Jammin the Blues is one of the most notable short films in the history of jazz, partly because it is one of the few visual records of tenor saxophonist Lester “Pres” Young (about whom I published my first two books).
Filmed in August 1944 by Gjon Mili, famous then for his work in Life magazine, Jammin’ the Blues is as admired for its visual artistry as for its music. Probably because Mili was a still photographer, he tended to stage the shots – that is, he would set everything up the way he wanted it, put the camera in place, and film, not moving the camera within each shot. Then he edited the shots together.
Pres and the other musicians—trumpeter Harry Edison, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, guitarist Barney Kessel, drummers Jo Jones and Sid Catlett, and others—recorded the soundtrack in a studio before Mili began filming. During the days of filming, the recordings were played back numerous times, and Mili asked the musicians to try and match or “mime” their work on the recordings every time. This was and still is standard practice in films. (Television footage is done “live,” so you actually hear what the musicians played as they were filmed.) Edison, Kessel and others do a pretty good job of matching their fingerings to the pre-recorded music – Edison said later in a filmed interview that he made a real effort to do that – but Pres doesn’t seem to be trying at all. In the very first scene, Pres’s fingers show he’s playing a different solo from what you hear.
The very opening shot is the most famous one of the whole film: at first, all you see is an abstract, a circle within a circle. After the opening credits and narration, these circles start to move, and we realize that these circles are in fact the rims of Young’s famed porkpie hat. Young’s “porkpie” hat was his trademark, which he created by taking a dress hat and folding it down in a certain way. He actually demonstrated how he did this in a pictorial essay in Ebony magazine:
The one public figure who was closely identified with a porkpie hat before Pres was comic film actor and director Buster Keaton. In fact, this famous opening shot of Jammin’ the Blues was based on the opening shot of a 1923 short film by Keaton and Eddie Cline, The Balloonatic!
Not only does Keaton’s film contain a very similar shot, but the shot is the opening one of the film, as it is in Mili’s film, and it is lit with dramatic contrast, as in Mili’s film. It’s significant that The Balloonatic was shown in theaters beginning January 22, 1923, because Mili arrived in the United States that year from Romania. (He had been born in what is now Albania.) So, this could have been one of the first films that Mili saw upon arriving in the USA. The opening shot of Pres appears to be Mili’s tribute to Keaton, probably inspired by the fact that both artists wore porkpie hats.
Here is the Keaton film—check out the very beginning—if you click the settings and slow it way down, maybe to 25%, the similarity to the Pres shot is even more clear:
And here is Pres—check out the very beginning:
Now, if you haven’t seen these films recently, go back and enjoy both of them, complete—great stuff!
See you again soon!
P.S. I originally posted a version of this in 2011 and it was edited by my former grad student and now friend, Tim Wilkins—thank you, Tim!
P.P.S. I’m still working on Miles’s Voice Part Two—it is requiring a lot of research. But I have many others ready to post, never fear!
(This is from Ebony, August 1949. It says “continued,” but the second page is not about the hat—it’s about Young’s influence, with photos of him playing clarinet and holding his cat. It’s “off topic,” but it’s fun, so I’m sending that page to paid subscribers shortly.)