As a fan of jazz and documentaries, I was first in line when A Great Day in Harlem, a film about a famous photograph of 57 jazz musicians on a Manhattan street, came to my local theater in 1994. A ten-minute short called Jammin' the Blues (1944), which I was unfamiliar with, preceded the documentary. The main feature held my interest; the one-reeler held the thrill.
The film is essentially a jam session with several accomplished jazz musicians, including Lester Young, Harry Edison and Red Callender. It begins with a slow, smoke-filled rendition of "Midnight Symphony," which gently leads into Marie Bryant singing "On the Sunny Side of the Street," sublimely. A lively "Jammin' the Blues" closes the set as Bryant and Archie Savage swing and jitterbug against a stark background.
This movie has style to burn, with minimal set decor, artfully composed shots and crisp black-and-white photography by Robert Burks. First-time director Gjon Mili, a still photographer for Life magazine, would go on to helm one more short in his career, 1950's Improvisation. In 1945, Academy members nominated Jammin' the Blues for Best Short Subject. Fifty years later, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.