Jammin’ the Blues is near-legendary piece of jazz art. Made in 1944, nominated for an Acadamy Award, and described by Turner Movie Classics as “one of the greatest of all jazz films” – it came into being when innovative photographer Gjon Mili, and Jazz producer Norman Granz joined forces to recreate on film a jam session of the type that was popular in the 30s and 40s. With a stellar cast of musicians and dancers, the result was a beautiful landmark in jazz movie-making, the like of which has never been done since.
Oh – and it’s only viewable on standard definition, in only passable quality. Which, of course, makes it a prime candidate for some upscaling work to try and bring out the real beauty of the film for everyone to enjoy.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with this incredible piece of visual art – it truly was a landmark film. It was the first truly artistic jazz feature that focussed solely on the music and the performers. In defiance of the studio’s best efforts, it featured an integrated cast. It is utterly beautiful – the stark use of black and white, the creativity and imagination behind it, curls of smoke drifting across the screen, the gorgeous dancing from Marie Bryant and Archie Savage… the more I’ve worked on the film, the more I’ve grown to love it.
Let’s Start At the End
Here’s the exciting bit. I recommend watching this full-screen. Sadly, a YouTube version is not possible at this time.
Making Jammin’ the Blues
It all began in July 1944, when Mili – known as one of the most stylistically advanced photographers of his day (as a side note, I highly recommend seeking out some of his utterly stunning photographic work), was invited to L.A by Warner Brothers to make a short film on a subject of his choosing – they wanted to know if he was director material. As luck would have it, he was a lover of jazz, who had already photographed a number of jam sessions with greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Mary Lou Williams – so while in L.A, when a friend invited him to a jazz concert, he was only too happy to go. That concert was Jazz at the Philharmonic – one of the first in a series organised by up-and-coming jazz producer Norman Granz. Mili was so impressed, that he approached Granz to suggest they work together to create a jazz film.
Granz chose a top-notch cast of musicians and dancers:
- Lester Young (“Prez”)– sax
- Red Callender – bass
- Harry Edison – trumpet
- Marlowe Morris – piano
- “Big” Sid Catlett – drums
- Barney Kessel – guitar
- Jo Jones – drums
- John Simmons – bass
- Illinois Jacquet – sax
- Marie Bryant – vocals and dance
- Archie Savage – dance
Bumps in the Road
By all accounts, it was a miracle that the film was ever made, let along completed. First problem – Warner Brothers did not like the inclusion of Kessel, who was white. They did not want to risk a mixed race cast – a huge deal at the time, which they felt could cost them in terms of potential audiences. The jazz world, in the main, judged by talent and not by colour – but sadly, this didn’t apply to the wider attitudes of the 1940s. Granz, who was responsible for hiring the musicians, refused to replace him. He insisted that Kessel was the best man for the job, and he did want a mixed-race cast – he was strongly opposed to segregation (and would be actively working against it within a few years). The compromise reached was that Kessel would be hidden in the shadows, never showing his face. Kessel recalled later that his fingers were darkened with berry juice to further disguise his colour – although in the finished film that doesn’t seem to be obviously the case. While we do not see his face in the finished film, Mili does appear to delight in hiding Kessel in plain sight – with a fair focus on Kessel’s guitar playing during the final number.
Granz and Mili slipped a little more subversion into the opening voiceover:
This is a jam session. Quite often, these great artists gather and play, ad-lib, hot music. It could be called a Midnight Symphony.
Not mentioning that the performers were black, apparently violated Hollywood conventions of the time – but rather than follow those conventions, the introduction describes the performers simply as “these great artists”. To us today, this seems completely fitting. Back then by all accounts, it was not the done thing.
Another point of contention was over the best way to record the music. The standard of the time was to pre-record the musicians, then film the musicians miming to it. Granz and Mili wanted to create a jam session that felt as natural and as close to the real thing as possible, and they believed the pre-recording approach wasn’t going to work with improvised jazz. In the end, they met half-way – they held a recording session in the first two weeks of August, then filmed the rest mid-way through September – and some of the music, including the drum solos, was to be recorded during filming. Barney Kessel recalled later that some of the musicians found it impossible to visually recreate the recordings that they’d done before. Harry Edison later contested this, but whatever the reason, there are times when musicians do not appear to be playing the same music we can hear. One upside is that in the first recording session, they recorded far too much music – and there is an album available if you want to listen to it.
