The informant – N – is a 20-year-old white male, born and raised in Los Angeles. He is currently a sophomore at the USC Thornton School of Music studying jazz drum set. He is my roommate and one of my closest friends. Because N has studied jazz for a long time and currently studies under jazz legend, Peter Erskine, I asked him if there were any legends or stories that he’s heard that could be considered jazz folklore.
N: Well, I think the most classic jazz legend is the story of when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head during a jam session. The story goes, a sixteen-year-old Charlie Parker shows up to a jam session where Jo Jones is part of the house band. Charlie Parker’s been shedding a bunch of “groundbreaking” hip harmony shit (said sarcastically), but when he goes up to the band stand, he folds on the changes and loses the form. Then, apparently, Jo Jones stopped playing in the middle of the tune and threw a cymbal at Parker’s head. Parker left the jam session, swearing that he’d be back. And apparently that’s what motivated him to lock himself in the woodshed for a year, and that’s why he’s such a legend now.
Me: Do you think that story really happened?
N: Well the movie Whiplash made that version of the story famous, but I’ve heard versions where he just threw the cymbal at his feet, or where he threw his stick bag at him, and the whole audience laughed. I’m sure some version of the story probably happened, but I doubt it’s as dramatic as everyone says.
Me: Why do you think the story has gained so much popularity?
N: I think probably because of Whiplash mainly. And since it’s so dramatic, people always love the stories that make the old cats seem badass.
In addition to its inclusion in Whiplash, I think this legend is likely so popular because it provides lore to the elitist and cutthroat atmosphere of jazz culture. I think it’s a legend that band directors will tell students to ensure that they practice sufficiently before going to jam sessions. Also, it’s a nice story of someone letting an embarrassing situation motivate them, acting as a catalyst for them becoming a legend. I also think it’s interesting that N sarcastically referred to young Charlie Parker as groundbreaking, seemingly implying that the music has come so far since then that it’s humorous to think of Parker’s bebop playing as groundbreaking.