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Selections from the National Film Registry
Remind Me

Jammin' the Blues

Friday December 30 2:15 a.m. ET

The two men to whom we owe one of the greatest of all jazz films were Gjon Mili (1904-1984), an Albanian-born photographer, and Norman Granz (1918-2001), an American jazz-concert promoter and record producer. Mili, a pioneer in the use of flash and strobe lights in photography, had established himself as one of Life magazine's most valuable freelancers. The October 11, 1943, Life contained a photo spread by Mili called "Jam Session," featuring an astounding array of jazz artists of the period, including Lee Wiley, Jess Stacy, Cozy Cole, Duke Ellington, Eddie Condon, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, and James P. Johnson.

On July 2, 1944, Granz, then a 25-year-old jazz enthusiast working as an assistant cutter at MGM, organized the first of what would be a long series of Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts in Los Angeles. The inspiration for the format came from the Sunday jam sessions to which Granz had been introduced by drummer Lee Young, brother of tenor star Lester Young. Angry at the treatment accorded jazz musicians, especially African Americans, in white-owned nightclubs (which also frequently barred African Americans from entering as customers), Granz featured racially mixed bands, insisted on integrated audiences, and secured fair pay and accommodations for the musicians. According to Granz (quoted in To Be, Or Not... To Bop, by Dizzy Gillespie and Al Fraser), "The whole reason for JATP, basically, was to take it to places where I could... break down segregation and discrimination, present good jazz, and make bread for myself and for the musicians as well."

The success of the initial JATP concert led rapidly to the Warner Bros. short Jammin' the Blues (1944), which was conceived as a filmic account of a jam session. Granz, credited as "Technical Director," assembled the musicians for the film: tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet, trumpeter Harry Edison, guitarist Barney Kessel, pianist Marlowe Morris, bassists Red Callender and John Simmons, drummers Sidney Catlett and Jo Jones, and vocalist Marie Bryant, who is also seen jitterbugging with Archie Savage. As director, Mili imposed on the film an abstract visual style using completely empty backgrounds of sheer white or black, a mobile camera, and freely imaginative lighting schemes that somehow respected the humanity of his subjects. The cinematography was entrusted to Robert Burks, who would later shoot most of Alfred Hitchcock's films from Strangers on a Train (1951) through Marnie (1964).

The pretension to capture the spontaneity of a jam session (declared in the film's opening voice-over narration) would seem to have called for long-take synchronous filming and sound recording in a "live" situation, but Jammin' the Blues was made in the manner customary for musical sequences in Hollywood films, with the music recorded prior to shooting and then played back on the set for the musicians to perform to. According to Charles Emge, writing in Down Beat magazine: "Granz had phonograph recordings made of the solos so that the boys could take them home and memorize them." For the drum parts, which were "especially difficult to synchronize, good results were obtained by Granz by recording some of the more complicated passages, such as 'rolls,' on the set during shooting and dubbing these sections into the track."

On the grounds that Southern audiences would object to his appearance alongside the black musicians, the studio (Emge writes) asked Granz "to eliminate Barney Kessel or to get a Negro guitarist to 'fake' his playing in the picture. Granz refused but had to be satisfied with photography that hides the fact that Kessel is white from all but the most discerning eyes." The writer refers to the extreme directional lighting on Kessel during the song "Jammin' the Blues," which renders the guitarist mostly as a neon-like outline, or, in closeups of his hands, pours so much light on them that their natural skin shade becomes hard to determine. In a penetrating essay on the film, Arthur Knight observes that although Kessel is present on the soundtrack in the performance of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," the film alludes to his absence from the image by framing an empty chair at the center of the group of musicians. The chair, in Knight's view, is a symbolic protest against both the racist censorship that kept Kessel out of the shot and, by extension, the deeper racism that kept African Americans off screen or segregated in most Hollywood films about musicians.

Together with Delmer Daves's Dennis Morgan-Eleanor Parker vehicle The Very Thought of You(1944), Jammin' the Blues played as part of a special show honoring war workers at two Los Angeles theaters on November 9, 1944. It went into general release the following month, playing in some theaters together with To Have and Have Not(1944) -- a program made in heaven, all the more appropriate because the Howard Hawks masterpiece, exceptionally for the period, emphasizes the racially mixed clientele of its main nightclub location.

Jammin' the Blues stands alone in film history. No one before had filmed jazz musicians in this way. Yet it's a testimony to Mili's achievement that the artists in the film look so comfortable, so natural, so themselves in the completely abstract environment he builds around them. Mili makes the musicians' communication with and appreciation of one another the central theme of the film. This theme reaches a high point in the interplay between Lester Young and Marie Bryant during "On the Sunny Side of the Street": Mili cuts away from Bryant singing (against a white background) to show Young (black background) listening and lighting a cigarette; then, during Young's solo, there is a bravura two-shot composition with Young playing in the foreground as Bryant watches admiringly from the background.

Bryant, by the way, was a distinctive and underappreciated singer, as her guest spot in Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949) confirms. She later had a more productive, though little publicized, career as a choreographer and dance instructor to such stars as Betty Grable, Vera-Ellen, and Ava Gardner. In Jammin' the Blues, her dance partner is Archie Savage, who had appeared in Orson Welles's famous all-black Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth in 1936. Savage had a minor career in Hollywood before relocating to Rome, where his first film assignments were a brief appearance in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1960) and what amounted to the hero role in Antonio Margheriti's Space Men (Assignment Outer Space, 1960).

Mili's training as a still photographer does not let him neglect the factor of time in Jammin' the Blues. He links the three songs in the film in logical sequence by having Bryant saunter across the set during the first number, "Midnight Symphony," in which she does not perform, and by having drummer Sid Catlett (who has played on the first two songs) hand off his sticks to Jo Jones at the start of "Jammin' the Blues." An extraordinary moment of suspense occurs when, as Bryant starts singing "On the Sunny Side of the Street," the camera holds for a prolonged time on pianist Marlowe Morris before tilting up to frame the inside of the raised piano lid, on which Bryant's horizontal reflection wavers hypnotically. The slow dissolve from this startling image to a closeup of Bryant is one of the peaks of the film.

Young's famous pork pie hat is the first thing seen. The film gives the saxophonist a privileged place, and his persona brings to the screen the hint of a new cultural undercurrent. As Krin Gabbard writes in Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema, "The dour tenorist indelibly marks the film with the image of an avant-garde, hipster artist." Gabbard quotes jazz critic Francis Davis, who claims that Young was "the first black musician to be publicly recognized not as a happy-go-lucky entertainer... but as an artist of the demi-monde whose discontents magnified those felt in general by his race." In Jammin' the Blues, Young's performance is devastating. As he did regularly in his recordings, he imbues his few choruses with a totally personal time feeling and an exquisite tone. As a visual presence, he is cool before cool was in. He is not the prisoner of the film, nor is he above the film: he is totally at one with the film. And the film knows who he is and recognizes how special he is.

Less than two months after he worked on the film, Young reported for induction in the U.S. Army. That was the beginning of a 14-month ordeal that he later called "a nightmare, man, one mad nightmare." He was not the same after that.

Producer: Gordon Hollingshead Director: Gjon Mili Technical Director: Norman Granz Cinematography: Robert Burks Film Editing: Everett Dodd Art Direction: Roland Hill Cast: Lester Young, Marie Bryant, Harry Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Marlowe Morris, Barney Kessel, Sidney Catlett, Jo Jones, Red Callender, John Simmons, Archie Savage. BW-11m.

by Chris Fujiwara