What Do Actual L.A. Jazz Musicians Think of La La Land's Portrayal of L.A. Jazz?

I enjoyed La La Land. As a jazz musician, jazz educator and sometime writer about jazz, I was surprised and compelled by director Damien Chazelle’s ambitious attempt to have a layered discussion about the merits of jazz in today's pop culture, and the difficulty of trying to be an artist of integrity in the difficult rat race undergirding the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It’s clear from this movie (as well as his previous critically acclaimed effort, Whiplash) that Chazelle is a big fan of jazz, and he wants others to learn to appreciate this worthy American art form.

I enjoyed the cinematography, the script and the acting, particularly from the amazing Emma Stone, whom I have now forgiven for trying to pass as a Hawaiian-Chinese-American woman in Aloha. (Disclaimer: I am of Hawaiian-Chinese-Japanese ancestry, so there.) I hope she wins an Oscar for her portrayal of Mia, the actress/barista who falls for Sebastian, the intense jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling in a scene from La La Land, filmed at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach
Ryan Gosling in a scene from La La Land, filmed at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach
Courtesy Lionsgate

It's remarkable to see a jazz-centric movie musical become so well-loved and honored by audiences and the film industry, earning $300 million so far at the box office and a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Music Score. But even as the film has no doubt helped to renew mainstream interest in jazz, many jazz musicians and aficionados have criticized La La Land for its heavy-handed and cliche-ridden portrayal of jazz music, particularly in the score composed by Justin Hurwitz.

Since La La Land ostensibly shines a spotlight on jazz as seen, heard and played by a musician (Gosling's Seb) who lives in Los Angeles, I reached out to actual jazz musicians who have called L.A. home, to see what they thought of the movie and its portrayal of jazz. Their opinions were, to put it mildly, mixed.

One of the first to publicly rail against the music in the film was noted jazz pianist, organist and composer Larry Goldings. "I want to feel something from songs," he tells me by phone. "Someone highly skilled in the areas of harmony, melody and orchestration has the power to make people really feel something deep and lasting. Sadly, what we have here is a missed opportunity to really emote with music, due to the composer lacking this skill set."

Larry GoldingsEXPAND
Larry Goldings
Lourdes Delgado

Goldings says this with the authority of someone whose own skills in this regard, as heard on his decades of work with jazz and pop artists from John Scofield to James Taylor, are beyond reproach. "I can't argue with people who were moved by the music [in La La Land]. But we're living in a culture of severely lowered standards. If people only knew how much deeper the experience could have been for them ..."

Bandleader John Daversa, whose recent large-ensemble album Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Music of The Beatles was nominated this year for three Grammy Awards, remarks that the score “sounds like well-produced musical theater music.” When I asked if the music was, to him, representative of jazz, he answered, “Not the music that I heard, no. That's not what I would think of as music that's really about purely the art form, the creativity, and the imagination and innovation [of jazz].”

Pianist Josh Nelson, who recently created his own jazz homage to his hometown of Los Angeles with a multimedia project called “The Sky Remains,” took issue with Seb’s proclamation of jazz as a dying art form that needs to be rescued. “Damien Chazelle is obviously a champion of jazz in some form,” Nelson says. “But to go ahead and champion it in a way where it's held on a pedestal by this frustrated jazz pianist who only sees the purist way of playing of music on a gig, and then alongside that tearing it down with phrases like 'Jazz is dead' … I get it, but that statement made me a little angry.”

It's not clear, however, that the audience is supposed to agree with Seb's grim "jazz is dead" proclamations. Chazelle himself seems to regard Seb’s uncompromising stance on jazz as a fatal flaw; in a recent interview with Billboard, he called Gosling’s character “kind of a fool” and compares him to “archivist-leaning jazz obsessives I like to make fun of because they think that something like [A Flock of Seagulls’] ‘I Ran’ is a crime against humanity.” Which begs the question: Is this movie that purportedly wants to defend and celebrate classic jazz actually trolling the traditionalists?

Trumpeter Bijon Watson played a significant albeit nonspeaking role in the movie as a jazz musician. He sees the storyline in more universal terms. “It definitely exemplifies the struggle of a jazz musician, but I think the jazz is really just a byproduct of [Seb’s] struggle,” he says. He is thankful for the opportunity he and other L.A. jazz musicians got to represent their music and their city, especially as he and many of his fellow musician-actors in the film also represent the African-American community. This is important in light of the rumblings from critics who would have preferred the lead role to have been played by a person of color. “You know, it's interesting, not to turn it into a black or white issue — but it was all white musicians who played [on the soundtrack], and in the movie it was all black guys on the stage,” Watson notes. “I’m sure the guys who played on the soundtrack wished that they were featured in the movie."

