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Wow, it is hard to believe this film was made in 1944. If it were released
today, sixty years later, it would still be regarded as stylish and
avant-garde. I caught this on a cable channel in the US called Turner
Classic Movies (TCM). It was the lead off short in a series of musical
shorts compiled to form a two or three hour special. I cannot stress how
ahead of it's time this film was. The photography was very clever, such as
using Lester Young's hat as a indefinable symbol in the opening shot,
pulling back as Lester raises his head revealing his face. A "jam" session
opens the short, Marie Bryant sings "On the Sunny Side of the Street" with
velvety perfection, then another number which features jitterbug dancers. A
good film to show today's artists that clever ideas didn't begin with their
Good news for Jazz fans, I understand Rhino has released a compilation titled Hollywood Swing & Jazz' comprised of numbers from these old musical shorts, which features, among others, the Marie Bryant number from this film.
Maybe the greatest film ever about jazz.
It IS jazz.
The opening shot continues to haunt my reverie.
Lester, of course, is wonderful and out of this world.
Jo Jones is always a delight (see The Sound of Jazz as well).
If you can, find the music; it's available on CD.
All lovers of jazz and film noir should study this tremendous jewel.
What shadows and light - what music - what a hat!
Simply but imaginatively filmed studio-set performance short, a perfect match of music and images that defines the very coolness of cool and the hipness of hip. The precise visual and musical arrangements give the lie to its claim to be a record of a jam session: what it is, is a pop video - every bit as stylised and knowing as that implies, and all the better for it. Among the very best music films ever made, and almost certainly the most cinematic. These cats are solid gone, daddy-o ...
Each of the major studios cranked out jazzy one-reelers throughout the
thirties and forties (with Universal taking the lead). While most
looked as cheap on screen as they were to make, Warner Bros. (which
abruptly stopped making them in 1946) often distinguished theirs with
offbeat camera angles, mirrors and optical effects, thanks to some
creative directors like Jean Negulesco. It is fitting that the best of
this genre should come from this studio.
What sets "Jammin' The Blues" apart from the rest of the pack is that it more closely resembles an avant-garde experiment than a Hollywood musical. Filmed in July 1944, it transforms an ordinary jam session into a "trippy" dream-escape from war-time troubles, highlighted by the tune of "On The Sunny Side Of The Street". Gjon Mili and cameraman Robert Burkes (later to work with Hitchcock) were allowed plenty of artistic freedom, perhaps because Lester Young was not Glenn Miller and the studio could care less how he and his fellow musicians were presented. The optical printer is put to good use, with multiple images of the same performer appearing at once. (Norman McLaren really milked this process two decades later in "Pas De Deux", while Linwood Dunn's team achieved different effects in "Citizen Kane".) The strong emphasis on silhouettes and lit cigarette smoke was also ahead of its time; in some ways, this predated the psychedelic sixties, but with a distinctly forties film noir style.
This short was nominated for an Academy Award and I wish it had won! Basically a filmed jam session between some very talented musicians, including Lester Young and Joe Jones, the music is incredible! Hollywood quite often embraced Jazz (particularly animation, believe it or not) but this is a rare look on film at an improvisational jam. This has been added to the Film Preservation list and deservedly so. TCM runs this as filler periodically and runs it every March sometime for its' "31 Days of Oscar" tribute. From downtown at the buzzer, swish, nothing but net and the shot's so smooth, the net barely moved. Most solidly and highly recommended!!!
Back in the forties, jazz was still very much caught in the shadow of
its mothering countries determination that it was "the Devil's music",
and so was very often neglected to being heard only in brothels, cheap
bars, or if chance would have it, at home on your own record player
should you have been so fortunate to have such money combined with a
lack of reverence for current social climate. So, while it was becoming
common during Cinema's golden age to slap out these jazz/blues musical
shorts produced on low budgets and screened for the sake of making any
buck the production company could, the experience of going to see this
music performed on a giant screen where stars like Bogart and Hepburn
would grace nevertheless was a fantastic one. Nowadays of course, jazz
is very much regarded as stuffy old-man music that university
professors and neurotic Jewish comedians listen to in between Strauss
and Brahms. Not only this, but our very own 21st century devil music
has hours upon hours of footage devoted to it, live, staged or
otherwisemost of which exceeds the budget for Jammin' the Blues by
staggering amounts. Why then, when watching this sixty year old relic
do I get the impression that most music productions from here on in
went down, rather than up- hill? The answer of course lies heavily in
taste; many teenagers these days will look at this stuff and laugh
before logging into YouTube and watching the latest Chipmunk music
video, drooling over the tits, ass and "bling". But then, you have to
wonder if said video would ever be considered by the United States
National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or
aesthetically significant". The answer, in all likelihood, is a blunt
and simple no. But, I have to ask, why?