Warner Brothers wanted dancers (according to one report, they actually wanted “hundreds of jitterbug dancers in a gigantic spectacle of rhythm”, which makes one wonder if they had any clue what a jam session actually was). Mili and Granz did not want dancers at all. The compromise here was to include two dancers – and personally, I love the way the dancers are used, and feel they only improve the film. I’m also glad we get to see more of the wonderful Marie Bryant’s talents – you can also watch her dance with Harold Nicholas in the Mr Beebe routine, amongst other places.
There were other fun episodes – the first filming session saw the studio unexpectedly inviting a studio audience for the first filming session (it didn’t help they laid on food and drink, which saw some of the musicians drunk before filming even started – the session ended up a complete washout). On day two, Granz found out that the musicians were being underpaid, and threatened to withdraw them until that was put right. According to one source, Humphrey Bogart visited the set and pulled some strings to ensure the musicians made more money than originally promised. The buzz created by the filming was huge, even drawing visitors such as Bette Davis to the set.
It sounds like by the end Warner Brothers were a little fed up with Granz – who was, it has to be said, relatively unknown at this point in his career, and they reportedly banned him from their studios for life after the film was complete.
I was going to go chapter and verse describing the ins and outs of upscaling this film. The history chronicled above is far more interesting than all the geekery though, so I’ll keep it brief.
I honestly thought this would be easier than the Hellzapoppin’ work – after all – there’s no retiming to be done, and I’d learned all the hard stuff – I just wanted the resolution to be better (note to self – upscaling from 480p to 2K is not sensible) and the framerate to be better to make it all look smoother (especially the dancing. And the smoke curls drifting across the screen). Anyway – I’d done it once, so it would be easier this time around, yes?
First step – find the best possible source material (hint – it is not YouTube, and it is not the Jammin’ the Blues DVD, which is a criminally terrible transfer). The one I settled on comes from the Blues in the Night DVD, for the curious. I owe thanks to Nick Rossi and Tom Samuels for putting me onto that one.
Second step – Jammin’ the Blues from the DVD. Easy.
Third step – begin the process of experimenting, upscaling, going back to the drawing board, more upscaling, sending the latest iteration to a small and long suffering group to check out, realising there’s a better way to do things and starting from scratch, being told that the audio sync is now messed up, fixing it, discovering that the way I extracted it from the DVD cost it some video quality so going back to step 2 (aka starting from scratch AGAIN) and so on and so forth.
The visibility of Prez’ pinstripes became a major issue, as did Rife’s tendency to move them around at random.
Just occasionally, for a frame or two.
Purely to torture me.
And please don’t get me started on Marie Bryant’s magical sentient polka dots.
There may have been some swearing involved from time to time. I think it’s been worth it though.
I hope you enjoy the results. For a bit of fun, here’s a comparison between the new and old versions. As before, if you want to really see the difference, watch full-screen, preferably on a large monitor.
I owe a huge debt of thanks to Nick Rossi for all his help and untiring willingness to look at version after version after version, and patiently give essential feedback, and for all his historical knowledge, research and advice.
Maybe one day, Warner Brothers will give us a proper high definition transfer of this extraordinary film. Until that time though, I hope that this project will give an idea of what that could be like.
- Jammin’ the Blues (Scripts and Grooves) – https://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/archives/3271
- Jammin’ the Blues (Library of Congress) – https://www.loc.gov/item/jots.200016498/
- Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young – Dave Gelly
- Normal Granz: The Man who used Jazz for Justice – Tad Hershorn
- Disintegrating the Musical: Black performance and American Musical Film – Arthur Knight
AKA the sad story of why this is not on YouTube – in short, it is blocked for copyright reasons. I recognise that Warner Brothers have every right to do this. There are low quality versions available there, which are not blocked for reasons I can only speculate on – and I suspect that if I had a YouTube partner account, there might be a way for me able to share it there. Until such a time though (and at the moment, that doesn’t seem like a very likely prospect), Vimeo is the best option.