Jammin' the Blues
By the time Norman Granz completed production work on Jammin’ the Blues, Warner Bros paid him $240 and banned him from their lot for the rest of his life. Granz was only 26 at the time, but as Tad Hershorn’s new biography of the jazz impresario underscores, he was already willful, defiant, and principled-- and he got results. In this case, he insisted that the players in the movie, a group of “jive musicians, both colored and white,” as described in a memo to Jack Warner, be paid the same as a pair of dancers who were inserted at the studio’s insistence. The dancers were getting $50 per day; the musicians only $30. Granz threatened to pull the musicians off the set, which prompted WB studio exec Gordon Hollingshead to counter, “You’ll never work in Hollywood again.” But the “jive” cats got their money.
What resulted was a one-of-a-kind stylized jam session directed by Gjon Mili, who employed what Walter Winchell called “a new sort of camera teknik [sic],” and music that Leonard Feather called the “best intimate jazz ever recorded for a movie.” Mili was an Albanian-born photographer who studied engineering at MIT and experimented with ultra-high-speed electronic flash. By the late 30’s he’d become renowned for his camera work, and his love of jazz was evident in the series of staged jam sessions he'd photographed for Life. Mary Lou Williams played off this phenomenon in her composition, “Gjon Mili Jam Session.”
In 1944, Warner Bros invited Mili to Los Angeles to create a film on a short subject of his choice. While there he attended Granz’s inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert on July 2, and upon meeting that afternoon, the two struck the idea of making a jazz film. Granz recruited Lester Young, his favorite tenor player, and fellow Basie-ites Harry “Sweets” Edison, Dicky Wells, and Jo Jones. In one of the film’s ingenious sequences, the drummer Sid Catlett, who appeared as something of a representative for Louis Armstrong (Warner’s choice to star in the movie), hands off his sticks to Jones in a seamless transition epitomizing the hip style of jazzmen.
As befitting a music whose economical form was dictated by the limits of the three-minute, 78 rpm record, Jammin’ the Blues packs three tunes and lots of action into its ten-minute length. Marie Bryant, who sings “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and dances an amazing lindy hop with Archie Savage, had appeared in the Los Angeles production of Duke Ellington’s 1941 musical Jump for Joy, and later became the first black dance director at MGM. Hershorn reports in Norman Granz: The Man Who Used for Jazz for Justice that Bryant was his first girlfriend. Illinois Jacquet, whose high note histrionics on July 2 came to epitomize the more frenzied elements of JATP, was paired with Young in tribute to the legendary tenor saxophone battles that since the early 30’s had pitted Lester against Coleman Hawkins, Dick Wilson, Ben Webster and others.
At least one on-screen concesssion was made to the racism of the era: In order to assure that the film would be screened in Southern theaters, guitarist Barney Kessel was shown only in profile and his hands were colored with berry juice to obscure his identity as the sole white man in the group.
All of this comes encased in a cinematic work of art that received favorable notice in the national press and extensive distribution through its pairing with the Humphrey Bogart feature Passage to Marseille. Jammin' the Blues was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Subject in 1945.
There’s nothing like seeing the stark, noir-like quality of Mili's masterpiece on the big screen, so be sure to join us on Monday at Amherst Cinema for this and another Oscar-nominated jazz documentary, A Great Day in Harlem. They complement each other beautifully: Jammin’ was the only movie directed by Mili, who continued to work for Life until his death in 1984; Great Day, on the other hand, is the feature-length film made about a single photo image, Art Kane's picture of 56 jazz musicians gathered in front of a Harlem brownstone in 1958. Lester Young’s indelible in that one too.