In recent days we’ve brought you documentary films exploring the birthplace of the blues and the genius of Theonious Monk. Today, we feature one of the most stylish jazz films ever made: Jammin’ the Blues, directed by Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili in 1944.
Born in Albania and trained as an engineer, Mili worked closely with the famed MIT researcher and inventor Harold Edgerton to develop stop-action strobe photography. At Life, Mili used his technical wizardry to create a distinctive aesthetic style. High in contrast and razor-sharp, Mili’s pictures often reveal athletes, dancers and other performers at moments of peak action. He sometimes used a rapid series of flashes to trace the evolution of a motion or gesture. His most famous images feature brightly rim-lit subjects against a background of pure black.
In 1944, Warner Brothers commissioned Mili to bring his trademark style to the movies. Jammin’ the Blues looks as though it jumped right from the pages of Life. As the film fades in, we see only a pair of concentric circles, a pure abstraction. The camera pulls back to reveal the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young in his pork pie hat. Young is soon joined by a group of top musicians, including Red Callender, Sweets Edison, Marlowe Morris, Sidney Catlett, Barney Kessel, Marie Bryant and Joe Jones. A spirited “jam session” is on.
Despite the improvisational nature of the subject, Jammin’ the Blues was painstakingly constructed from many shots, with the performers moving in synch to a pre-recorded soundtrack. The cinematography is by Robert Burks, who went on to be the director of photography on many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including North by Northwest and Vertigo.
Jammin’ the Blues runs an exhilarating 10 minutes, and has been added to our archive of Free Movies.