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:
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:
How about Mezz Mezzrow, Muggsy Spanier, bassist Al Hall, Dizzy, and Duke?
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.
A rare early portrait of Vic Dickenson, with Heywood at the piano.
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.