of his double-time / new harmony improvisation and more or less flubbed it. Papa Jo eventually tossed a cymbal towards Charlie Parker's young feet in a "gonging" motion to get him off the bandstand. Jazz masters could be tough, but the movie gets that story all wrong.

Peter Erskine, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock
Peter Erskine, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock.

What did you think of Teller's performance as a drummer?

It's a movie, and the actor did a good job. The drummer(s) who did the pre-record did a very fine job. Teller is a good actor. He's a so-so drummer: his hands are a mess in terms of technique, holding the sticks, etc., and no true fan of Buddy Rich would ever set up his or her drums in the manner that Teller's character does in the film. A 10" tom? Highly-angled? With a crash cymbal at that angle? Nope, doesn't wash. Besides, that "winning" drum solo performance at the end of the film is a very passé sort of thing. If the film takes place "now," any drummer playing like that at a competitive jazz festival --especially one in New York City -- would get a cymbal thrown at their feet by the ghost of Papa Jo Jones, or I'd do it for him. Now I know how professional photographers must feel when they see an actor portraying a scene like a photo shoot where the photographer never bothers to focus any of the shots he or she is taking.

What did you think of the visual presentation of jazz in the film?

Considering that the film was shot in a (reportedly) short amount of time, I think the director and editor did a very good job. A drummer crawling out of a major car wreck and then somehow managing to get himself on-stage to play, bleeding and injured, in that all-important regional big band competition (where there are no other bands apparent?) Hardly. Musicians sitting there all stony-faced while the bandleader or conductor raises his fist to stop the band over and over again. Jazz has too many free spirits for that kind of behavior to fly. I've never seen a band act like that, or "live" music sound so "drop the needle." Also: if someone wants to test my ability to play a tempo: give me 4 beats, not just two -- YOU don't even know the tempo with that kind of a count-off, Mr. Band Director.

Hank Levy And Peter Erskine
Hank Levy And Peter Erskine.

What is the ultimate goal of a college band director?

To inspire his or her students to get the MOST out of music, by GIVING the most to music. To, yes, inspire and instill a sense of discipline and responsibility, but to show students the rewards of concentration and playing well and working as a team. At the same time, developing any latent improviser's confidence and belief in their own solo voice, all the while increasing the musicians' vocabulary and knowledge of the language of the music. That's what I try to do at the Thornton School of Music at USC, and I know that my colleague professors including Bob Mintzer, Alan Pasqua, Patrice Rushen and Chris Sampson all do the same. I can't imagine our dean Rob Cutietta putting up with an ounce of the behavior portrayed in the film. But, like I said: it's fantasy, it's Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the one very real detail in the film -- the big band chart titled "Whiplash" which serves as inspiration and background to the movie -- is a kick for me because the composer and arranger of that piece, the late Hank Levy, worked a lot with the Stan Kenton Orchestra (while I was a member beginning at age 18) as well as with the Don Ellis Orchestra (who recorded "Whiplash" back in 1974 or so; Ralph Humphrey was the original drummer on that). Hank was a lovely man and he got all of his student bands to sound incredible. 

Peter Erskine w/ Maynard Ferguson, 1976 | Source: petererskine.com
Peter Erskine with Maynard Ferguson, 1976. | Photo: petererskine.com

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