GJON MILI’S 1943 JAM SESSION

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Thanks to jazz scholar and old friend David Weiner, I encountered this glorious photograph two nights ago.  Gjon Mili is known to most of us as the man behind the 1944 film JAMMIN’ THE BLUES, but he made his primary mark as a still photgrapher, shooting many pictures at jam sessions staged for LIFE.  Now that Google has made the picture archives of that long-lived weekly magazine available, we can all enjoy such lively archaeology.

If you can’t wait to see previously unknown pictures of Mildred Bailey, James P. Johnson, Eddie Condon and friends, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and others, the link to the site is http://images.google.com/hosted/life and I’ve already spent a good deal of time there.  It is fascinating not only for the jazz players, but for the glimpses of what is, for most of us, a lost world — where, as John Cheever once wrote, all the men wore hats.  If you enter the search term “jam session,” always a good idea, you will find 183 images including everyone from Gene Krupa to George Wettling to Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson.

The picture above is a wonderfully odd mix of players: the man at far left, holding a glass, might be drummer Zutty Singleton.  To his right, the altoist has been identified as a young Leo Parker.  Then there’s Hot Lips Page at the microphone.  Nearly hidden behind him is clarinetist Buster Bailey and bassist Al Lucas.  The drummer (in Navy uniform) is Kansas Fields, the pianist Teddy Wilson.  And, inescapably, in the back, clarinet at the ready, is Mezz Mezzrow.  Any guesses about the other players will be appreciated — and I’m indebted to the discussion already held by members of the jazz research group moderated by Michael Fitzgerald for the additional identifications above.  This jam session and one other was recorded for V-Disc, but legend has it that the recordings were rejected because the assembled multitudes were having a noisy good time.  Given these musicians, I would have shouted, too.

Here’s another from the same session:

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My long-time myopia holds me back here, but I see Eddie Heywood at the piano, Buster Bailey again, and the wondrous pairing of Dizzy Gillespie and Vic Dickenson, at a time before producers, clubowners, and other people had decided that one played “bebop” and the other one “Dixieland.”

Too many players to list them all (even if I recognized everyone) but I’ll bet that the musical atmosphere was both festive and creative when Mili clicked his shutter:

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How about Mezz Mezzrow, Muggsy Spanier, bassist Al Hall, Dizzy, and Duke?

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Then, there’s a less ecumenical gathering: drummer George Wettling (who could play in anyone’s band), the irreplaceable PeeWee Russell, and a bassist who might well be Al Lucas once again.

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A rare early portrait of Vic Dickenson, with Heywood at the piano.

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Properly at the center of things — he could shape a jam session like no one else — is William Basie.  You know, the fellow from New Jersey?

I had to stop myself before posting more than a dozen images on this blog, although I will return to this site for uniquely posed evidence of the lost Golden Age, the Eden that very few people now alive got to visit.  Thank you, Gjon Mili!  And thank you, LIFE, which I once thought hopelessly middlebrow: these pictures prove me wrong.

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12 responses to “GJON MILI’S 1943 JAM SESSION

  1. Hi, Michael,
    Thanks for posting these photos. I couldn’t find them doing a search on google for jam session, but I did find some great b&w photos. I think my fav is where Zutty (he is the guy with the glass in the photo above), Jo Jones and Big Sid (lighting a cig), are standing together while Kansas Fields is playing!
    Cheers,
    Chris Tyle

  2. John Herr has suggested that in the first picture the youthful Caucasian near Mezz Mezzrow might be JimmyMcPartland. McPartland’s hair was black where this young man looks like a Scottish redhead. Alec Fila or someone else not well-known? And in the last picture of the series, I think the lovely redhead near the piano is none other than Lee Wiley and the drummer of somewhat mournful aspect could be only Mr. Catlett. But, then again, I see Catletts everywhere — unfortunately, though, not in everyday 2008.

  3. I found a “Jam Session at Mili Studio” in Oct 11, ’43, LIFE, pp 117-125, but none of the photos is the same. Participants depicted in group shots & close-ups included Teddy Wilson (p), Lou McGarity (trb) Bobby Hackett (tp), Sid Catlett (d), John Simons (b), Duke E (p), Lee Wiley (voc), Sid Weiss (b), Billie Holiday (voc), Mary Lou Williams (p), Josh White (voc, g), Eddie Conson (g), Irving Fazola (cl), James P Johnson (p), Wilbur DeParis (trb) & a saxophonist identified as Franz Jackson who looks like a cross between Billy Eckstine & Hampton Hawes. The text refers to this as a special event organized for the photographer by Eddie Condon, as if it were the only one. There is no suggestion it would be a continuing series in the magazine, so I wonder if the photographs reproduced online were alternates from the session, which lasted from 9:00 pm to 4:00 am. Incidentally, I was unable to identify saxophonist Jackson in the photos reproduced in this blog.

