'Whiplash' has ties to Towson University

Baltimore has a rooting interest in this year's Oscar race. "Whiplash," which has been nominated in five Academy Award categories, including best picture, has a direct connection to Charm City, and especially to its jazz community and to Towson University.

The movie's title song, which figures prominently in the story set in a rigorous music conservatory, was penned by a Baltimore-born jazz great, the late Hank Levy.


Levy, who died in 2001 at age 73, directed Towson University's jazz studies program and founded its jazz orchestra, which is currently led by Jim McFalls.

Levy was best known in wider jazz circles as a composer for big bands led by Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. "His specialty was writing music for big bands in odd meters," said McFalls, the acting head of Towson's jazz/commercial division. "It was something that big bands didn't often do."

Levy originally wrote many of his compositions to teach his students, McFalls said, which makes "Whiplash," a characteristically oddly metered composition, an appropriate choice for its use in a conservatory setting.

McFalls hasn't seen "Whiplash," and from everything he's heard about the movie, which depicts a student-teacher relationship bordering on sadism, he remains leery. "It doesn't really accurately depict jazz education at the moment," McFalls said.

McFalls said he was glad his former colleague was getting some long-overdue attention. He just didn't want anyone to confuse Levy with Fletcher, the tyrannical music instructor played by odds-on best supporting actor Oscar favorite J.K. Simmons.

"I'd hate for [audiences] to think that [Fletcher] was based on Hank Levy. My encounters with him over the years were nothing of the kind," McFalls said. "He was demanding, but never once did I see any kind of disrespect."


For more Oscars coverage, turn to the 56-page Envelope special section included in this weekend's editions.