Directed by Gjon Mili
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1995
What It’s About:
Jammin’ the Blues is a 1944 short film that features several acclaimed jazz musicians of the day performing three different songs. The film portrays the performances in a rather stylized way that is somewhat reminiscent of a modern music video.
Context and Significance:
Jammin’ the Blues was nominated for the 1944 Oscar for “Best Live Action Short Subject, One-Reel.”
The audio for the music was recorded first, which was then played back for the musicians while their performance was captured on film.
Since the film included a white guitarist (Barney Kessel) performing with an otherwise all-black cast of musicians, the producer of the film was worried that it would be controversial in the South, where many people favored segregation. However, the director (who openly opposed segregation) was insistent that Kessel (a talented guitarist) should be in the film. As a compromise, Kessel was allowed to be in the film, but he was kept in the shadows, so that it wasn’t clear that he was white.
The full list of performers in the film includes: Lester Young, Red Callender, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Marlowe Morris, “Big” Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Barney Kessel, John Simmons, Illinois Jacquet, Marie Bryant, and Archie Savage.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m incredibly unfamiliar with jazz music (both its history, and the genre in general). While I have nothing against it, it’s not one of my go-to music genres. That said, this was a fun film to watch. As I mentioned above, it feels like watching an old-timey music video. The shots alternate between light and dark backgrounds, the angle and placing of the camera varies throughout the film, we get a lot of extreme close-ups of the various musicians performing on their instruments mixed in with wider shots of the whole ensemble, and we even get some visual effects, as certain images are repeated multiple times on screen. In general, the visuals enhance the music, and provide for a better experience than just listening to the music alone (something that can’t be said about some modern music videos.)
Jammin’ with the Blues is available on YouTube:
I initially hunted it down on a DVD though, since there seemed to be a discrepancy between sources about its length. The official website for the National Film Registry mentioned that it was 20 minutes long, but IMDb listed it as 10 minutes. I found a video of the film a few places online, and each video was 10 minutes, but since I knew that online uploads are often incomplete/unreliable, I decided to find one of the DVDs that it was included on, and watch it there. I can confirm that the NFR website seems to be in error, and that it is indeed 10 minutes. Should you prefer a physical copy for some reason, Wikipedia lists this film as being available on the following DVDs: Jammin’ With the Greats, Passage to Marseille (which is where I found it), Norman Granz: Improvisation, and Blues in the Night.
Information sources and additional resources:
- Wikipedia page for Jammin’ the Blues: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jammin%27_the_Blues
- An article about Jammin’ the Blues from the University of Missouri – Kansas City: https://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/archives/3271
- Another blog post about Jammin’ the Blues: https://lifeasahuman.com/2010/arts-culture/music/jammin-the-blues/