With all due respect to Andrew (Miles Teller), the young drummer at the center of Whiplash, the next Charlie Parker probably won’t come out of a music conservatory. Charlie Parkers never seem to come out of such environments.
No, the elite musicians that come out of such places are the people that can play Charlie Parker, and rehash the leavings of decades-gone giants. I’m not in touch with the workings of the modern New York jazz scene, but playing a good version of Caravan to a sparsely attended concert hall, no matter how prestigious, probably won’t affect the trajectory of music in any appreciable way.
I think deep down Andrew knows this. Part of his obsession with the ruthless Fletcher (J. K. Simmons, expanding what’s possible in acting with every scene) is not to improve into a great musician. What he’s after is validation. Andrew is an elite musician, who can expect to perform jazz at finest music halls in New York, thus the world, after graduation. Fletcher here is an arbiter of taste. Someone who knows just how rare such talent is, and someone enjoys manipulating their pupils into an almost suicidal routine for any hope of achieving that approval. Fletcher repeatedly sets up Andrew with warm praise to lower his defenses and then savages his young charge.
There are countless legends of how exactly Charlie Parker became “Bird.” Most focus on the nickname. A chirp when he played, the club of a residency, etc… Fletcher has his own, although it side steps the nickname. He’s more interested in the event that made Charlie Parker into the great musician. Multiple times he recounts the legend of Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at a 16-year old Parker’s head for missing the beat, nearly decapitating the boy. Instead of getting discouraged, Parker’s resolved only strengthened and from that defeat he emerged the greatest musician of America’s greatest musical artform.
But there holes in this story. By most accounts Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s feet. The sound of the crash humiliating the child who immediately left the stage. More importantly it points that Fletcher has given up on being the next Charlie Parker. The best he can hold out for is to be a Jo Jones: a footnote of dubious value in the formation of a great.
In Andrew, Fletcher finds not just a musical talent, but a person willing to feed on abuse. In turn Fletcher pours his bile. Rather than shrinking, Andrew’s personality grows adversarial and hostile both amongst his classmates and into his personal life. Relationships are offered as bloody sacrifice to the altar of great musicianship.
Of course Fletcher is not appeased. In the uncharted territory of having a student so devoted to his challenges, Fletcher only redoubles. His war of wills eventually grows larger than the classroom and out into the professional world where losing would entail getting shut out from the elite seats of the premiere concert halls.
In a telling sequence we get to see Fletcher display that unadorned approval. It comes posthumously, for a former student who died after reaching first chair at Carnegie Hall. He plays a mournful solo for his class, explaining the details of the life and the former student’s struggles at the academy. But that an elite musician needed such introductions to be identified to a roomful aspirant elite musicians probably speaks to their future outcomes as well.