La La Land
La La Land
Courtesy Lionsgate

Other musicians found positives in La La Land's depiction of jazz. “It was good to see that a Thelonious Monk recording was featured in the movie,” notes Daniel Seeff, who is the West Coast director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, and also a successful jazz, rock and hip-hop bassist. In the film’s opening minutes, Seb is trying to learn how to play a difficult piano riff by Monk by incessantly listening to and rewinding the passage on a tape deck in his car while stuck in freeway traffic. Later, when Seb is having one of his "jazz is dead" debates with Keith, a rising jazz/pop crossover star (played convincingly by bona fide pop star John Legend), “Legend's character mentions that Ryan Gosling's character is too into Monk and Kenny Clarke,” Seeff notes, approving of the reference to Clarke, the bebop drummer who co-led the historic jam sessions with Monk in the ’40s at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. “At least they mentioned two great jazz musicians.”

“I really love the injection of that conversation, which is of us as musicians, as jazz musicians, as creative musicians,” says Kaveh Rastegar, bassist for the progressive jazz group Kneebody and current bassist for Legend (in real life, as well as acting onscreen in Keith’s band in the movie). “I feel like I've had that conversation with so many people.”

Rastegar also appreciated Seb’s inner conflict when he struggles with deciding to play music other than jazz. “My own opinion is that if you want to make anything of yourself as a musician, you've got to get over that question pretty quickly,” he said. “You’re going to see people doing something that's different from you and having success in it, and whether you agree with it or not, [maybe] you choose to participate in it. That so much of what this [professional musician's] life is.”

Drummer Peter Erskine has performed with a variety of jazz, pop and rock artists, including the legendary bands Weather Report and Steely Dan. He remains active as a jazz musician, recently releasing a new album, Second Opinion, on his own label. He has performed on countless movie soundtracks, including La La Land. Erskine defends the movie on its own merits. “I enjoyed the film. My wife and I enjoyed watching it very much,” he says. “It was a good story.” He says he is happy to have played on the soundtrack and to be part of such a successful film.

As for La La Land composer Hurwitz, Erskine is frank. “I’m sure that Justin would be the first to admit, and he would have to, that he's not a jazz musician, and the harmonic content of what he wrote betrays that. And so, the assembled musicians did the best we could, in the amount of time we had, to jazz it up a bit.” To illustrate his point, Erskine hums one of the melodies from the soundtrack. “You know, that ain't bebop.”

Peter ErskineEXPAND
Peter Erskine
Rob Shanahan

Hurwitz has defended attacks on his music by stating he and director Chazelle never wanted the music to be traditional. "Our challenge was to make a movie that didn't feel old-fashioned or a soundtrack, songs or score that wouldn't sound like they actually could have been in some of those older movies," Hurwitz told NPR in a recent interview. That’s a fair argument, and the best-known songs from the score (namely the Oscar-nominated “City of Stars” and “Audition”) are examples of tuneful, contemporary songwriting.

What can’t be ignored, however, is that despite La La Land's deliberate attempts to portray music that sounds something like jazz, it falls short, especially when compared with the lofty threshold of “pure jazz” espoused by the film’s protagonist. “He’s a Monk acolyte; he's crazy about Monk,” Erskine says of Gosling's character. “There's not much Monk, or sensibility of Monk [in the soundtrack]. I brought it up in the session. I thought this was supposed to be in the spirit of Monk, and the music didn't lend itself to that.”

What about the argument that Hurwitz or Chazelle didn’t want something traditional? My opinion is that any of the L.A.-based musicians mentioned in this article could have written something that would have better represented jazz, simultaneously respecting the harmonic knowledge and embrace of tradition favored by Seb, yet refreshed with the more modern aesthetics the filmmakers were apparently seeking.

Musical reservations aside, La La Land is a huge success story, and it will most likely win a ton of Oscars, including one for best score. It has made jazz trendy once again, which is great. But will its newfound popularity cultivate a disconnect between what people who saw the movie think of as jazz, and what those who are jazz's current keepers want it to be?

There’s a moment in the movie where Seb tells Mia, “This is Hollywood. They worship everything and they value nothing.” That probably applies to Hollywood's attitude toward jazz, as well.

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