Watch ‘Jammin’ the Blues,’ One of the Most Stylish Jazz Films Ever Made (1944)

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.

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  • Jam­min the Blues takes me back seems so long ago..this film pre­ceeds the bee bop era and is for the purist in old time jazz..just a step ahead of New Orleans..I played some gui­tar in those days and did some jam­min while in the ser­vice but not in any class with these guys..sure di love to hear it again and again..

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