  4. Dear John,

    I’ll go you one better — somewhere I have the photos from the first jam session, in the actual issue of LIFE. However, there were two jam sessions, indicated by the caption for the color pictures as (approximately) “2d Mili Jam Session.” If you look at the LIFE Archives / Google site under “jam session,” you will see many more photos that come from the first session, including Ellington, Juan Tizol, Miff Mole, Lee Wiley, etc., and black-and-whites from the second session, including the famous shot (reproduced often in tributes to Lester Young) that has him alongside Basie and Dizzy. Jackson, by the way, spent much of his life in Chicago, leading his own jazz band, and died only recently at a very advanced age, in full flower until the very end. The LIFE photos presented on Google are not clearly organized, but it’s apparent that there were many more in the magazine’s archives than were printed in LIFE. It’s a job for a jazz detective with a steady hand, a huge monitor, a magnifying glass, and a great deal of patience. Thanks for your own detective work! Cheers! Michael

  5. As a younger fan who completely missed the pre-60’s jazz era and never heard it on airwave radio afterwards, ‘Mississippi Rag’ has been my prime source of reading about and viewing photos of classic bands, singers, & instrumentalists.
    Have seen a few TV videos of Crosby, Basie, Duke, Monk, and others late in their lives. How nice to see them in their younger days, and pin some faces onto names I’ve only read about! Thanks very much.

  6. The LIFE photo archives newly available via Google are a tremendous resource, but the absence of editorial accountability is alarming. Specifically, check out this link:

    http://images.google.com/hosted/life/l?imgurl=aeef11bc332008dc&q=dizzy+gillespie+source:life&usg=__lsY1-y6eiGXCfyHPvOJ-oidKq3M=&prev=/images%3Fq%3Ddizzy%2Bgillespie%2Bsource:life%26hl%3Den

    The caption states: “Bebob king, Dizzy Gillespie, a Mohammedan, is bowing to Mecca from his Hollywood apartment.”

    Bebob? That may be the style of music favored at Turkish wedding receptions as shish kebab is served, but I’m not sure. In any case, the rest of this caption is even more problematical, since Mr. Gillespie was never a Muslim. In his memoirs he claimed that Life magazine had conned him into stripping to the waist and bowing towards Mecca. “It’s one of the few things in my whole career I’m ashamed of,” wrote the trumpeter. Musicologist Scott DeVeaux has insisted that Gillespie needn’t have apologized, since the era’s prevailing racism virtually guaranteed “that any expression of high-spirited frivolity by an African American at mid-century would be instantly and willfully misread.” But mocking Muslims at prayer is frivolous only if you consider Islam a barrel of laughs.

    Significantly, the labels affixed to this offensive online photo of the Bebob king include “Religion, Religions, Prayer, Services, and Moslem,” meaning that Dizzy’s insult to a great religion is now electronically linked to images of actual Muslims at worship. I shudder to think of such sacrilege being spread across the worldwide web. Doesn’t America have enough enemies without begging for more?

    Alan Kurtz

  7. Dear Alan,

    I’ve read your eloquent posts on Marc Myers’s JAZZ WAX and admired your vehement intelligence. I agree with you about the Dizzy picture, although I am of a more optimistic temperament. I prefer to celebrate the availability of pictures of Lips Page and Sid Catlett, of Dizzy playing with Duke. And, as you know, jazz has always been burdened with editorial idiocies: think of the British reviews of Louis that kept on referring to simian life forms. It’s no excuse — and I applaud your vigorous denunciation of such ignorance — but I prefer to celebrate!
    Cheers, even in this context, Michael

  8. Yeah -we’re all doomed from a 60 y/o old photo that no one has seen for 60 years.

    Here come the enemies of America. Guess they’re looking thru old LIFE magazine photos with Google.

  9. Dear Woe: Your sarcasm would be more persuasive if you told us you are a Muslim and are not offended by the picture and caption to which I referred. In that case, I wouldn’t believe you, but your fellow pooh–poohers could rest easier in their complacency that it’s OK to belittle someone else’s religion. As for the picture being 60 years old, Mathew Brady’s photographs of the American Civil War are as compelling a century and a half after the fact as they were when the battlefield carnage they depicted was still fresh. Not that I expect you to appreciate any of this. Your contempt for history is as obvious as your disdain towards religion.

  10. Dear Alan,

    I’ve approved your final comment on this subject in the spirit of free discourse and politeness, but I am exercising my blog-rights to say, “Enough!” I’d rather swing than polemicize, and your annoyance, whether justified or not, is leading you into ad hominem prose. That is really not the subject of this blog. But thanks for reading!

  11. Gentlemen
    An earlier post suggested that the caucasian man in the first picture might be Alec Fila. I can tell you that it sure doesn’t look anything like my father, the trumpet player, Alec Fila.

  12. Michel Laplace

    It’s not Alec Fila, but Jimmy Maxwell.

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