Well, simply put, Jammin' the Blues, although ostensibly a music video in all respects, is a little more than that. It defines an era, and it does so with an artistry that many films of the time were only just discoveringmainly in France. Combining the rhythm and blues of this great jazz band consisting of Lester Young, Red Callender, Harry Edison, Marlowe Morris, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel (who, being the only white man in the band, had to be casted in shadow as to preserve the nation's delirium that white and black people could not coexist in such a unit), Jo Jones, John Simmons, Illinois Jacquet, Marie Bryant, Archie Savage and Garland Finney, with the stylish film-noir-type cinematography implemented by first-time director Gjon Mili (primarily known for his still photography until this time), Jammin' the Blues not only captures these great musicians at their peak, but also defines a musical and social era, as well as a cinematic one. Opening with a simple shot relaying the titles for the film gradually pulling back to reveal Lester Young's hat just as he takes the lead before divulging in many great shots highlighting each of the players in interesting and complementary angles, Mili achieves something unique and interesting to watch, something that's culturally significant and, well, downright entertaining at the same time. Most importantly however is that it's perhaps one of the most succinct and memorable miniature portraits of the jazz-age (little of which was deemed appropriate for the screen until long after its heyday) known to exist. For that reason amongst a multitude of others, Jammin' the Blues is a rare treat for all music and cinema fans alike, offering ten minutes with Young and Callender and the gang as they tear it up one more time for old time's sake.
Jazz aficionados will treasure this classic short showing some of the
best men of jazz just doing their thing. It's like watching a no frills
music video today.
The jazz men give us an additional treat in the person of Marie Bryant who sings a classic version of On The Sunny Side Of The Street. I had never heard her sing before, Bryant sounds remarkably like Billie Holliday. That's a compliment folks.
Their instrumental work is tops as well. With the black cinema of its time fed a lot of white stereotypes, this film is to be watched and treasured. No great production values, just a lot of good music.
I have seen this ten minute short several times on T.C.M.it is a swinging
jam session featuring some of the GREATEST jazz musicians that every lived.
It has been told that when they filmed this short at the Warner Bro.studio lot that some of the great actors with Warner Bro. such as Humphrey Bogart, Bettie Davis, Edward G. Robinson Etc. stopped what they where doing to hear this jam session through out the day.
One damper on this short was the fact that Barney Kessell was filmed silhouetted so that a white musician was not identified playing with black musicians.
...may seem like an overstatement, but it is not.
What is so hard to comprehend is - why didn't they make more musical shorts like this? Wasn't the beauty of it totally apparent to everybody involved? I guess not. So many shorts were made for commercial reasons only, and with some luck there may be some artistic value in there. This is one exception - the only one? - where it seems they were the director had a vision and clearly could appreciate the music as art. Why didn't anybody ever think to shoot Lester or Charlie Parker on a live date? Crazy, man.
A pity there were no sequels. If you've seen anything of similar quality please share it!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Jammin' the Blues is an Oscar-nominated short from 1944 that is basically 10 minutes of improvisational jazz played in one long jam. Marie Bryant sings "The Sunny Side of the Street" at one point for the film's highlight then jitterbugs with Archie Savage to bring this most entertaining "jam session" to its exciting end. The director Gojn Mili was a photographer and that experience shows in some of the double exposure shots of some of the musicians that makes this one of the most innovative angles of the '40s. According to some notes I read one of the musicians was white and had to be filmed in silhouette in reflection of the social attitudes of the time. What a shame. Still, this most unusual film of the time is available on YouTube so if you love jazz, I suggest you seek it out there.
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