Friday, March 20, 2015

Gjon Mili: When Jazz, Film and Photography Meet

Gjon Mili [pic above] is the photographer/filmmaker whose single cinematic achievement, Jammin' the Blues, changed the history of jazz on film. By bringing authenticity and artistic vision to capturing a performance on film, Mili was probably the first filmmaker who ever thought of transposing jazz, as an art form, into cinema.

Commissioned by Warner Bros. in 1944, Mili who was left free to choose the subject of his first short, turned to Norman Granz and asked him to put together a group of jazz musicians for a film which was meant to reconstruct the feeling of jazz after hours.

Granz not only invited some of his JATP stars, but also included some of the older, non-JATP musicians such as Sid Catlett (the original plan was to have Louis Armstrong on-board). The shooting was wrapped up in four sessions and the film reached the screens in December 1944 to critical acclaim. It was even nominated for an Oscar but lost it to Who's Who in Animal Land!

the last shot of Jammin' the Blues

70 years onwards, the UCLA film archive has restored the film and it's going to be screened as a part of the programme curated by me and Jonathan Rosenbaum for Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna.

Anyone who has seen this true gem of jazz cinema and is familiar with Mili's groundbreaking photography for Life, will immediately detect a concept practiced by Mili to perceive the filming opportunity as an extension of photographic work, studying bodies and gestures and exploring the relation between musicians and space around them -- the study of the physical energy of a performance.

The photographs that I've collected here, all taken by Mili, serve as an evidence to that argument and also demonstrate some of the most dense, telling compositions ever created in jazz photography.

I can't wait to see the real thing on big screen.

Mary Lou Williams' hands on piano
Duke's hands

Duke, Dizz and others in 1941.
Lee Wiley singing accompanied by her husband pianist Jess Stacy, Eddie Condon on guitar, Sid Weiss on bass & Cozy Cole on drums
Billie Holiday, Pete Johnson on piano, unidentified guitarist.
One of the few color photography from 1941 jam session project. Feat. Duke and Dizz

Count Basie and gang
Gene Krupa
Roy Eldridge
More Ellington...
Billie Holiday
More Basie in jam session
Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington seriously admired by fans

Gene Krupa
Red Callender's hand on bass' strings
Clora Bryant (trumpet) and Dixieland Band in Hermosa Beach
Lester Young and Dicky Wells
Pete Johnson
Modern Jazz Quartet

Behind the scene of Jammin' the Blues: Harry Edison and Illinois Jacquet
The essence of  jam session. Probably Mili's best jazz photograph.

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